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Process promises 10 fold increase in simple sugar production from non-food crops

As scientists all around the world look for alternatives to oil for fuel, several options have materialized. Electricity has a significant amount of support behind it, but for many drivers an electric vehicle isn't a real option due to the extremely limited range current battery technology can provide.

One of the few fuel alternatives not based on oil that is currently in use in relatively large quantities is ethanol. Many of the fueling stations around the U.S. now have stickers on pumps that say the gasoline is mixed with 10% ethanol. Large portions of General Motor's vehicles are already capable of running on 85% ethanol.

The problem with the mass production of ethanol is that the crops most suited to making ethanol -- corn, potatoes, and sugar cane -- are also food crops that are needed to feed people in many developing parts of the world. Another problem is that production costs for ethanol using these food crops vary with the price of the food crops. Another fear is that in areas where the amount of land for growing food crops is limited, the amount of crops grown that need to go to human consumption could be greatly reduced leading to increased food shortages around the world.

For these reasons, significant resources have been dedicated to finding other renewable plant sources for ethanol not based on food crops. Cellulosic ethanol production is one source of ethanol not based on food crops and could possibly produce ethanol for as little as $1 per gallon. One startup company, called LS9, has claimed it has developed a process that uses bacteria to produce synthetic gas using biowaste and weeds.

The University of Georgia (UGA) announced that a team of researchers at the university has developed a new technology that could greatly increase the yield of ethanol produced from non-food crops like Bermudagrass, switchgrass, Napiergrass and possibly even clippings from lawns.

According to UGA, its process uses a fast, mild, and acid-free pretreatment process to increase the amount of simple sugars released by inexpensive biomass by a factor of ten. UGA also says that corn stover or bagasse -- the waste material left behind after corn and sugar cane harvests -- can be used to produce ethanol with its process.

Professor of microbiology and chair of UGA's Bioenergy Task Force, Joy Peterson said in a statement, "Producing ethanol from renewable biomass sources such as grasses is desirable because they are potentially available in large quantities. Optimizing the breakdown of the plant fibers is critical to production of liquid transportation fuel via fermentation.”

The researchers say that the same plant materials used to produce ethanol in its process can be used to produce ethanol with other processes commonly used today. However, the process typically needed to convert the fibrous stalks, leaves, and blades of plant wastes into simple sugars requires soaking under high pressure and high temperatures. The process produces hazardous solutions and byproducts that must be removed and disposed of safely.

The UGA researchers say that their process is environmentally friendly and removes the harsh pre-treatment chemicals and the need to dispose of the harsh chemicals and side products produced using traditional methods.

Gennaro Gama, UGARF technology manager in charge of licensing the UGA technology said, "By allowing for the use of myriad raw materials, this technology allows more options for ethanol facilities trying to meet nearby demand by using locally available, inexpensive starting materials. This would greatly reduce the costs and carbon footprint associated with the delivery of raw materials to fermentation facilities and the subsequent delivery of ethanol to points of sale. Local production of ethanol may also protect specific areas against speculative fluctuations in fuel prices."

Gama added, "It’s easy to imagine that this easy-to-use, inexpensive technology could be used by local governments, alone or in partnership with entrepreneurs, to meet local demand for ethanol, possibly using yard waste as a substrate."



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RE: Nobody really cares.
By othercents on 7/30/2008 7:05:55 PM , Rating: 2
quote:
then our food prices for products using corn would go back down

Are you sure? The last stats I received was that <1% of food production is used for ethanol. However it does require gas to harvest and ship this food that is grown. Wouldn't it be fair to say that food prices are more likely to increase because of gas price and not ethanol usage?

http://www.ers.usda.gov/Briefing/CPIFoodAndExpendi...

Other


RE: Nobody really cares.
By Ringold on 7/30/2008 9:19:09 PM , Rating: 3
The last statistics I saw indicated that 34% of our corn crop was going directly to ethanol plants.

In fact, if you use the search tool at the very link you provided, I searched for "ethanol" and found multiple reports from the USDA that have maps showing that ethanol plants are (predictably) located near corn fields, that increasing amounts of the corn crop have gone to ethanol production, that federal subsidies and tariffs are largely behind it, and that it is having a huge impact on the entire agricultural market beyond merely corn while simultaneously having a negligible impact on the auto fuel market. Search tools are your friend in that regard.

As for fuel costs, I don't see why that would have such a huge influence on agriculture commodity contract prices. That should impact everything roughly equally, but you've seen inflation excluding food and energy rather tame; that wouldn't be the case if your supposition was true. Like everything else you can buy at a WalMart, fuel is but a component of the cost to bring it to the store shelves. People perhaps underestimate the efficiency of moving things in bulk?


RE: Nobody really cares.
By afan on 7/31/2008 2:36:52 AM , Rating: 2
I think I might be able to add something to address your last comment:

>As for fuel costs, I don't see why that would
>have such a huge influence on agriculture commodity
>contract prices. That should impact everything roughly equally

corn-ethanol farmers use large quantities of nitrogen-based fertilizer to gain high crop yields. large quantities of natural gas (hydrogen comes from here) + heat + pressure + air =yields= Ammonia. Ammonia can be directly added to crops or can make other fertilizers:
- urea
- ammonium sulfate
- water-based nitrogen fertilizer.

Don't forget the natural gas, energy for heat/pressure it takes to create nitrogen fertilizer, and the energy to distribute it to the corn.

corn based ethanol is a scam and terrible policy - a farm subsidy.


RE: Nobody really cares.
By randomly on 7/31/2008 8:33:43 AM , Rating: 2
Corn ethanol is not a viable energy source. It consumes as much or more petroleum to raise the corn, harvest it, process it to ethanol and ship it as it produces fuel. It may not even break even. The only thing that makes Corn based ethanol work in the US is the $7 Billion USD in government subsidies, of which something like 70% goes to the Archer-Daniels Midland corporation. 45% of ADM's profits come directly from the government corn ethanol subsidies. ADM donates VERY generously to both Democratic and Republican parties.

The only semi-successful biofuels program is in Brazil where they derive 30% of their transportation fuel from Sugar cane based ethanol. Brazil grows their sugar on slash and burn cleared Amazon rainforest which is soil depleted in about 6 years requiring more slash and burn. Sugar Cane yields 6 times as much ethanol per acre as corn. To supply the current US consumption of transportation fuel from sugar cane ethanol you would have to plant 100% of the available farm land in the US with sugar cane, there would be no land available for growing food. But you can't grow sugar cane in the US because of the climate. Even in Brazil it's not a sustainable energy source.

Not to mention the depletion, erosion, and damage to crop lands, pesticides and fertilizer impacts etc.

Biofuels have a severe problem in that they are just extremely inefficient systems for collecting energy into a useable form. The idea seems attractive, but the poor efficiency and enormous crop areas required just don't make it feasible yet.


RE: Nobody really cares.
By tmouse on 7/31/2008 9:11:31 AM , Rating: 2
To be fair I have never seen a real comparison of the total energy used in getting petroleum versus biofuel. People point the tractor fuel, transport cost and refining costs as parts of the bio equation but leave out similar if not higher components in the petroleum end. Take the tractor fuel (planting, cultivation and harvesting) ok but remember oil rigs have dozens of crew members each with vehicles. The wells do not produce gas so the crude has to be shipped. As it has been pointed out the biorefineries are often close to the fields this is absolutely not true for oil by orders of magnitude. The energy from oil is certainly more due to the structure of the compounds and you get more products so the refining step is an absolute win for oil. On the waste by product side oil is far inferior and the cost of transport, storage and disposal are also never mentioned in any of the comparisons I have come across. I'm certainly not saying there is anything close to parity but there is a lot of very one sided examples sited in these "comparisons" most people site.


RE: Nobody really cares.
By masher2 (blog) on 7/31/2008 11:39:40 AM , Rating: 3
> "To be fair I have never seen a real comparison of the total energy used in getting petroleum versus biofuel"

Plenty of such studies exist; they've been done for 20 years or more.

> "People point the tractor fuel, transport cost and refining costs as parts of the bio equation but leave out similar if not higher components in the petroleum end. "

Eh? Lifting costs for petroleum at Gwahar are a few cents per barrel...and transportation via supertanker costs nearly nothing per gallon due to the enormous volumes involved. It's essentially all free energy.

The calculations are a bit more complex for offshore oil, especially deep-sea, but it really doesn't take much energy to drill a hole and pump in some pressurized steam. Comparing it to the energy required to produce fertilizer, grow and harvest corn, then operate a large-scale ethanol refinery is just silly.


RE: Nobody really cares.
By afkrotch on 8/1/2008 8:06:05 AM , Rating: 1
quote:
The calculations are a bit more complex for offshore oil, especially deep-sea, but it really doesn't take much energy to drill a hole and pump in some pressurized steam. Comparing it to the energy required to produce fertilizer, grow and harvest corn, then operate a large-scale ethanol refinery is just silly.


How many ppl here have worked on a farm? Crop rotations, no fertilizer needed. Grow it? Let it sit there. Every week go out and do some gravity irrigation. When it's ready to harvest, corn harvester and a tank of gas. Add in a truck with a tank of gas to transport it where it needs to go (usually not that far away).

Course I'm talking about our little 11 acre piece of land. Increase the amount of land and you increase the amount of fuel, time, etc uses. But you also get more crop.

I can't imagine that the cost differences between creating ethanol from corn or from drilling oil, but I doubt the corn option would be significantly higher.

Your comparison of the two sure does seem bias. Drill a hole and pump pressure steam into it. Compared to...building the oil well, drilling down, pumping out the oil, possibly doing nitrogen injection, get the oil, hauling it to where it needs to go, processing the oil into fuels we can actually use. Also the differences in crude oil. A light sweet crude is easier to create gasoline from, while a heavy sour crude is not. Corn is corn. There is no light sweet corn vs a heavy sour corn.

Not all refineries are able to process all forms of crude.

I wouldn't call them even. I'm sure the regular oil method requires less energy than going ethanol, but I just don't think it's hugely different.


RE: Nobody really cares.
By masher2 (blog) on 8/1/2008 10:39:51 AM , Rating: 2
> "I'm sure the regular oil method requires less energy than going ethanol, but I just don't think it's hugely different. "

You couldn't be more wrong. The official term for the concept you're describing is known as EROEI (energy return on energy investment). For oil, that figure can be as high as 140:1 for a place like Gwahar, down to about 7:1 for deep-sea oil extracted via pressure.

For ethanol, various researchers have calculated rates as low as 0.69:1 (a net loss on energy production) up to 1.65:1, which is still a value not much above breakeven.

http://pubs.acs.org/cgi-bin/abstract.cgi/esthag/20...


RE: Nobody really cares.
By tmouse on 7/31/2008 7:52:56 AM , Rating: 2
While I do not think it was a cure all and certainly not without significant impact release number 0155.08 also from the USDA show that it does have some positive impacts. Also in a weird round about way it could be helping the USA with its number 1 health crisis. A significant portion of corn for human consumption is converted into high fructose syrup for storage/transport/profit reasons. It is being put into most of our food, mostly as a bulking agent and is a significant factor in America’s problems with obesity. If you are trying to lose weight or have diabetes avoid foods with the words high fructose corn syrup as one of the first 3 or 4 ingredients or replace it in your mind with raw sugar because to your body that’s what it is.


RE: Nobody really cares.
By ElFenix on 8/1/2008 2:46:59 AM , Rating: 2
a very small portion of the corn crop is either sweet corn or popcorn. the vast vast majority is dent corn, which is not much of a food crop, though it may be the kind used for HFCS.


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