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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 Screwballl on 1/22/2009 12:42:14 PM , Rating: 2
I am against Ethanol and have been since it first showed up in South Dakota at least 15 years ago. At that time, cars were not made to handle it so all sorts of things got fouled up... from TBI/EFI injectors blowing out/burning up to piston ring oxidation in aluminum blocks among other things, you were lucky to get more than 60,000 miles from an engine using nothing but E10 (10% ethanol). Nowadays they have better options with new cars (2003-newer) that can handle it properly for over 200,000 miles.

I am only against it using the current feed stock. Growing up in rural areas, you learned that there was a massive scare (late 80s, early 90s) where corn was produced in such great quantities that some farmers simply threw tarps over thousands of tons of it hoping the market bounced back rather than sell it for a potential loss or break even. This is when the farmer's lobbyists (like Daschle from SD) punched through some sort of mandate that allowed for them to 1) get rid of the excess corn, and 2) make a market that will remain high for a few decades.

Enter Ethanol.

Now another interesting bit is that locally in northwest FL, I have found only a single gas station that has the E10 blend labeled (outside of a few in Pensacola carrying E85, but no E10). Even if more did (or I find out they are selling it without labeling it), I would not put it in my vehicles because I have seen what it does to engines, and as I have a 91 truck with TBI, and a 04 Durango with 4.7L, these were not made for Ethanol in any way.

I find Ethanol (the way it is currently used and marketed) is a massive scam.

Lets look at this from a purely mathematical perspective from the consumer standpoint:

10% Ethanol = 20-30% lower gas mileage
10% Ethanol = 0-5% lower price at the pump per gallon (locally the E10 is same price as non-E10 blends)

Doing the math:

Say the 10% Ethanol is at $2.00 a gallon versus regular non-ethanol is $2.05 per gallon, and you drive a vehicle getting 20mpg with non-ethanol (15 gallon tank, as an example).

15Gal @ 2.05 = $30.75
15Gal @ 2.00 = $30.00

20mpg x 15 Gal = 300 miles

Now using E10, lets say there is a 25% drop in mileage (15mpg), as 25% has been my experience when using Ethanol:

15mpg x 15Gal = 225 miles per tank

30.75 / 300 = $0.1025 per mile to drive NOT using Ethanol
30.00 / 225 = $0.1333 per mile to drive using E10
30.75 / 225 = $0.1366 per mile to drive using E10, and with no discount at the pump for Ethanol

Now per year, average 15,000 miles:

$1,537.50 using regular
$1,999.50 using E10
$2,049 using E10 at same price as non-E10

$462-511.50 per year savings

Now look at this over 100,000 miles:

$13,330 = cost to use E10
$10,250 = cost to NOT use E10
$13,666 = cost to use E10 when price is same as non-E10

That is a difference of $3,080-3,416 over the course of just 100,000 miles.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Darkskypoet on 1/22/2009 1:53:25 PM , Rating: 3
So you are saying that having 10% of the mix as ethanol, is on par with 75% of that amount (by volume) of gasoline?

I mean you say you are seeing a 25% drop in fuel mileage with a 10% ethanol fuel blend... Which is essentially the same as saying 90% 'gasoline' + 10% 'ethanol' = 75% of that same volume in gasoline?

20mpg x 15 Gal = 300 miles Now using E10, lets say there is a 25% drop in mileage (15mpg), as 25% has been my experience when using Ethanol: 15mpg x 15Gal = 225 miles per tank

I am sorry... but I think you are completely out to lunch... You are saying in effect that by adding 10% ethanol to fuel, you are somehow losing the ability to get any energy whatsoever from the ethanol (agreeably lower then gas, but not 0, or less then 0) as well as removing your ability to get any energy from a further 15% of the fuel it is mixed with?

We've run 10% ethanol for years up here, and honestly in our winters it acts as a gas line antifreeze agent, and this 25% reduction in gas mileage is a crock.

Perhaps there are engines that are that 'picky' perhaps that would make it so that you would be better off using 75% the volume of fuel (sans ethanol) but I really have never, ever seen that sort of fuel economy reduction.

Do you have any proof what so ever? I mean anything to back up such a seemingly inane and baseless claim? You want to say it drops fuel economy by 10%... heck due to certain engines inefficiencies at various combustion temperatures, changes in timing, etc.. perhaps 15% maybe... But 25%? That's pretty ridiculous.

Similar to your mileage figures about damage to engines... I think its a load of crap... Mainly cause I've easily surpassed those figures on E-10 in everything from a crappy 85ish chrysler minivan with a small alum block mitsu motor, to a cavalier, to a neon, to damn... Most of the fuel we've run in vehicles has been 10% ethanol for so long now...

Your remarks, and figures just seem astounding... Considering aside from a few corner cases, I don't think they have any basis in reality what so ever...

Or perhaps they just tune the majority of production vehicles differently up here? (I doubt this severely) I know for a fact my fathers Malibu gets great gas mileage, is closing in 200 000 kms and has had a crap ton of e-10 in it... No issues... Except for the handy side effect of not ever having gas line freezing issues in our -40 (and below winters).

Just link something if you can, I am curious.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Spivonious on 1/22/2009 4:32:48 PM , Rating: 2
I know you weren't responding to me, but I'd just like to convey a recent experience of mine.

Last weekend I took a road trip. It was roughly 85% highway, 15% city. About 200 miles round trip. And it used up approximately 9 gallons (My gas light came on soon after returning home, and it comes on with about 3 gallons left in my 12.5 gallon tank).

So that's 200 miles / 9 gallons = 22mpg.

Worse than normal since I had two other people in the car with me, yes, but pre E10 I could routinely get 400 miles a tank, which comes out to about 35mpg. Even with all city driving with the A/C on I'd get 315 miles or so (about 28mpg).

It doesn't make sense mathematically, but it's the truth.

RE: I hate ethanol
By GTVic on 1/22/2009 5:14:50 PM , Rating: 2
Cars are tuned for specific types of fuel (regular vs premium). I wonder whether the mileage would improve if the car was somehow adjusted for the amount of ethanol.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Gzus666 on 1/22/2009 5:31:44 PM , Rating: 2
Yes, increase the timing and boost the compression to around 17-18:1 and you will see lots of power.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Fnoob on 1/22/2009 9:15:41 PM , Rating: 1
Are you nuts? Boost the compression to 17-18:1 and that might well be the last tank of gas that engine ever sees.

Perhaps I am way off base, and it has been a few years since I looked at compression ratios on common engines, but... I recall buying an Acura TL-S back in 03 which supposedly had one of the highest compression ratios of any production Acura at something like 10-11. The kind of heat it would make at 18 would be bad.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Gzus666 on 1/22/2009 9:30:49 PM , Rating: 2
Text Are you nuts? Boost the compression to 17-18:1 and that might well be the last tank of gas that engine ever sees.

Alcohol likes high compression, granted you have to beef other things up to make it handle the higher pressure, but that should be obvious. 13:1 compression ratio is more than common in higher performance vehicles people make, it is actually really common. I have seen people run mid 14:1 compression on 93 octane. Alcohol has a high octane, around race gasoline, so it is not unheard of or even obscure to expect that kind of compression from it.

RE: I hate ethanol
By JediJeb on 1/23/2009 3:56:49 PM , Rating: 2
It is why most people wont run Propane in a gasoline engine like they tried in the mid 70's. In a regular engine with say 8-10:1 compression you get terrible milage and power, with compression of 14-16:1 you get milage and power on par with gasoline.

As to the corrosion and damage problems mentioned above, that is usually from Methanol in the gasoline not Ethanol. Methanol was used from in gasoline up through the late 90's early 00's then was replaced with ethanol. Methanol will ruin injectors and seals quickly in anything over 5% concentration. It also causes pitting on aluminum.

Of course diesel engines run in the 22:1 compression range, so compression alone won't kill the engine if you design it right. For Ethanol to succeed as a fuel, it will take cars with engines optimized for it, and if you wait till the Ethanol is cheap to produce you will have fuel noone will buy, and by the time the engine technology catches up the ethanol plants will be bankrupt, then the engines will be useless, ect ect. You have to start somewhere, so make the fuel, then optimize the engines, make better fuel, make better engines ect and all will work out. ( I guess it's sorta like the switch from analog to digital TV, you try to do it all at once and it causes a panic, but since it has happened over the last few years, the final switch won't be as bad)

RE: I hate ethanol
By Fnoob on 1/26/2009 9:48:13 AM , Rating: 2
I was referring to gasoline engines, not specialized race cars. I think my statement stands that with a standard gasoline engine, if you increase it's compression ratio from 10 to 18 you will significantly decrease the life expectancy of the engine due to substantially increased heat. Now, a specially constructed and reinforced engine designed to run these new fuels is a totally different story.

However, as another poster mentioned, I had no idea that diesel motors ran such high compression. Guess it should have been obvious, since they achieve ignition through compression.

RE: I hate ethanol
By Doormat on 1/22/2009 5:37:26 PM , Rating: 2
I live in a metro area, and in the winter we usually get E10 for pollution control (there is a sticker on the pumps saying that it may contain up to 10% Ethanol from Oct 1 to Mar 1).

I get about 23MPG in the winter and 20-21MPG in the summer (when the AC is on full blast because its 115F outside). I'd have a hard time thinking Ethanol is sucking away that much MPG. Per the sticker on my car, I should be getting 25MPG, but thats a 2MPG difference.

"And boy have we patented it!" -- Steve Jobs, Macworld 2007

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