From grass comes gas, the cellulosic ethanol kind


Courtesy of BP

Exciting news on the cellulosic ethanol front. The promise of next-generation biofuels is moving from the lab to the factory.

BP has announced a joint venture with Verenium to make cellulosic ethanol from grass and other non-edible plants.

Most ethanol in the U.S. is made with corn, which can drive up food prices. Grass and other plant waste is seen as the holy grail for a sustainable source of the alternative fuel, which is typically mixed with regular gasoline to run in vehicles.

The companies are investing up to $300 million to develop and commercialize the advanced fuel and build a production facility in Highlands County, Fla. It will be one of the nation’s first commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants. The companies already operate the largest such plant in the U.S. This one will be 25 times larger than the pilot project.

If only homeowners could get a little one of these operations in the backyard. Mow the lawn. Dump in the clippings. Wait. Take a drive.

Production from the BP-Verenium venture is expected in 2012, putting out about 36 million gallons a year.

The drive here is supported by government policy, namely the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandates the use of 16 billion gallons of cellulosic biofuels by 2022. The industry has a long, long way to go, based on current production levels of less than 30 million gallons a year, according to Grist magazine.

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  1. I keep reading that the use of corn to make ethanol increases the price of food, a simple question of supply and demand. However I have also read that there was a surplus of corn last year and that farmers are still being paid to NOT grow corn. That begs the question is it supply and demand causing the price to go up or speculators?

  2. corn prices as other agricultural products going up has not been caused by growing ethanol production, as world alternative fuel production has had a constant growth over the past 25 years. The main reasons are changing alimentation habits in China and India (tendency towards more meat consumption – to produce 1 unit of meat you need 6 units of grain), a growing world population in general, bad harvests in some countries, speculation (!) and an increasing oil price. With an oil price going down since mid 2008, the grain prices have fallen as well in parallel. If interested in more details please check my home page for a presentation I gave in Lima in 2008 on biofuels (in German) and an article (in Spanish) which was published in Perú also last year.

  3. Imagine a recycling opperation for lawn clippings in suburban areas where cars are the main means of transport. Most municipalities don’t pick up lawn clippings for dumping anymore. How awesome would it be if they could simply pick it up, bring it to a cellulosic plant, and turn it into ethanol? Suburban towns would have a locally produced, renewable, clean energy source. That source would be de-coupled from corn production and therefore much cheaper than corn ethanol. The harvesting is done by citizens once a week, picked up by contracted shipping companies/town trucks/recycling center trucks and put into a fermenter and distilled into ethanol. The ethanol is sold locally to gas stations who sell it back to consumers at a lower price than gas or corn ethanol. We need to make this happen!