Cellulosic ethanol has been hailed as the next frontier in renewable fuels. After all, most ethanol in the U.S. comes from corn, a staple product in the food chain. Use more corn for ethanol, and you’re bound to drive up food prices. If you’ve seen “King Corn,” you know the score. Corn ethanol also has its problems with energy inputs versus energy outputs. In other words, the benefits can be sketchy.
That’s where cellulosic ethanol, made from plant waste, comes in. But for years, it’s been more promise than practice. Enter Michigan State University (MSU), an agricultural institution based on East Lansing, Michigan. MSU professor Bruce Dale and doctoral student Ming Lau have developed a pretreatment process called AFEX, and patented it. AFEX, or ammonia fiber expansion, uses ammonia rather than acid to pretreat corn stover – the leaves and stalks leftover after the harvest. The process reduces the cost of making biofuels from cellulose, according to a post from the U.S. Department of Energy. The ammonia process is more efficient, requires fewer steps for conversion and allows for new wastes to be converted for use as ethanol, Dale and Lau say.
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has more. According to an abstract, “This platform offers the potential to improve the economics of cellulosic ethanol production by reducing the costs associated with raw materials, process water, and capital equipment.”
MSU also is working on reducing the carbon footprint of cellulosic ethanol via corn stover by using cover crops, manure and compost, rather than good old (and bad) pesticides and fertilizers. They call themselves Spartans, by the way.
About the author
Jeff Kart is a Michigan-based environmental journalist and writes here about alternative energy in the Great Lakes region, and beyond. This is his first post and he’s pretty excited.
Seems that the great lakes region is pushing hard – 4 hours down the road in Chicago, Coskata has found a bug that allows them to produce cellulosic ethanol aswell.
How does this fit in with good soil conservation practices? I have been reading articles that suggest soil erosion is a big problem, in the neighborhood of 7 tons per hectare a year, and that corn stover is needed to prevent erosion.
You’re right. There seems to be a downside to using stover for ethanol, as the USDA notes here:
i heard that ethanol was close to bumping up against the 10% mark of nearly all fuels in the US. that would leave growth opportunities very small (despite the mandate) until they can get approval for E15 or higher.
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