Coskata, an Illinois-based biofuel company, has found a way to convert any organic material into cellulosic ethanol for less than $1 a gallon. The innovation spurred General Motors into investing in the company, with realistic h
opes of having the first commercial-scale plant making 100 million gallons of ethanol a year by 2011. The process uses existing gasification technology to convert organic material into synthesis gas, which is then pumped into a reactor containing bacteria that consume the gas and excrete ethanol. The process creates 99.7% pure ethanol, according to Richard Tobey, Coskata's vice president of engineering. Coskata’s cellulosic ethanol seems to solve the problem of finding an infrastructure to produce and deliver the fuel. Because any organic material can be used—from tires to municipal waste—“You are not bound by location…each region has been blessed to grow its own biomass,” Tobey says. Gas and ethanol share the same distribution chain so new fuel stations won’t be necessary. It also shifts the focus away from corn-based ethanol. The American food supply depends heavily on corn production, and by portioning it into the production of ethanol, critics predict adverse effects on the economy and food supply. Also, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory says it takes 1 Btu of fossil fuel to yield 1.3 Btu of usable ethanol energy, a not-so-cost-effective process. The Argonne National Laboratory says Coskata’s ethanol produces 84% less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel, and it generates 7.7 times more energy than is used to produce it, compared to corn’s 1.3 times more energy produced.
With the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requiring an increase to 36 billion gallons of ethanol annually by 2022, Coskata may help reach above that goal.
By Danny Scuderi
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