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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 afkrotch on 8/1/2008 8:06:05 AM , Rating: 1
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 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.

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