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