Cellulosic Vapors

vapor cloudRemember all those promises that things like tree fiber, switchgrass, and cornstalks will soon be rendered into fuel for automobiles? It’s called “cellulosic ethanol.” Its production has been subsidized and mandated for years now.

The latest turn of events is simply humorous: As commercial production of the stuff remains at zero, the EPA is refusing to take a physics-based/EROEI “no” for an answer:

The cellulosic ethanol standard earned the most criticism. A federal court last week tossed out the agency’s requirement for cellulosic ethanol for 2012 as too onerous.

There was no commercial production of cellulosic biofuel last year, but that did not deter the government: It proposed raising the mandate to 14 million gallons from the 8.65 million gallons that was tossed out in court.

“The court recognized the absurdity of fining companies for failing to use a nonexistent biofuel,” said Bob Greco, a director of the American Petroleum Institute. By seeking to nearly double that quota, “EPA needs a serious reality check.”

Corn Pone

cob doll CNN reports on the idiocy of running automobiles on ethanol:

Current rules stipulate that nearly 10% of the nation’s gasoline supply come from corn-based ethanol. To make that ethanol, up to 40% of the country’s annual corn production can be required.

Of course, such reckless waste is built into cars-first transportation and the corporate capitalist dictatorship that insists on its preservation, come hell or high water.

Meanwhile, no commercial media story on cars would be complete without a whopping dollop of exculpatory fantasy. Hence, CNN quotes, without comment, one “Matt Hartwig, a spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association,” who contends:

“There is no need to lift the mandate at this time.”

The mandate is crucial, he said, because not only is ethanol a domestic fuel that’s cleaner than regular gasoline, but it spurs investments in advanced ethanol like cellulosic, which can be made from trees or switch grass — not food crops.

Ah, yes, cellulosic ethanol, that magic elixir which, despite a decade of promises, public subsidies, and massive corn-ethanol profits, remains commercially unavailable in the United States! And just how, an actual journalist might have asked Mr. Hartwig, does burning refined sugars from corn kernels “spur investments” in this rank fiction?

No answer, because no question. Of course.

Old Wine, Phony Bottles

winehead You know all the ads like this one, the ones that imply we live in an age of new fuels, and the task at hand is merely deciding which one is best?

Well, when it comes to cellulosic ethanol, one of the handful of major candidate “alt” fuels, guess how new that process is? Chemical engineer Robert Rapier reports:

I don’t think I have ever had the privilege of using a literature reference from 1819, but here it is. In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid (Braconnot 1819). The technique was later used by the Germans to first commercialize cellulosic ethanol from wood in 1898 (EERE 2009).

But believe it or not, commercialization also took place in the U.S. in 1910. The Standard Alcohol Company built a cellulosic ethanol plant in Georgetown, South Carolina to process waste wood from a lumber mill (PDA 1910). Standard Alcohol later built a second plant in Fullteron, Louisiana. Each plant produced 5,000 to 7,000 gallons of ethanol per day from wood waste, and both were in production for several years (Sherrard 1945).

To put that in perspective, Iogen claimed in 2004 that they were producing the world’s first cellulose ethanol fuel from their 1,500 gallon per day plant. (While 1,500 gal/day is their announced capacity, if you look at their production statistics they have never sustained more than 500 gallons per day over the course of a year; 2008 production averaged 150 gal/day).

Many companies are in a mad rush to be the “first” to commercialize cellulosic ethanol. The next time you hear someone say that they will be the first, ask them if they plan to invent the telephone next.