GM partners with Coskata on new ethanol process

The words “miracle fuel” in this column by Jack Lessenberry caught my eye, because a miracle is about what this world needs when it comes to fuel.
Coskata’s process sounded promising when I first read about it.

Our technology enables the low-cost production of ethanol from a wide variety of input material including biomass, municipal solid waste and other carbonaceous material. Using proprietary microorganisms and patented bioreactor designs, we will produce ethanol for under US$1.00 per gallon.

Ethanol from garbage? Even better, Coskata says it can make ethanol from old tires, according to USA Today.

General Motors (GM) says it is investing in a fledgling company that claims its secret process could be able to make ethanol from waste in large quantity as soon as 2010 for $1 a gallon or less, half the cost of making gasoline.

Bill Roe, CEO of 18-month-old ethanol maker Coskata, says the company’s process uses bacteria developed at the University of Oklahoma and existing gasification technology to generate 99.7% pure ethanol, plus water. He says the method should leapfrog cellulosic production, which has been seen as the next step from today’s ethanol production using corn.

GM won’t disclose its investment, but Roe says it’s enough to make Coskata “a speed-to-market play. I don’t think most people saw this coming,” he says. “Most talk about cellulosic ethanol is futuristic.”

Coskata’s process can use garbage, old tires and other waste, but Roe says wood waste probably will be used at first because it’s available, cheap and easy to handle.

I can see exactly why GM grabbed this. Ethanol is the closest substitute we have for gasoline right now, so it would take the least R&D and changes in infrastructure to implement of all the alternative fuels currently under development. GM wouldn’t even have to retool its production to any large extent; it’s already producing flex-fuel (E-85) vehicles, which have very minor modifications from a normal gasoline internal combustion engine:

E-85 ethanol is used in engines modified to accept higher concentrations of ethanol. Such flexible-fuel engines are designed to run on any mixture of gasoline or ethanol with up to 85% ethanol by volume. The primary differences from non-FFVs is the elimination of bare magnesium, aluminum, and rubber parts in the fuel system, the use of fuel pumps capable of operating with electrically conductive (ethanol) instead of non-conducting dielectric (gasoline) fuel, specially-coated wear-resistant engine parts, fuel injection control systems having a wider range of pulse widths (for injecting approximately 40% more fuel), the selection of stainless steel fuel lines (sometimes lined with plastic), the selection of stainless steel fuel tanks in place of terne fuel tanks, and, in some cases, the use of acid-neutralizing motor oil. For vehicles with fuel-tank mounted fuel pumps, additional differences to prevent arcing, as well as flame arrestors positioned in the tank’s fill pipe, are also sometimes used. (Wikipedia, E-85)

The drawbacks of producing ethanol from corn and other food crops are numerous. The biggest drawback is that the fossil fuels used to produce ethanol nearly cancel out the net energy gained from using it in place of gasoline. According to a University of Minnesota study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:

Researchers tried to account for all the energy inputs of the process, from growing corn (even the energy use of farm households) to energy burned in transportation and the construction of processing plants. They found that corn-derived ethanol yields only 25 percent more energy than is required to make it. (Studies by researchers at Cornell and Berkeley even contend that ethanol actually produces less energy than goes into its production, though U of M researchers dispute those findings.)

It gets worse. According to Green Car Congress, fuel consumption in an ethanol vehicle is 33% higher, which makes a wash out of the the 27% reduction in greenhouse gases per gallon of ethanol compared with a gallon of gas. Deforestation, soil depletion, and silt runoff into watersheds because of ethanol farming are a problem in the United States and even worse elsewhere—Grist says that Brazil has lost one-fifth of its rainforest acreage since the 1970s, much of it to make room for sugar cane to be used in ethanol production. Considering that one acre of rainforest can store up to 400,000 pounds of carbon dioxide, ethanol from crops is not a good tradeoff for the environment.

Coskata’s process would go a long way toward replacing ethanol from crop farming and eliminating its attendant problems if its press release is credible. (You see a lot of press releases in the alternative fuels business, and a lot of proprietary technology that no one wants to release hard numbers on.) And that $1.00 a gallon price tag is a big fat cherry on the sundae. True or not (and I’m very skeptical), it will steer Congress toward supporting ethanol in future transportation bills, and away from supporting more difficult solutions to global warming–like more fuel efficient cars that would require expensive retooling to produce. $1.00 a gallon tends to make most voters stop complaining about most things.

I live in Michigan and I have no desire to see GM, Ford, and Chrysler go belly up, even if it would be just desserts for their clinging to the past instead of embracing the future that Toyota and Honda are already profiting handsomely from. GM hasn’t said where the new ethanol refineries will be built, and I hope that the money that GM puts into Coskata doesn’t all end up it its new R&D shop in China. Even if it does, $1.00 a gallon fuel would practically guarantee that some manufacturing jobs stay in the Midwest, where people are not doing so well these days.

Is Coskata’s technology really a “magic fuel” as Lessenberry wonders? Not likely. Although GM would love for us to stop with ethanol, there’s some chilling news about it that should send us scurrying back to the drawing board. Stanford researcher Mark Jacobson recently developed a computer model to predict what would happen to our air by 2020 if the United States switched over from gasoline to E-85 as its primary fuel. The result:

(Jacobson) “We found that E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increase two others—formaldehyde and acetaldehyde,” Jacobson said. “As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline. However, in some parts of the country, E85 significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog.”

Inhaling ozone—even at low levels—can decrease lung capacity, inflame lung tissue, worsen asthma and impair the body’s immune system, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. The World Health Organization estimates that 800,000 people die each year from ozone and other chemicals in smog. The results were published last month in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. (PDF FILE)

Jacobson encourages the exploration of advanced technologies like wind and solar generation to produce electricity and hydrogen power, rather than investing in ethanol production.

4 responses to “GM partners with Coskata on new ethanol process

  1. Ethanol should not be considered anything more than a transitional fuel. The future is electric.

  2. Even as a transitional fuel, ethanol is pretty weak. If not for government ag subsidies, it wouldn’t stand a chance. Not that I’m against government subsidies; I just think they should only be granted for viable technologies that need a boost to get started.

    But ethanol from garbage instead of corn changes the equation a bit, since we’ll produce garbage no matter what. The crucial question is whether Coskata’s patented process really does lower the production cost and up the input-output ratio as favorably as they say it does. In an industry where hype and press releases are king, that remains to be seen.

  3. I agree that Ethanol from trash would be a great transition fuel. Electricity is not that envir0nmentally friendly today, mostly running on coal, natural gas and nuclear. Very little comes from renewable resources like wind, solar and geothermal. That is changing, but will take a long time. Nevada has 215 applications for land use for solar thermal power plants and no permits have been issued yet. They stated needs for environmental studies and land rights issues that have to be worked out before building plants and running the power lines. That could take many, many years.

  4. We lost 30 years between the first fuel crisis of 1976 and the fuel crisis of 2008 that we could have been using to develop renewable energy technology. Until we get caught up, we’ll have to choose between the lesser of evils for our energy needs.

    Thanks for the tip on solar thermal, bremaria. It will be the subject of a future blog post.

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