Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Range Fuels Moves Forward with Commercial Scale Cellulosic Ethanol

Saw it at Forbes.com.

Range Fuels is moving forward with the world's first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol plant. Range is being backed by Khosla Ventures with an undisclosed sum of funding.

How does their process work you ask?

Add $76 million from the US Department of Energy, millions of tons of wood waste from a nearby Georgia timber farming industry, mix wood chips with heat, pressure and steam for 15 minutes, and then turn a syngas into ethanol with a proprietary catalyst which throws off ethanol. Poof, American made cellulosic ethanol (see a nifty interactive diagram of their process here).

The only catch at that point in the process. How much ethanol does the process throw off by volume?

The big issue, as with all energy technologies, isn't if we can do it. It's what cost can we do "it" at. "It" being any technology from hydrogen, to nuke, to cellulosic ethanol.

From what I've been told by more than one company with a "proprietary" cellulosic ethanol concept is that they can make ethanol. Its easy. The issue isn't cellulosic ethanol. Its the volume of alcohol in the beer product produced. "Beer" being the first round of alcohol production which turns fructose into alcohol via yeast.

The production of alcohol prior to distillation into road grade ethanol from cellulose is roughly half of what corn ethanol gets per batch. Additionally there are more steps involved in the process of making cellulosic ethanol over corn/sugar based product. And then there is the productivity of the yeast in a cellulosic plant. Cellulosic ethanol processes get around 3% - 8% alcohol by volume as opposed to the low teens for corn based ethanol.

This lower volume or lower productivity of alcohol raises the energy needs of any plant and slow down the productivity. Even if the feedstock is free the cost of several other steps to get the wood product into a usable form, the lower productivity of the yeast making alcohol, and the additional distillation rounds to get cellulosic ethanol to a 200 proof break the bank.

Good luck to Range Fuels and Vinod Khosla. It's exciting to see this project go forward.

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