GM Announces New Cellulosic Ethanol Partnership with Mascoma Corp.

 

Mascoma Cellulosic Ethanol

General Motors announced today it would be entering into a strategic relationship with Mascoma Corp., a second-generation biofuel company with the technology to produce cellulosic ethanol from non-food sources via a single-step biochemical conversion.

The undisclosed equity share aims to contribute to joint research and development along with technology exchange, plant siting, and rapid commercialization of cellulosic ethanol technology and infrastructure. This is GM’s second investment in a cellulosic ethanol company, after announcing partnership with Coskata back in January.





Mascoma is a 3 year old energy biotech company based in Boston. Their proprietary production process, called Consolidated Bioprocessing, limits the use of chemicals and enzymes required by other biochemical methods to make cellulosic ethanol. There are two basic processing methods: biochemical treatment and gasification (see post on Coskata).

How Does Mascoma’s Cellulosic Ethanol Process Work?

During a conference call today, I asked Chairman and CEO of Mascoma Bruce Jamerson how their process differs from standard biochemical production processes. He described it like this:

Cellulosic ethanol feedstocks are usually broken down by some kind of pre-treatment, like a mild acid bath. At that point, the cellulose (which is basically a chain of glucose sugar molecules) is clipped apart into C5 and C6 sugars by enzymes. Those sugars are then fermented into ethanol by other microbes. Each of these steps take time, and money. The first step after pre-treatment, called hydrolysis, typically requires purchasing expensive enzymes. The best way to reduce the cost and throughput time would be to eliminate some of these steps.

Mascoma’s proprietary microorganims do all of the post pre-treatment steps at once, without the need for separate batches. The advantage of this is decreased throughput time, lower capital cost, and higher yields.

The other big difference about Mascoma is their pretreatment step, which essentially chops up plant material and uses a proprietary process involving heat, water, temperature, and mechanical action to prepare the plant material for digestion. Since it doesn’t use acids or bases to break down cellulose, it avoids chemical use and decreases waste materials.

Mascoma can make cellulosic ethanol out of any non-grain feedstock like switchgrass, corn stover, wood chips, waste wood material.

What are Mascoma’s Plans for Commericalization?

Mascoma is building a demonstration facility in New York, and hopes to have it operating by end of the year. The company is looking at 2010 or beyond before commercial scale facilities are operating.

Mascoma, like Coskata, is backed by Khosla Ventures, and has raised about $90 million in investments.

Is Mascoma Competing with Coskata for Biofuel Supremecy?

During a conference call today, Mary Beth Stanek of GM said that Coskata and Mascoma aren’t really competing with one another, since they offer complimentary approaches to producing ethanol. Bruce Jamerson commented that they’re glad GM is investing in both Coskata and Mascoma because there is such a demand for low greenhouse gas fuels.

How does Mascoma’s Ethanol Compare?

Mascoma said their fuel would incur approximately $1.00 to $1.50 per gallon production cost, completive with gasoline.

GM said they’ve thoroughly evaluated Mascoma’s environmental metrics, which include:

  • Greenhouse gas savings: 90-95% reduction when compared to gasoline.
  • Commercial stage water use: 2-3 gallons water per gallon ethanol produced (compared to Coskata’s 1 gallon).
  • Commercial stage net energy balance: around 1:8-10 (8 to 10 units of energy produced for each put in). Mascoma says they’re currently getting an energy return of 1:5.5 in the lab.

Why Does GM Care so much About Cellulosic Ethanol?

It’s no mystery why GM is interested. They’ve already got 4 million Flex Fuel vehicles (those that can run on 85% ethanol) on the road, and any effort to rapidly commercialize cellulosic ethanol will help them in the long term.

For more on this topic, see GM’s Grand Plan For Solving America’s Oil Dependence.

Update: Mascoma receives $10 million in equity investment from Marathon Oil.

Posts Related to Cellulosic Ethanol, GM, and Coskata:






About the Author

In a past life, Clayton was a professional blogger and editor of Gas 2.0, Important Media’s blog covering the future of sustainable transportation. He was also the Managing Editor for GO Media, the predecessor to Important Media.

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  • Adam

    The “mild acid pretreatment” is probably with sulphuric acid which no one wants to admit is now well over $400/t and is in seriously short supply. These guys are probably doing their calculations with prices from two years ago at $20 to $40/t.

  • Adam

    The “mild acid pretreatment” is probably with sulphuric acid which no one wants to admit is now well over $400/t and is in seriously short supply. These guys are probably doing their calculations with prices from two years ago at $20 to $40/t.

  • It’s a bad patch, but at least it doesn’t cut into our food resources. Now all we have to do is find a way to make refrigeration suits cheaper. Oh and make lighter weight oxygen tanks.

  • It’s a bad patch, but at least it doesn’t cut into our food resources. Now all we have to do is find a way to make refrigeration suits cheaper. Oh and make lighter weight oxygen tanks.

  • It’s about time. I think that after this recession efficiency is going to be dominant.

  • It’s about time. I think that after this recession efficiency is going to be dominant.

  • CSG

    Cellulosic ethanol is a necessary and required step toward independence from foreign oil. Not to be confused with the current production methods for ethanol which uses food crops (call those a baby step?). Even though most of the outcries against ethanol are wrongly accusing it of single-handedly causing high food prices and shortages (and $4 a gallon gas had nothing to do with that?!? wake up folks). I agree that food should not be used for fuel but we need to start somewhere. Now we know that cellulosic is just around the corner so any problems we currently have with ethanol will soon be gone.

    The next step should be 3 fuel sources for our transportation needs 1. Renewable fuels like Ethanol and biodiesel. 2. Hydrogen fuel cells, and 3. Battery Electric cars.

    Ultimately only the last 2 will be used as battery technology increases mileage and hydrogen infrastructure is built out across the country. Commuters and daily/family use would be battery electric vehicles. Public transportation, services like police, fire and ambulance, delivery vehicles and taxis would all use hydrogen fuel cells. These vehicles need potentially unlimited mileage and batteries may not be the best fit for that (not this century anyway).

    This last step will likely take more than 20 to 40 years to complete though so we need cellulosic ethanol now to start supplanting foreign oil and tide us over till the #2 and #3 technologies can take over the full burden.

  • CSG

    Cellulosic ethanol is a necessary and required step toward independence from foreign oil. Not to be confused with the current production methods for ethanol which uses food crops (call those a baby step?). Even though most of the outcries against ethanol are wrongly accusing it of single-handedly causing high food prices and shortages (and $4 a gallon gas had nothing to do with that?!? wake up folks). I agree that food should not be used for fuel but we need to start somewhere. Now we know that cellulosic is just around the corner so any problems we currently have with ethanol will soon be gone.

    The next step should be 3 fuel sources for our transportation needs 1. Renewable fuels like Ethanol and biodiesel. 2. Hydrogen fuel cells, and 3. Battery Electric cars.

    Ultimately only the last 2 will be used as battery technology increases mileage and hydrogen infrastructure is built out across the country. Commuters and daily/family use would be battery electric vehicles. Public transportation, services like police, fire and ambulance, delivery vehicles and taxis would all use hydrogen fuel cells. These vehicles need potentially unlimited mileage and batteries may not be the best fit for that (not this century anyway).

    This last step will likely take more than 20 to 40 years to complete though so we need cellulosic ethanol now to start supplanting foreign oil and tide us over till the #2 and #3 technologies can take over the full burden.

  • This is great news. I know BP is also interested in this and recently BP gave a $500 million grant to Berkley and University of Illinois for Biofuel research. I feel that fuel prices will come down pretty dramatically (not gasoline) in the future because there is hell of a lot of research going on in these areas and I can see that biofuel and hydrogen fuel are going to be the main competitors to replace gasoline. In fact, according to this website, http://www.water4gas-scam.com, it is now possible to convert any petrol or diesel car to run on hydrogen. What I like about this is that you use hydrogen/oxyhydrogen to compliment gasoline which can result in as much as 50% increase of gas mileage. Whichever method it is, as long as it’s cheap and green, you can’t complain!

  • This is great news. I know BP is also interested in this and recently BP gave a $500 million grant to Berkley and University of Illinois for Biofuel research. I feel that fuel prices will come down pretty dramatically (not gasoline) in the future because there is hell of a lot of research going on in these areas and I can see that biofuel and hydrogen fuel are going to be the main competitors to replace gasoline. In fact, according to this website, http://www.water4gas-scam.com, it is now possible to convert any petrol or diesel car to run on hydrogen. What I like about this is that you use hydrogen/oxyhydrogen to compliment gasoline which can result in as much as 50% increase of gas mileage. Whichever method it is, as long as it’s cheap and green, you can’t complain!

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  • Maris

    It is not the first cellulosic ethanol plant in the World!!!

    The first was in the Russia, which starts to produce wood ethanol in 1997, but using different technology.

  • Maris

    It is not the first cellulosic ethanol plant in the World!!!

    The first was in the Russia, which starts to produce wood ethanol in 1997, but using different technology.

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