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Cellulosic Ethanol – A Better Way But Is It The Best?

 

By James Donahue

 

The rush to begin production of ethanol from corn and other sugar/starch plants as a fuel alternative for cars quickly turned out to be a problem. That is because it was not fuel-efficient and it created competition for vital crops also needed to feed an overpopulated world. The demand for corn, sugar cane and other food products to feed ethanol plants has helped create a spike in the cost of food.

 

Now ethanol from sugar has been replaced by a new production process that creates what is called cellulosic ethanol. As the name implies, this is a fuel that comes from cellulose instead of sugar. It can be produced from just about any part of a plant, including grass clippings, fallen tree limbs, corn stalks and other expendable portions of farm crops that do not compete with the world food supply.

 

Range Fuels, a company that is expected to have the first cellulosic ethanol plant up and running this year in Georgia, is expected to begin production of 100 million gallons of this new form of ethanol from wood chips and other forest waste. If successful, Range Fuels wants to expand production to a billion gallons a year.

 

This is a far better way to produce an alternative to engine fuels from petroleum, although it is much more costly to manufacture. The process being developed by Range Fuels also is attempting to create carbon-neutral fuel from waste, and do it economically. If the project is successful America may actually be on the road to a true alternative fuel that will keep vehicles running and ease the nation’s dependency on crude oil from overseas.

 

The other good news is that if a process can be developed to make ethanol that burns clean, without carbon emissions, another major problem of massive carbon pollutants pouring into our skies may be greatly reduced.

 

A problem with this process, however, appears to be the cost. The good news is that cellulosic ethanol can contain up to 16 times more energy than is required to make it. By comparison, gasoline contains only five times more energy, and corn ethanol contains only 1.3 times the energy needed to manufacture it.

 

While burning a fuel to propel individual automobiles may be accomplished without emitting toxic carbons, we question the possibility of other toxic emissions. Sometimes things that look too good to be true, usually are.