Zea Chem: The Last Word in Cellulosic Ethanol?

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Sustainable fuel manufacturer Zea Chem has announced that it has succeeded in producing biomass-derived ethanol at a capacity that can be scaled to commercial production.

In a statement from the company’s headquarters, Zea Chem described the completion of a suite of products including biorefined cellulosic ethanol. “The next step is to integrate these known processes to achieve the ultimate target of commercial production of economical and sustainable biofuels and bio-based chemicals,” said CEO Jim Imbler.

The Colorado-based company has been a pioneer of a method that uses microbes from the digestive tracks of termites to transform woodchips and other cellulosic biomass into acetic acid and lignin. Zea Chem’s chemical process then turns these intermediaries into ethanol.  The company says its process offers the highest yield, at the lowest cost, with the lowest fossil carbon footprint of any known biorefining method.

Long used as a gasoline additive, corn-based ethanol has been the subject of considerable debate regarding its viability as an alternative fuel. Questions persist about whether carbon emissions from ethanol production and use are lower than those from oil, whether corn production creates unacceptable irrigation demands and levels of pesticide runoff, and whether diverting corn crops to ethanol drives up food prices.  There are now some 200 ethanol manufacturing facilities across the United States, almost all using corn as a feedstock. There are no commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants currently operating.

The U.S. ethanol industry has seen a boom during the last several years, spurred on by the 2007 Energy Security and Independence Act, which mandated the use of 36 billion gallons of biofuels annually by 2022. Support in Washington for ethanol production has been criticized as little more than a subsidy designed to fertilize the farm vote. Earlier this year, The Obama administration gave its official green light to corn ethanol as a low-carbon renewable fuel, in spite of all the questions.

In the last several years, as the idea took hold that biofuel could be produced from abundant plant waste, cellulosic byproducts and native grasses, investors began to open their wallets. Could Zea Chem’s process be the alchemy that the supporters of cellulosic ethanol have been looking for? Claims of breakthroughs in cellulosic ethanol production have been made in the past, but the ability to manufacture fuel scalable to commercial capacity has always been a barrier.

As the search continues for alternatives that will propel the transition from fossil fuels to truly sustainable sources, we should remember to keep our eyes on our nation’s labs. Zea Chem may have just created a better mouse trap.

photo: smiteme

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