Cellulosic Ethanol Is Fuel Of Tomorrow

Editor’s Note: EarthTechling, always looking to forward the cleantech discussion, is proud to bring you this column via a cross post from American Enterprise Institute’s Kenneth Green, writing for the site EnvironmentalTrends.

The story of ethanol’s use as fuel could practically serve as a poster-child for the law of unintended consequences. Originally used to control air pollution by adding oxygen content to gasoline, the corn lobby, with the assistance of environmental groups pushed ever more corn-based ethanol into the fuel supply with fairly disastrous consequences, both environmental and economic. I discuss some of them here, and in greater depth here.

Ethanol boosters have dismissed criticisms of corn-based ethanol, claiming that they’re only a temporary problem, since the real future of ethanol is in producing it from woody materials (cellulosic materials) rather than from corn. The problem is, producing ethanol from cellulose is very difficult, very expensive, and comes with the same environmental impact problems that corn does, if not worse.

image via Shutterstock

So it’s no surprise that all the money the government has pumped into promoting the production of cellulosic ethanol is failing, or is being diverted to other purposes beside fuel production:

Gevo, a prominent advanced-biofuels company that has received millions in U.S. government funding to develop fuels made from cellulosic sources such as grass and wood chips, is finding that it can’t use these materials if it hopes to survive. Instead, it’s going to use corn, a common source for conventional biofuels. What’s more, most of the product from its first facility will be used for chemicals rather than fuel.

But ethanol boosters are nothing if not clever in defending the product. Here’s a new example, from the same article linked above:

Gruber says the impact on food supplies and prices is mitigated by the fact that the protein in corn is still available for use in animal feed. He even makes the case that using the sugar from corn to make fuel rather than soft drinks could help the obesity problem in the United States.

Yes, subsidizing ethanol fuel production from corn could curtail childhood obesity. Sure it can.