- The Washington Times - Friday, May 30, 2008

Ethanol - essentially grain alcohol - has been used as a fuel since the birth of the internal-combustion engine. Moving into this century, several carmakers have been promoting ethanol (blended with gasoline) as a way to reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce emissions.

The driving public, however, hasn’t warmed to ethanol for a variety of reasons. One bother is that ethanol contains less energy than gasoline.

Blended to run your vehicle’s engine in the typical 85 percent ethanol/15 percent gasoline that is known in the fuels industry as “E85,” a gallon of E85 has just 70 percent of the energy in a gallon of gas. With a full tank of E85, you can only drive about three-quarters as far, meaning you’ll have to fill up more often.

Another vexing issue has been the fuel’s scant availability. Ford, General Motors and Chrysler have for years been making so-called “flex-fuel” vehicles - those with engines capable of using either E85 or straight gasoline, or any mixture of the two - and the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition says there are some 6 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road. Yet E85 is available at fewer than 2,000 of the some 170,000 fueling stations in the U.S. and there are only about 1,400 E85 pumps in the entire country.

But what is ethanol’s primary liability? Almost all of the ethanol currently produced in the U.S. comes from corn, and many blame ethanol production for higher food prices. There’s plenty of political debate about that point, but it’s pretty much agreed that making fuel from an important food crop probably isn’t a great long-term strategy.

But that may change thanks to an intriguing new effort from an Illinois start-up company called Coskata.

The company produces “cellulosic” ethanol not by distilling corn but by superheating all kinds of waste - including everyday garbage - into a synthetic gas and “feeding” it to special microbes.

The patented bacteria feast on the gas and secrete, most conveniently, almost pure ethanol.

Coskata president and CEO William Roe told me that just about anything organic can be turned into the synthetic gas that his company’s hungry microbes feast upon to produce ethanol

Coskata is under way with construction of a small demonstration plant near Pittsburgh, Pa., that will use all manner of waste, such as wood and plant material, not to mention municipal garbage, to produce ethanol.

General Motors, one of the staunchest supporters of ethanol, is excited about Coskata’s potential to produce ethanol not from a vital food source but from stuff that usually gets hauled to a landfill.

In January, GM announced a partnership with Coskata, and when the demonstration plant begins churning out its cellulosic ethanol later this year, it will fuel vehicles at GM’s Proving Grounds in Milford, Mich.

I have not been a fan of ethanol, largely because chewing up loads of corn to make fuel just seemed dumb, and credible research has questioned the true environmental gain from large-scale production of ethanol from corn.

But if Coskata can take waste and turn it into fuel, that’s a different story.

Roe says his ethanol-producing microbes are very efficient, too: a ton of waste material in Coskata’s process yields about 100 gallons of ethanol vs. the 67 gallons of ethanol delivered from a ton of corn.

And the overall energy required in Coskata’s process is a fraction of the energy needed to produce ethanol from corn.

There is a mandate for the nation to annually produce up to 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022.

Although cellulosic ethanol production is only now beginning on a limited commercial scale, there are competitors to Coskata’s process.

Roe nonetheless thinks cellulosic ethanol production will surpass the entrenched corn-based ethanol.

Happily, there are efforts underway to improve your chances of actually finding ethanol at a gas station.

Another startup company, Delaware’s Alternative Fuels Distributors, is aiming to construct 1,000 “Go Green Station” convenience stores/filling stations on the East Coast.

The Go Green stations, which the company hopes to have up and running by early 2009, will sell only E85 and other “alternative” fuels.

If we can make E85 ethanol for our vehicles from waste, and the industry can make E85 convenient to use, I’ll be the first in line for a fuel that, up to now, I was convinced had zero future.

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