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A new pretreatment process, eliminates expensive toxic acid baths in favor of ammonia. The treatment will help produce cheaper ethanol from plant waste, like these corn stalks shown here.  (Source:

Bruce Dale, University Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University invented the cheaper and more efficient AFEX cellulosic ethanol pretreatment process, with the help of his doctoral student Ming Lau.  (Source: MSU)
A new process invented by Michigan State University helps to increase the yields of cellulosic ethanol at a reasonable premium

The world of cellulosic ethanol is a hot business.  GM has already backed two cellulosic ethanol companies, Coskata and Mascoma Corp., and many others are taking a serious look at the new type of fuel.  Essentially with the same advantages and disadvantages from a fuel perspective as normal ethanol, which it shares virtually the same chemical character with, the big bonus is that cellulosic ethanol can be made from plant waste of all times, reducing the price pressure produced by food-crop ethanol.

Using technology to produce cellulosic ethanol, the fruits and vegetables of food crops can ship to the market and the leftovers -- leaves, stalks, stems, and husks -- can be ground up and made into ethanol.  One of the first targets is corn stover, the leftovers from the corn harvest, somewhat of an ironic source as sugarcorn (the food) became one of the two main controversial sources of food-crop ethanol

Unfortunately, the processes to make cellulosic ethanol are still very inefficient.  And while there are acid pretreatments that can improve the performance, freeing up more sugars from the cellulose and hemicellulose in plants to be used in fermentation, these treatments are costly.  Typically the acidic product is toxic, so it must undergo intensive washing and detoxifying, leaching nutrients that could have been used in fermentation and raising the costs.

That's where Michigan State University comes in with a new patented process.  Bruce Dale, University Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and materials science at the university, has invented a cheap pretreatment process using ammonia, called AFEX (ammonia fiber expansion).

Its 75 percent more efficient than with traditional enzyme treatments says Professor Dale, and is easier and more affordable than acid pretreatments.  The process frees up a lot of sugar to be used in the fermentation to produce more ethanol.

Professor Dale states, "Doctoral student Ming Lau and I have shown that it's possible to use AFEX to pretreat corn stover (cobs, stalks and leaves) and then hydrolyze and ferment it to commercially relevant levels of ethanol without adding nutrients to the stover.  It's always been assumed that agricultural residues such as corn stover didn't have enough nutrients to support fermentation. We have shown this isn't so."

He states, "Washing, detoxifying and adding nutrients back into the pretreated cellulose are three separate steps.  Each step is expensive and adds to the cost of the biofuel. Breaking down cellulose into fermentable sugars cost effectively has been a major issue slowing cellulosic ethanol production. Using AFEX as the pretreatment process can dramatically reduce the cost of making biofuels from cellulose."

Ming Lau, a coauthor of the project who shares the patent with Professor Dale adds, "The research also shows that the chemical compounds created when the stover goes through the AFEX process can improve the overall fermentation process.  This is at odds with the general perception that these compounds are detrimental and should be removed."

The pair is looking to set up a pilot plant at MBI International, a subsidiary of the MSU Foundation.  However, they already are also attracting commercial interest.  States Professor Dale, "There are several companies – including the Mascoma Corp., which plans to open one of the nation's first cellulosic ethanol plants here in Michigan – that may be interested in using this technology.  We are working to make the AFEX technology fit these companies' needs."

The new research is published in the current issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). 

The work was funded by the GLBRC, the MSU Research Foundation, and the Michigan Agricultural Experiment Station.  

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RE: I hate ethanol
By JasonMick on 1/22/2009 11:05:48 AM , Rating: 5
Having looked at this industry extensively, including attending conferences, and speaking with top government officials and corporate executives in the field, I can conclude this:

Food crop ethanol sucks. Is garbage. Whatever you want to call it.

It's good news for farmers and refinery owners, but virtually no one else.

It raises food crop prices, and is too expensive itself, to be competitive outside a scenario where gas prices are very high $4/gallon or more. It also contributes to carbon emissions and global warming (if you believe in it).

Ultimately, the situation for food crop ethanol is just plain unworkable. You're dealing with taking a product already in use, one that has limited capacity.

However, cellulosic ethanol and waste biofuel is incredibly promising, in my opinion. Not only is the best and brightest innovation in this field, promising lower prices than food crop ethanol (Coskata is saying $1/gallon production costs, around $2 at-the-pump), but it also is taking something thats normally wasted and putting it to good use.

Cellulosic technology it sort of the Native American of the fuel world -- it uses all the buffalo.

Its still got a long ways to go, but I would by no means say its a waste to spend money developing this technology.

However, I do disagree with legislation in many states that is forcing E10, etc. fuels on consumers. The reason I think such legislation is particularly foolish is that the technology just isn't there to be economically feasible yet. Hopefully cellulosic ethanol will soon change this, but it isn't there yet. So you're forcing an experimental technology into full production at the consumers' expense.

If ethanol was cost per unit of energy competitive with gasoline, than it would be a different story. But legislation for fuel mixing should be scrapped and replaced with grants and tax breaks for the cellulosic industry, imo. Support real innovation and leave food crop ethanol behind.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Danger D on 1/22/09, Rating: -1
RE: I hate ethanol
By JasonMick on 1/22/2009 12:06:40 PM , Rating: 1
The only real alternative to corn ethanol today is regular gasoline, which pollutes more

Incorrect. Corn-based ethanol increased carbon dioxide and other emissions and uses an equally toxic slew of chemicals to process as gasoline.

To cite just a few studies:

It works in our gas tanks so we don't have to overhaul the vehicle fleet with new fuel systems. It uses a feedstock that we currently know how to grow, harvest and transport.

Again, ridiculous. Cellulosic ethanol is IDENTICAL chemically to corn ethanol, barring a few minor organic contaminants. Cars could run on cellulosic E10 just as easily as corn-based E10. And are you inferring that we don't have the technology to harvest corn stover? Or that our nation grows no plants that produce crop waste byproducts? If you are, you're entirely wrong.

If you want to call yourself an environmentalist, you really can't support corn ethanol.

Its better to wait and work towards a good solution, than to adopt one that only makes the problem worse. Again, I've talked to many experts with industry experience far beyond yours or mine and they say corn ethanol is ultimately a horrible proposition (in so many words). The ONLY people corn ethanol benefits is farmers and refinery owners.

Its bad for the environment, polluting, and bad for the consumers' pocketbooks. The holes are being poked because its a bad technology, plain and simple.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Danger D on 1/22/2009 1:02:18 PM , Rating: 2
Greenhouse gas emmisions study released TODAY by Dr. Ken Cassman and others, published in Yale's Journal of Industrial Ecology:

"Direct-effect GHG emissions were estimated to be equivalent to a 48 percent to 59 percent reduction compared to gasoline, a twofold to threefold greater reduction than reported in previous studies."

Why? Because the studies you cited "rely on estimates of energy efficiencies in older ethanol plants that were built before the recent investment boom in new ethanol biorefineries that initiated production on or after January 2005."

Those new facilities represent 60 percent of the ethanol produced.

If you average in the old plants, sure it looks worse. But that's an unfair basis for saying we shouldn't build new plants. New plants are better, and they keep improving.

There's plenty of other research out there showing GHG reductions.

And I understand cellulosic ethanol is IDENTICAL. Ethanol's ethanol. My point is that it's useless to rave about using techology that isn't commercially viable. We've been doing that for 20 years and it hasn't gotten us anywhere. Corn ethanol will get us to cellulosic ethanol. But don't trash the "good" in pursuit of the "perfect."

RE: I hate ethanol
By Screwballl on 1/22/2009 1:23:26 PM , Rating: 2
Also remember that many of the older studies used vehicles that did not have the same pollution controls that newer 2004-later vehicles have.
These pollution controls force the engine to work harder thus use more gas thus lower mileage and release more pollution.

Why is it a 1990 Geo Metro with a 4 cylinder can get 45 mpg yet a 2008 model car with the same size engine is rated at 30mpg (and they advertise it as if 30mpg was some great prize)? Hell 5 years ago I had a 76 GMC truck with a 350 V8, 4 barrel Edelbrock carburetor, NO pollution controls of any kind (previous owners removed them) and when it was tuned to run slightly lean and I kept my foot off the gas pedal, I could see 30 mpg part city, part highway. Usually city mpg was around 26mpg, and highway was 32-33mpg when I drove it like an old lady.

I only tried E10 in there once... made it run like crap, even driving like an old lady I still only saw 22mpg plus I had to clean the jets because the Ethanol clogged them.

RE: I hate ethanol
By MrBlastman on 1/22/2009 1:57:36 PM , Rating: 5
What planet are you from? Do you live in Antarctica? I generally refrain from spearheaded counterpoints but your post has so much wrong in it I can not help but turn the heat on.

Ethanol uses food currently. Food we eat.

That food we eat grows on land, a non-renewable resource, which can yield either food to eat or food to burn in our tanks.

The net yield of all the land in America is barely enough to yield enough ethanol to fuel America.

This net yield would create a net zero yield of food crops.

A net zero yield of food crops would create a huge increase on reliance of food imports from abroad.

Have you looked at China lately and all of the food problems they have caused over here?

Do you honestly want to bet your own life on food imported from sources that have proven to be harmful to our citizens - from sources that are far less regulated than those in our own country?

The result thus far of paying farmers to grow more fuel crops has been a substantial increase in food prices for consumable crops. The farmers make more if they grow stuff that we burn.

The economy has gone to heck - and you say we should pay more?

Oil prices have dropped considerably, which had risen not because of logic but because of irrational spot price trading. OPEC cut supply and the prices still dropped.

Ethanol costs more now than it would be to use gasoline.

Ethanol produces less power output than gasoline with our current, gasoline-tuned engines.

Ethanol could be useful if we had engines tuned for it, lighter cars that needed less energy to propel, and if it is produced from waste products rather than food sources.

Can I be any clearer?

Ethanol, in its current form, is rediculous. It isn't even worth any praise. Cellulosic ethanol, or waste product ethanol, is a huge step in the right direction for a change. We'll see how it turns out. Personally, I'm bigger on the algae farms pooping out oil as a waste product of its photosynthesis while hanging in plastic bags. It is more logical to me... for the time being.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Danger D on 1/22/2009 6:11:56 PM , Rating: 1
Corn cost $8 a bushel in July, and food prices went up.
Today, corn closed well under $4. Guess what? Food prices are still going up.

General Mills, Nestle, Kellogg’s, and more are posting big profits as recently as last quarter. Oil companies posted record earnings this year too. And ethanol's apparently the villain. Go figure.

Take a look at a Twinkie and tell me how much of the cost of that Twinkie came from the farm and how much is due to packaging, advertising, brand development, transportation, etc. Fact: There's a nickle's worth of corn in a box of corn flakes.

And as for importing food. In 2008 we exported more corn than we ever have in the history of the United States, even with ethanol using a large percentage of the corn crop.
Please check your facts before accusing me of being from another planet.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Spuke on 1/22/2009 6:19:06 PM , Rating: 2
Please check your facts before accusing me of being from another planet.

RE: I hate ethanol
By JediJeb on 1/23/2009 3:39:29 PM , Rating: 2
This is very true. For decades the price of food has increased dramatically and yet a farmer today still gets the same price per pound for a steer as he did in 1970,( actually my father said this week it is less than back then). The increase in food prices because of more crops being used to produce ethanol is only an excuse to raise the price not a real reason to raise it.

Farming is one of the few businesses where you do not set the price of what you produce. If it costs you twice as much this year to produce your crop, the buyers usually just say Touch Luck and offer the same price, yet turn around and raise the price in stores and tell the public it was because it cost the farmers more to produce it.

Corn prices went up this year and farmers actually made a little money, yet in the past few years while their fuel prices tripled the price barely increased any, or sometimes fell. Watch the grain markets, if the weather forcasters say the midwest will have a nice summer with good rainfall and temps the price of corn will bottom out, if they say it will have drought or floods it will shoot through the roof. But let someone forcast a doubling or tripling of fuel prices and the price wont be effected at all. And since very few farmers have the storage capacity to store an entire years crop on site, they have to sell it at whatever price they get. For anyone who thinks farmers made out good this year because of the high price of corn, then ask yourself why there aren't more people trying to become farmers. It's because few people want to work 12-18 hour days 7 days a week 365 days a year for what amounts to lowest middle class wages if you are lucky, one bad storm can turn it into below minimum wage income if you are unlucky. It takes a passion for the work to make it as a farmer.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Penti on 1/24/2009 5:00:21 PM , Rating: 2
Yes US is a major food exporter, practically all of South America is depending upon you, and even here in Sweden/Europe we got american rice and such products.

Most grain is however not produced for human consumption, the quality is to poor and the farmers couldn't sell it as such. As it's produced to have high yield and to be used as feed. Eating beef effects tortilla prices more then the ethanol right now. However it does effect the market now as it's a new demand. We don't have as much grain in storage any more.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Kary on 1/22/2009 12:12:25 PM , Rating: 2
This might be a good thing if it could be used on scrap wood. What's left after a corn harvest is called uncle works for a dairy farm where they grow corn JUST FOR THE SILAGE (winter feed for the cattle).

If it's not used as silage it is tilled into the soil to give the soil back nutrients (which corn is particularly nasty about stripping the soil of in the first place).

I'm not saying this isn't a potential advancement, but there is a cost to everything.

RE: I hate ethanol
By dever on 1/22/2009 12:21:39 PM , Rating: 2
So with cellulosic ethanol we'll need additional chemical fertilizers to offset the nutrients that typically are allowed to decompose and re-enter the soil.

Those greenies love chemical fertilizers.

RE: I hate ethanol
By SnakeBlitzken on 1/27/2009 10:25:23 AM , Rating: 2
What he said. Most farmers work the leftovers back into the soil. No-till land leaves the crop residue to maintain organic soil content. We're losing something by stripping all the crop residue from the fields.

RE: I hate ethanol
By blowfish on 1/22/2009 11:24:55 PM , Rating: 3
It's going to be tough to dismantle the Ethanol "industry" that has been set up to benefit the farmers. Since considerable energy has to be spent converting the cellulose to sugar, you would think that the first ethanol plants would have been set up in sugar-growing states - but I guess the Louisiana and Florida politicians just weren't wise to it. Brazil, that has been a major ethanol user for decades, uses a sugar-based production process.

Some "patriotic" twat might chip in and say that the US is more high-tech than Brazil - maybe that's why the US uses a less efficient process!

I always log my mileage on every tank of gas. I always reset the trip meter, and fill the tank right up. My conclusion - Gas with 10% ethanol is not worth using! If you have a choice, don't buy it. It would be very effective if consumers voted with their feet (or wallets)

In Europe, there's a similar situation with "City Diesel", which is formulated with some vegetable oil content. Whether it's due to lower calorific content or some adverse affect on engine tuning, the nett result is to cause the engine to produce noticeably less power, and to get measurably worse gas mileage.

As to the ridiculous argument that not using ethanol would mean we would have to buy more oil from our "enemies" - the potential reduction in oil usage from a bit of conservation and decent high-mpg design would easily outweigh any benefits from ethanol use.

The future is not ethanol - the future is battery electric, and when battery technology is up to it, even the speed-freaks will be happy. You can do things with electric propulsion that are just not possible with I.C.

Make this one of your New Year Resolutions for 2009 - I will not buy gas containing ethanol if I can possibly avoid it!

RE: I hate ethanol
By Penti on 1/23/2009 8:15:53 PM , Rating: 2
You can't really produce much ethanol any ways, it won't substantially change where the fuels come from. In Sweden we can't even produce enough for the 5% that's mixed in our 95 RON gas and to produce a portion of that, we will this year use bit more then half of how much grain we consume as food. Or grain for 5 million people if it where not feed grain. Meaning of course less feed for our cows, pigs and chickens, meaning we have to import more from the world market. Or export less or both.

In just a few years we have increased the biofuels such as FAME, biogas and ethanol from practically zero to 3.61 TWh (4% of road-vehicle fuels) but at the same time we have continued to increase our oil usage. So it doesn't really bring any reduction in emissions or oil import. And most of the biofuels are imported. If we would use all the ethanol for E85 we maybe would be able to run 5% of our cars on it. But 1% is a more real number. We don't have enough farm land to produce E85 for all of our cars. Having more then 65.000 E85 cars or so out of our 4.300.000+ in Sweden is just stupid. And we already has more, they are simply not running on E85.

We got a lot of cellulose in Sweden (wood) but using it to produce ethanol via hydrolysis would just be retarded, the pilot plant here is a joke that produces 400 liters of ethanol per day. And it's a pretty large plant. Gasification makes more sense, and theres commercial gasification plants producing synthetic diesel already. And diesel is the fuel that continues to grow here. Making synthetic gasoline is not impossible either, but not commercially available yet anyway.

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