As the US consumes 140 billion gallons of gasoline annually, the thought of transitioning to corn-based ethanol is a daunting one. If enormous quantities of land, water, pesticides, and food resources are dedicated to transportation fuel, the ramifications will be significant. Some have even called ethanol from food to be a crime against humanity.
A new technology is being fine-tuned by Coskata that can have global impacts on biofuels, with potential sources of fuel ranging from garbage to agricultural waste to construction debris. I was recently invited to tour the laboratory and I was struck by how this technology has the potential to shift the transportation fuel industry.
Coskata hit the ground running in January 2007, when they obtained strains of bacteria that converts gases into ethanol. Within months, they had built a laboratory in suburban Chicago, formed an alliance with General Motors, and announced a 40,000 gallon demonstration facility that will be operational within a year.
“This technology is here and ready to go,” said Bill Roe, CEO of Coskata. This is apparent from the recent announcement that IMC, Inc., the leading ethanol plant design and build firm, will construct the first plant. Expected to open at the end of 2010, this plant will mass produce ethanol using the Coskata process.
“Coskata and ICM will speed the commercialization of a process that will convert biomass into advanced biofuels from a number of renewable materials, at a production cost of less than $1 a gallon,” Roe said.
The numbers associated with the Coskata process look very promising. A study by Argonne Labs shows up to an 84% decrease in CO2 emissions compared to gasoline. Corn-based ethanol has a mere 1.3 net energy output compared to up to 7.7 with the Coskata process. Wood was used as a fuel source for this study.
This brings us to the fuel source topic, which could get hairy. There are many potential sources, but all sources are not created equal. Although garbage is cheap and plentiful, it comes with a myriad of issues, requiring it to be densely packed and presorted in order to be an economically viable option, due to transportation, storage and labor costs. Agricultural waste, construction debris, and storm waste also look environmentally favorable, but consistent, large-scale supplies are needed if we are to make a dent in the exorbitant gas consumption in this country. Concern has also been raised that coal could be used as a fuel source, with its many pros and cons.
The intentions behind the Coskata process is to have different fuel sources depending on locally available materials. Eventually, the goal is to have 2-3 ethanol plants in every state, with excellent global potential as well.
Photo Credit: Coskata
Note: GM paid for my meal expenses associated with the Coskata laboratory tour.