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The race for nonfood biofuel

High gas prices and politics push companies toward the ‘holy grail’ of biofuel: cellulosic ethanol.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 4, 2008

Biofuel bounty: Virginia Tech researcher John Fike surveys switch grass in Orange, Va. It may replace corn as ethanol crop.

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Way back in 2006, when gasoline cost just $2.50 a gallon, President Bush called for home-grown biofuels to replace three-quarters of oil imports from the Persian Gulf – or about 72 billion gallons – by 2025.

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How to achieve that goal is still a question. Corn-based ethanol production is expected to be 12 billion to 15 billion gallons in coming years.

But with gas now at $4 a gallon and critics hammering corn ethanol for helping to pump up global food prices, it is clear that the holy grail of biofuels – cellulosic ethanol – needs to make its entrance soon.

Driven by a growing political consensus to shift toward nonfood biofuels, the high price of oil, and gains in technology, a flood of public and private investment has poured into the development of cellulosic ethanol.

“Actual marketplace production of cellulosic ethanol is zero – there’s not a gallon being produced [commercially] right now,” says Thomas Foust, biofuels research director at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. “But with all these plants coming on line ... by 2010 or 2011 we will start to see millions of gallons.”

At least 30 cellulosic ethanol “biorefineries” with solid sources of funding – including 13 with federal funding – are now active in the development pipeline, according to the Biotechnology Industry Organization, a Washington trade organization.

Not all these facilities will ultimately be built. But a high proportion will be, given investor confidence, according to Dr. Foust. Cellulosic ethanol is on track – or perhaps even ahead of schedule – to produce up to 60 billion gallons by 2030, he says.

There seem as many varieties of cellulosic technology as there are companies trying to produce it on a commercial scale. Most, however, fall into two broad categories: Thermochemical processes use heat and pressure to extract sugars from plant material – sugar that is then turned into ethanol. Biochemical proces­ses mostly use enzymes to do the same thing.

A big step forward came last week with the opening of the nation’s first ­demonstration-scale cellulosic ethanol plant in Jennings, La. The facility, built by Cambridge, Mass.-based Verenium Corp., will use high-tech enzymes to make 1.4 million gallons per year of ethanol from the cellulose in sugar cane bagasse, a waste product.

That plant will be used to tweak the technology and validate cost and performance measures, putting the company on track for a 30-million-gallon commercial plant by the middle of next year.

“This is a first for the US, and as we take the next step toward commercialization, we are breaking new ground and setting new standards,” said Carlos Riva, president of Verenium, in a statement.

Despite the financial shock wave from the housing credit crunch and the subsequent closing of wallets on Wall Street, investor interest in cellulosic continues to be strong. Developments popping up rapid-fire include:

DuPont and Genencor’s deal last month to form a $140 million joint venture to make cellulosic ethanol from corn stover (husks and leaves) and bagasse.

General Motors last month said it would make a major investment in Mascoma Corp., a cellulosic ethanol company based in Boston that hopes to use more powerful enzymes to break down material in a single step.

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