Cellulosic ethanol focal point of alternative energy security

by Ron Sterk
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TUSCON, ARIZ. — Enthusiasm for cellulosic ethanol continued to build as President George W. Bush again pushed the need for energy security in the same week as the Renewable Fuels Association (R.F.A.) held its largest ethanol conference ever.

The president was in Franklinton, N.C., at Novozymes A/S on Feb. 22 touting cellulosic ethanol as the next generation renewable fuel that will move the United States to less dependence on foreign oil. Novozymes, based in Bagsvaerd, Denmark, with offices worldwide, produces microorganisms and enzymes, including those that will allow for more economical conversion of cellulose fiber into ethanol, reducing the dependence on corn as the primary feedstock in the U.S.

"If you really want to reduce the amount of oil that you consume, you must reduce the amount of gasoline you use," President Bush said. "The question then is how do you achieve your goal of less dependence on oil without breaking your farmers, without breaking your hog raisers? Corn farmers happen to like it, but I’m talking about the people dependent on corn.

"I set the goal of the United States reducing our gasoline consumption by 20% over the next 10 years. That’s the 20-in-10 goal. And I mandated a fuel standard that says we’ll be using 35 million gallons of ethanol or alternative fuel over the next 10 years."

Dr. Kevin Wenger, manager of the ethanol research and development group at Novozyme’s Franklinton facility, said he was "very optimistic" and that he could "see how the 20-in-10 goal is very achievable," based on developments with corn ethanol in the last five years and developments coming in cellulosic.

It is that transition to cellulose fiber, such as switch grass, wood chips, corn stalks, wheat straw, or any number of other items, that the burgeoning ethanol industry believes will allow it to avoid the food versus fuel debate while reaching a level of sustainability and continued growth that will make ethanol a permanent part of the U.S. energy picture.

In addition to President Bush’s call for 35 billion gallons of alternative fuel needed by 2017, R.F.A. president Bob Dinneen noted the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition initiative requiring 60 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030 and legislation introduced by Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, mandating 100 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030.

"We as an industry know that we cannot meet these exalted expectations with existing technology and existing feedstocks alone," Mr. Dinneen told more than 2,000 gathered at the R.F.A.’s annual meeting in Tucson Feb. 19-21. "The new horizon points toward cellulose, toward more energy efficient technologies, toward non-grain feedstocks and potentially new as-yet-undiscovered renewable energy resources."

U.S. ethanol production was 4.9 billion gallons in 2006, sales were 5.5 billion gallons, and production capacity was 5.4 billion gallons at year end, all three new records, Mr. Dinneen said. Another 78 plants under construction will add 6 billion gallons capacity within 18 months, he said. The U.S. ethanol industry used 1.8 billion bus of grain, or 17% of the corn crop and 26% of the sorghum crop, in 2006, he said. The new capacity would require about an additional 2.2 billion bus of grain.

Data presented at the R.F.A. meeting suggested the "top end" of ethanol that may be made from grain in the U.S. was about 15 billion gallons annually under current technology, which would require about 5.4 billion bus of grain. Although advancements in corn yields, increased plantings and greater efficiencies in ethanol production from corn likely would increase the potential, the need for "energy" crops grown specifically for the production of biofuels will be needed to significantly increase ethanol output, R.F.A. meeting participants said.

Dr. Daniel De La Torre Ugarte, associate professor at the University of Tennessee, said he expected cellulosic fiber would begin to make a "significant contribution" to ethanol production by 2012, and that by 2025 half of ethanol production in the U.S. would come from energy crops.

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