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.

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