Second-Generation Biofuels — Cellulosic Ethanol

cellulosic ethanol fuel

The need to save the world from the abundance of environmental problems is increasing apace. The daily wave of Armageddon-type scenarios thrust upon us from the minute we switch on our electronica is so unnerving it requires a significant amount of denial to prevent constant anxiousness. However, denial can only get one so far — I find the more I get active on environmental issues, the more inspired I become about making significant and lasting change to the world. The number of daily activities and/or lifestyle changes that can be undertaken on the path to a greener future are plentiful. One such activity is spreading useful information on environmental topics and current issues (hence writing this blog!). So, in that vein, I wanted to share with you some recent and potentially very positive facts about cellulosic ethanol and its potential to help some of the world’s environmental problems…..

What is cellulose?

Cellulose is the tough material that makes up plant cell walls. Most of the weight of a plant is comprised of cellulose.

What’s the reason for the excitement behind cellulosic ethanol as a better biofuel?

The biofuel created from cellulose can be derived from such things as switch grass, forest waste, wood chips, fast growing plants like bamboo, etc. In other words, due to the universal nature of cellulose in plants the amount of available options from which to derive such biofuel increases dramatically. This is good because it reduces the current stress on land area for biofuel production (by not competing directly with land area for food production), it reduces the input cost of production of biofuel (a waste product like wheat chaff will cost much, much less than a primary ingredient like corn kernel starch or sugar cane), it can be produced from non-food crops (further easing the squeeze between the fuel vs food competition), and the amount of greenhouse gases emitted during production are extremely low (traditional biofuels have been criticised as being large emitters through land clearing and nitrogen fertiliser application).

What’s the catch?

The difficulty is in converting cellulose into usable sugars that can be further converted into ethanol. At this stage, the two main methods are cellulolysis and gasification — both of which are costly and time-consuming. Technology is underway to reduce both the time and cost of these processes but there is still a ways to go before commercial production can be viably undertaken.

What’s the current state of play?

“According to the EPA, no commercial volumes of cellulosic ethanol are currently being produced. However, several startups and advances are currently under way that could turn the tide,” Aaron Levitt writes.

There is a growing band of companies in the US, Canada, and Europe that have begun investment and construction of facilities from which commercial production can grow.

“The cellulosic ethanol industry developed some new commercial-scale plants in 2008,” Eric Martinot and Janet Sawin write in “Renewables Global Status Report – 2009 Update.” Going on: “In the United States, plants totaling 12 million liters per year were operational, and an additional 80 million liters per year of capacity — in 26 new plants — was under construction. In Canada, capacity of 6 million liters per year was operational. In Europe, several plants were operational in Germany, Spain, and Sweden, and capacity of 10 million liters per year was under construction.

However, more recently, ongoing economic and other challenges led the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to “reduce it’s mandate for about 950 million litres of advanced cellulosic biofuel by 2011 to just 25 million litres, citing the difficulty of securing sufficient finance to set up commercial production facilities,” Sawin notes in a more recent 2011 report.

Where to from here?

As mentioned above, the main aim of this article was to simply inform you, the reader, of some of the current environmental problems we face today and what is happening at an industrial, governmental, and commercial level to combat these problems.

Aside from the micro aspects of our day-to-day lives, I think it’s important to stay connected with the bigger environmental issues (despite how overwhelming they can be) as a way of keeping quietly focused and centered on how we each choose to live our lives and raise our children in this world beset by environmental problems. In the case of second-generation biofuels, it’s about reducing the reliance on traditional petrochemicals as a our primary fuel source. In the not too distant future, hopefully this will become a reality.


Images: road cutting through sugarcane field & sugarcane field via Shutterstock

1 thought on “Second-Generation Biofuels — Cellulosic Ethanol”

  1. I’m not sure I share your enthusiasm for bio-fuels. Giving anyone encouragement to grow mass quantities of anything on land just begs for more mono-cropping on land that should be used to grow food, and gives excuses for the Genetic Industrial Complex to ‘invent’ more GMOs.

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