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Breakthrough in Cellulosic Ethanol

19 April 2013

US - The US Energy Department is making important progress into cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from organic material in agricultural waste.

America’s homegrown fuel resources - from wood chips to the leaves and stalks of corn plants - are plentiful. Research finds that these resources could produce enough clean, renewable fuel to replace about 30 per cent of the nation’s current petroleum consumption.

Still, on the path to creating a strong, thriving biofuels industry, there are challenges the Energy Department continues to address. The Department is working with researchers, industry and other partners to increase the reliability and cost-effectiveness of renewable fuel production.

The good news is the Department is making progress - particularly when it comes to cellulosic ethanol. For the uninitiated, cellulosic ethanol is fuel produced from the inedible, organic material abundant in agricultural waste - including grasses, farm waste and virtually every type of plant.

While cellulosic ethanol represents a huge opportunity for the renewable fuels industry, the high costs and inefficiencies associated with the technology are barriers to its commercialization. However, with major technology milestones met by researchers in the National Labs and industry partners, that’s all starting to change.

Last autumn, scientists at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) successfully demonstrated the technical advances needed to produce cellulosic ethanol cost competitively at $2.15 per gallon - a process that was modeled at $9 per gallon just a decade ago.

To get here, scientists led pilot-scale projects at NREL’s Integrated Biorefinery Research Facility and Thermochemical Users Facility for two cellulosic ethanol production processes - biochemical conversion and thermochemical conversion. Both processes successfully produced renewable fuel at prices competitive with petroleum. At the biochemical pilot, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.15 per gallon. For the thermochemical pilot, cellulosic ethanol was produced at a modeled commercial-scale cost of $2.05 per gallon.

The successful demonstration of these cost-cutting technologies is helping the private sector ramp-up efforts to commercialise cellulosic ethanol production.

Facilities to produce cellulosic ethanol are under construction including Energy Department-supported projects led by Abengoa in Hugoton, Kansas, POET in Emmetsburg, Iowa, and INEOS in Vero Beach, Florida. Going forward, these technical breakthroughs will be leveraged by private industry and Energy Department to commercialise other technical pathways - including the conversion of cellulosic feedstock into high performing “drop-in” biofuels that are virtually indistinguishable from gasoline, diesel, jet fuel and other petroleum products.


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