Fri, Apr 20, 2007 - Page 9 News List

Finding a competitive alternative to corn-based ethanol

By Matthew Wald and Alexei Barrionuevo  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , JENNINGS, LOUISIANA

The sun shone brightly on the crowd gathered at the rusting old oil refinery here, as company officials showed off diagrams explaining how they planned to turn weeds and agricultural wastes into car fuel. Government officials gave optimistic speeches. In the background, workers were preparing a new network of pipes, tanks and conveyor belts.

That was in October 1998, when ethanol from crop wastes seemed to be just around the corner.

It still is. This past February, company officials gathered here once again, to break ground on a plant designed to make ethanol by yet another method.

At the time of the first ceremony, the US Department of Energy was predicting that ethanol produced from cellulosic waste would be on the market by about 2009 in the same volume as ethanol from the conventional source, corn.

But no company has yet been able to produce ethanol from cellulose in mass quantities that are priced competitively with corn-based ethanol. And without the cellulosic ethanol, the national goal for ethanol production will be impossible to reach.

"Producing cellulosic ethanol is clearly more difficult than we thought in the 1990s," said Dan Reicher, who was assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy at the time of the first ceremony and who spoke in Jennings then.

To be sure, a swarm of innovators, venture capitalists and government officials is optimistic. Over the last year, money has begun to pour in from all corners -- government, private foundations, venture capitalists and Wall Street -- to sort out the myriad production problems preventing cellulosic ethanol from becoming a reality. And recent advances in gene sequencing have raised hopes for a breakthrough in mass producing the enzymes needed to do the work.

If making the technology work to produce ethanol from cellulose was important in the 1990s, it is even more critical now. Because of growing concerns about oil imports and climate change, Reicher said "it is essential that we figure this out, and fast."

Mounting concerns about excessive demands for corn as both food and fuel only add to the urgency. In January, US President George W. Bush set a goal of producing 35 billion gallons (132 billion liters) of alternative fuels, probably a majority ethanol, by 2017.

But the more than 23 billion liters of ethanol that will be produced this year have already helped push corn to its highest price in years, raising the cost of everything from tortillas to chicken feed. Poor people in Mexico have protested against the higher prices, and now China and India are starting to suffer from food inflation.

So why has no one figured out a way to make ethanol from materials like the sugar cane wastes engineers are working with in Jennings?

In fact, engineers at several companies have -- but only at the lab level. One company, Iogen, has a pilot-scale plant running in Ottawa and hopes to build a larger-scale operation soon. Abengoa, a Spanish company, says it plans to open a plant in northern Spain late this year and wants to build a factory in Kansas. Broin Companies, of Sioux Falls, South Dakota, is planning to expand a corn ethanol plant in Emmetsburg, Iowa, to use cellulose as well.

But everyone is still struggling to develop a method that is cost-competitive with corn ethanol -- not to mention competing with gasoline and other fuels from oil without subsidies.

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