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Have You Heard the Ethanol Production Efficiency Story?

Submitted by on March 13, 2011 – 4:03 pmNo Comment

by Robert E. Kozak (Advanced Biofuels USA)  When I was looking at this “Well-to-Wheels” CO2 Emissions From Alternative Fuels graph produced by NRDC (Natural Resources Defense Council) I was impressed by the decreasing CO2 emission trendline for the various ethanol production options. Starting with their value of about 22 lbs CO2/equivalent gallon/gasoline for “Corn Industry Average” it decreases to about -7 lbs CO2/equivalent gallon/gasoline for “Cellulosic with Carbon Capture/Reuse.

If you think about it, this trendline represents how the biofuel industry can evolve into a sustainable mature industry once public policies are in place to support “optimized all-biomass ethanol” as a primary transportation fuel.  Such policies would allow the industry to obtain the financing necessary to implement the production improvements that would make the CO2 negative ethanols at the far right of the graph the industry standard.

This trendline also got me thinking about how long it took the petroleum industry to reach its current efficiency that allows it to produce a gallon of gasoline for about 26 lbs CO2. As it turns out, the answer is at least sixty years -1910-1970.

Production and quality improvements have been slow in the petroleum industry. While the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania in 1859, demand for gasoline did not really exist until 1900 when cars with internal combustion engines began to be produced. It really took off after 1908 when the Ford Model T began production.  However, neither performance (octane rating) nor conversion efficiency were quick to follow.

For instance, the catalytic cracking of crude oil into gasoline, which doubled existing yields of gasoline, was not developed until the 1930s. Octane ratings, a measure of gasoline’s ability to withstand pressure to produce more power (current regular gasoline has a rating of 87 and ethanol 105+), were about 40 until Allied aircraft needed high octane fuels to fight German and Japanese planes in WWII. This octane development work was largely financed by the US government. The current hydrocracking technology which again increased gasoline yields, did not come on-line until the 1960s, while the current rate of oil to gasoline conversion was reached after the 1973-4 oil shock.

So what does this oil industry history mean for ethanol?

First, the rate of Production Efficiency Improvements in the ethanol industry is much faster than it was in the oil industry.

For instance, the average ethanol produced in 2000 produced over 30 lbs CO2/equivalent gallon/gasoline while no-till corn ethanol with reused wet distiller grains (a current process) produces less than 1/3 of that, (less than 10 lbs CO2/equivalent gallon/gasoline on the NRDC graph). It took the oil industry over thirty years for that type of reduction.

Second, there is plenty of room for improvement in the ethanol production process.

Besides the changes listed in the NRDC graph there are significant advances currently being developed throughout the chain of production. These include: increasing the tolerance of fermentation organisms to ethanol which reduces distillation energy, increasing the amount of biomass beyond cellulose that can be converted to ethanol, reducing the amount of enzymes needed for processing, reducing biomass in-field processing and transportation costs, and retaining maximum amounts of biomass proteins for animal feed. In addition, improvements through system integration will be forthcoming once all these elements reach the commercial stage.

Third, we need to tell Our Ethanol Production Efficiency Story much better.

We need to see graphs comparing the rate of ethanol production improvements with the oil industry over the same time periods on CNN and CNBC. We need to see stories in the “mainstream media” about the progress being made, again as compared to the oil industry, on current ethanol production efficiency improvements and those in the pipeline. Even more important, we need to see stories about the investments being made, and needed in the future, to bring these improvements to market.

A prime example of how not telling this story is affecting the industry is the current Congressional debate on VEETC. Many members of Congress have taken to opposing VEETC since they have come to believe two myths of the ethanol industry. These are; 1) the ethanol industry is a mature industry that does not need to invest in production improvements to stay competitive, and 2) growers and other owners of current generation corn-to-ethanol facilities are not reinvesting revenues in the facilities and are instead pocketing VEETC “profits.”

These myths need to be countered with facts. The facts need to be brought forward quickly.  The Conventional Wisdom that the future of ethanol is the path to ruin must be replaced with truth about the highly efficient, sustainable ethanol future so many people are working on. A future, that could go beyond even the far right hand side of the NRDC graph.     Download NRDS graph

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