Cellulosic Ethanol Primer: Let’s Call it “Celluline”

 

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Sheesh. It seems that everybody and their brothers are ethanol experts these days. But what drives me nuts is that when people are talking about ethanol, they don’t seem to know what type of ethanol they’re talking about.

It’s sad because the widespread misinformation and misunderstanding is killing popular opinion for biofuels in general right now and, in particular, mercilessly destroying the good name of the second generation of ethanol — cellulosic ethanol.

The truth of the matter is that cellulosic ethanol will be made from non-food sources (miscanthus, switchgrass, wood waste, and even garbage) that can be grown on marginal land or is already a waste byproduct of society.

The production of cellulosic ethanol could have huge benefits beyond energy independence:





Q: So, If cellulosic ethanol has so much promise, why is it being beaten down by public opinion before its even left the starting gate?

A: Because only a very small portion of society actually understands that there’s a huge chasm of difference between cellulosic ethanol, and ethanol made from corn or petroleum.

If we start our analysis at the beginning, I believe one of the main barriers to public acceptance of cellulosic ethanol is its name — it’s meaningless, incomprehensible and virtually unpronounceable to anybody but scientists, policy wonks and the companies that are driving the change.

As a result, it gets lumped into a broad “ethanol” category, because at least the word “ethanol” is pronounceable and generally understood by somebody not completely geeked out, or on the money making side of the venture.

So, here and now, I’m proposing that we stop calling it cellulosic ethanol and start calling it “celluline.” I know my name has no basis in science or nomenclature whatsoever, but who cares? As long as everybody can pronounce it and it has a specific meaning with specific associations, let’s go for it.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, what the hell is celluline anyways and why is it so different from corn ethanol or petroleum ethanol?

Any kind of plant out there has four basic microscopic building blocks: lignin, cellulose, starch, and sugar. On a microscopic level, these four building blocks are all made of the same compounds and atoms, just arranged in different ways.

  • Lignin: Made up of super long and complex microscopic organic chains that take forever to decompose. A tree that’s been rotting in the forest for hundreds of years is mostly leftover lignin. No animals can digest lignin, but a very few types of microbes can.
  • Cellulose: Made up of “kind of long” organic chains that are not nearly as complex as lignin. Grasses are mostly cellulose. Humans can’t digest cellulose. Some animals, like cows, have specialized microbes in their guts that turn the cellulose into starches and sugars (see below) which the animal can then digest.
  • Starch: Very short chains of linked sugar molecules. Humans can digest starch. Think corn kernels.
  • Sugar: Very simple single or double molecules of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen. Almost anything can digest sugars.

These four building blocks are put together in the plant using energy from the sun, carbon from the atmosphere and nutrients from the soil.

Currently, most of the ethanol in the US is made from corn and a small portion is made from petroleum. This is the way its been for a long time. It seems obvious to me why making ethanol from petroleum is a bad idea, so I won’t cover that.

Corn ethanol is considered a first generation ethanol. A corn kernel is 50% starch when dry. It’s really easy to make ethanol from starch, but not so good because of the food vs. fuel debate and the fact that only a very small portion of the plant is being used to make the fuel.

On the other hand, celluline is made by taking plants with lots of cellulose and lignin (i.e. non-food plants) and turning them into ethanol. This process uses most of the plant with comparatively little waste.

So how is celluline made?

In a nutshell, making celluline is much like making beer (or any other alcohol for that matter). Sugars and starches are fermented into ethanol following these steps:

  • Harvested plant material arrives at the celluline facility.
  • Plant material is pretreated to remove lignin and enrich cellulose. This usually involves some amount of heat and/or acid.
  • The left-over cellulose needs to be turned into fermentable sugars. This involves enzymes (reaction accelerators). The enzymes break the cellulose chains into small sugar bits.
  • The resulting sugars are fermented into ethanol by microbes including bacteria and fungi.

There you go. The underlying celluline process is not hard to get a grasp on. All you need to remember are two sets of four to be able to talk the talk:

  • Lignin, cellulose, starch and sugar
  • Harvest, pretreatment, enzymes, and fermentation

Hope that helps. Obviously there’re a myriad of new developments and company trade secrets that alter the process some, but in the end it doesn’t really deviate from the general outline given above by much.

Right now, celluline is in the research and development stage for the most part, but there are several companies working to start commercial production sometime in the next year, and many companies that are opening pilot test plants in the same time frame.

So, my friends, it won’t be very long before second generation ethanol is replacing corn ethanol with all its promise. In the process, I truly hope that we’ll get rid of the “cellulosic ethanol” tongue twister of a name and adopt something else that clearly indicates the difference between first and second generation ethanol.

Obviously I’m partial to “celluline,” but I could probably be persuaded to get behind another equally simple and catchy name. Anybody have any suggestions?

Posts Related to Cellulosic Ethanol and Biofuels:

Image Credit: Photo from petrr‘s Flickr photostream. Used under a Creative Commons license.






About the Author

Not your traditional car guy.

  • does celluline burn the same as corn ethanol? If I purchase a ‘flex fuel’ vechicle that can burn E85 also burn celluline when it comes out?

    does celluline require a different kind of refinery than a corn ethanol? so can the same corn ethanol refinery also be a celluline refinery?

  • does celluline burn the same as corn ethanol? If I purchase a ‘flex fuel’ vechicle that can burn E85 also burn celluline when it comes out?

    does celluline require a different kind of refinery than a corn ethanol? so can the same corn ethanol refinery also be a celluline refinery?

  • GMnext.com has released a video that clears up some misconceptions that consumers have about ethanol. It’s the first in a series exploring different alternative fuels and propulsion systems. You can check it out here:

    http://www.gmnext.com/Details/Videos.aspx?id=6e896fde-63e7-4f15-a8b7-406ee0c3006a

  • GMnext.com has released a video that clears up some misconceptions that consumers have about ethanol. It’s the first in a series exploring different alternative fuels and propulsion systems. You can check it out here:

    http://www.gmnext.com/Details/Videos.aspx?id=6e896fde-63e7-4f15-a8b7-406ee0c3006a

  • Nick Chambers

    @adam

    Chemically, celluline is exactly the same as corn ethanol, so, yes, it will work exactly the same in a flex fuel vehicle.

    It does require a different kind of refinery than corn ethanol, but not that much different.

    Corn ethanol refineries would not be able to process celluline without modification, but celluline refineries could process corn into celluline.

    In fact, celluline refineries could process the entire corn plant into ethanol, versus a corn ethanol plant is only capable of processing the corn kernel into ethanol.

  • jc

    I am a recruiter retained by a global leader in the bioenergy field. We are currently searching for an R&D Chemical Engineer who has experience in cellulosic conversion of biomass into ethanol to contribute to the development of “celluline”! It has been difficult finding anyone with this experience. Anyone interested in this exciting and emerging technology?!!

  • jc

    I am a recruiter retained by a global leader in the bioenergy field. We are currently searching for an R&D Chemical Engineer who has experience in cellulosic conversion of biomass into ethanol to contribute to the development of “celluline”! It has been difficult finding anyone with this experience. Anyone interested in this exciting and emerging technology?!!

  • Uncle B

    How cum always a fuel for the uber-low thermal efficiency spark ignition engines? At school we learned diesels, using higher compression ignition were up to 40 percent!! more efficient – and European light diesels in cars there deliver this kind of efficiency, often getting better mileage numbers than domestic gas engines, yet we stubbornly pursue low compression spark ignition fuels in spite of the obvious advantage diesel ignition engines offer! Some bio-diesel fuels are totally non-toxic, don’t explode in accidents, and since they are organic they are safe even in large spillages!

  • Uncle B

    How cum always a fuel for the uber-low thermal efficiency spark ignition engines? At school we learned diesels, using higher compression ignition were up to 40 percent!! more efficient – and European light diesels in cars there deliver this kind of efficiency, often getting better mileage numbers than domestic gas engines, yet we stubbornly pursue low compression spark ignition fuels in spite of the obvious advantage diesel ignition engines offer! Some bio-diesel fuels are totally non-toxic, don’t explode in accidents, and since they are organic they are safe even in large spillages!

  • Was thinking just the other day about the tonnage of sugar and starch thet is sent to the landfill from the restaurants and buffets here in Las Vegas.

    Turning this stream into fuel makes so much sense! after all, the feedstock has already been paid for, and is now a waste product that owners must pay to have removed.

    I like names like Garbahol or Trashahol for this kind of energy recycling.

    Don’t forget the remaining pulp can be put back into the las as organic fertilizer, or burned for additional process heat.

  • Was thinking just the other day about the tonnage of sugar and starch thet is sent to the landfill from the restaurants and buffets here in Las Vegas.

    Turning this stream into fuel makes so much sense! after all, the feedstock has already been paid for, and is now a waste product that owners must pay to have removed.

    I like names like Garbahol or Trashahol for this kind of energy recycling.

    Don’t forget the remaining pulp can be put back into the las as organic fertilizer, or burned for additional process heat.

  • Nick, “Celluline” is brilliant. Save for the confusion it may cause to those familiar with fuel cell technologies, I don’t think it could be given a better name. My best try? “Grassoline”. 🙂

  • Nick, “Celluline” is brilliant. Save for the confusion it may cause to those familiar with fuel cell technologies, I don’t think it could be given a better name. My best try? “Grassoline”. 🙂

  • jpm100

    @Uncle B,

    Diesel is more efficient cycle. But requires a more substantial engine to be durable which drives cost. Also the emissions are much more difficult to handle. It requires substantially more emissions equipment. Both of these things drive cost. Depending on the engine size and performance that could be up to $4000-$5000.

    Also diesel doesn’t help has much in reducing the use of oil. So whatever interests you, less C02 emissions, less dependence on foreign oil, or whatever, cellulosic ethanol goes much further.

  • jpm100

    @Uncle B,

    Diesel is more efficient cycle. But requires a more substantial engine to be durable which drives cost. Also the emissions are much more difficult to handle. It requires substantially more emissions equipment. Both of these things drive cost. Depending on the engine size and performance that could be up to $4000-$5000.

    Also diesel doesn’t help has much in reducing the use of oil. So whatever interests you, less C02 emissions, less dependence on foreign oil, or whatever, cellulosic ethanol goes much further.

  • jpm100

    BTW, I like the name grassoline because it explains the source.

    However, my personal suggestion would be cellunol. There’s still merit in exploiting the fact this in not mostly derived from hydrocarbons. Celluline or grassoline might imply that.

    Personally I think ‘ethanol’ was used by name and not ‘corn ethanol’ or ‘food for fuel’ was to directly demonize ethanol. Especially when cellulosic ethanol became substantially more viable. I mean key announcements like Coskata’s came in January and two months later ‘ethanol’ was being blamed for all the world’s ills.

    Things like the fact we had record high exports to satisfy a weather related crop shortage in the rest of the world was sort of left out of the picture.

  • jpm100

    BTW, I like the name grassoline because it explains the source.

    However, my personal suggestion would be cellunol. There’s still merit in exploiting the fact this in not mostly derived from hydrocarbons. Celluline or grassoline might imply that.

    Personally I think ‘ethanol’ was used by name and not ‘corn ethanol’ or ‘food for fuel’ was to directly demonize ethanol. Especially when cellulosic ethanol became substantially more viable. I mean key announcements like Coskata’s came in January and two months later ‘ethanol’ was being blamed for all the world’s ills.

    Things like the fact we had record high exports to satisfy a weather related crop shortage in the rest of the world was sort of left out of the picture.

  • Nick Chambers

    Mike,

    Thanks! I like grassoline too… and cellunol for that matter (thanks jpm). Only confusion I see about using the word grass in the name would be that sometimes it’ll be made of grass and sometimes it’ll be made of garbage 🙂 Same goes for garbahol and trashahol.

    And cellunol might be too “sciency” for most folks. Kind of sad, I know, but it’s the truth.

    I like the creativity! Thanks for your contributions!

  • Chris Hill

    Call it what you will, this stuff is still hygroscopic and has considerably lower energy density than other fuels. It doesn’t doesn’t do well in pipelines and adds burden to railroad and highway tanker transportation. If the energy and capital equipment and logistic expense required to manufacture the stuff was low and the available BTUs were high, the free market would have already beaten a path to its door. But the math just isn’t there. Without major federal subsidies and mandates, compounded by high fuel prices, there would have been little interest. Go hug a tree if you wish, but does Grassahol lower the cost of transportation? You know better.

  • Chris Hill

    Call it what you will, this stuff is still hygroscopic and has considerably lower energy density than other fuels. It doesn’t doesn’t do well in pipelines and adds burden to railroad and highway tanker transportation. If the energy and capital equipment and logistic expense required to manufacture the stuff was low and the available BTUs were high, the free market would have already beaten a path to its door. But the math just isn’t there. Without major federal subsidies and mandates, compounded by high fuel prices, there would have been little interest. Go hug a tree if you wish, but does Grassahol lower the cost of transportation? You know better.

  • Nick Chambers

    Chris said:

    “Go hug a tree if you wish, but does Grassahol lower the cost of transportation? You know better.”

    Chris,

    Why does it always have to degenerate into a variation of “Go f–k yourself”? And, no, I don’t know better, and neither do you…

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  • LonnieB

    Amen, Brother Nick! I am with you!

    Celluline is definately the way to go with ethanol. Gross disinformation perpetrated by the auto and big oil industries, and happily spread by our agenda-driven news manglers has created a stubborn ignorance of the facts.

    Our oh-so-honest (heavy sarcasm) news media , along with Hollywierd Halfwits and MAD-ison Avenue have transformed a once fairly well informed American public into a garbage-fed, short attention span, whining brat society that typically no longer bothers to look beneath the glossy surface of commercial and celebrity glitz.

    You may have read what I have posted a few times on various threads about my ethanol, no make that celluline-powered crate engine business and plans to raise switchgrass and/or Jerusalem artichokes for the celluline process.

    I am a celluline evangalist with an instantly inflated, portable soapbox on the subject. As far as I am concerned, failure to develop this, and other types of alternative fuels is downright unpatriotic.

    So..America, ignore the weasel politicians and pull your collective heads out of the agenda-driven news fraud’s anal opening, start acting like Americans and innovate. It’s the patriotic thing to do!

  • LonnieB

    Amen, Brother Nick! I am with you!

    Celluline is definately the way to go with ethanol. Gross disinformation perpetrated by the auto and big oil industries, and happily spread by our agenda-driven news manglers has created a stubborn ignorance of the facts.

    Our oh-so-honest (heavy sarcasm) news media , along with Hollywierd Halfwits and MAD-ison Avenue have transformed a once fairly well informed American public into a garbage-fed, short attention span, whining brat society that typically no longer bothers to look beneath the glossy surface of commercial and celebrity glitz.

    You may have read what I have posted a few times on various threads about my ethanol, no make that celluline-powered crate engine business and plans to raise switchgrass and/or Jerusalem artichokes for the celluline process.

    I am a celluline evangalist with an instantly inflated, portable soapbox on the subject. As far as I am concerned, failure to develop this, and other types of alternative fuels is downright unpatriotic.

    So..America, ignore the weasel politicians and pull your collective heads out of the agenda-driven news fraud’s anal opening, start acting like Americans and innovate. It’s the patriotic thing to do!

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  • George Mitton

    “I’m proposing that we stop calling it cellulosic ethanol and start calling it “celluline.” I know my name has no basis in science or nomenclature whatsoever, but who cares?”

    I care. Plenty of cleantech commentators already refer to it as cellulosic ethanol and I’d prefer not to confuse the issue by introducing a new term which, by your own admission, has no scientific basis. If I need to explain the difference between cellulosic ethanol and conventional ethanol I use the phrase ‘ethanol derived from non-food sources’. Slightly long-winded perhaps, but it gets the point across without introducing new jargon.

  • George Mitton

    “I’m proposing that we stop calling it cellulosic ethanol and start calling it “celluline.” I know my name has no basis in science or nomenclature whatsoever, but who cares?”

    I care. Plenty of cleantech commentators already refer to it as cellulosic ethanol and I’d prefer not to confuse the issue by introducing a new term which, by your own admission, has no scientific basis. If I need to explain the difference between cellulosic ethanol and conventional ethanol I use the phrase ‘ethanol derived from non-food sources’. Slightly long-winded perhaps, but it gets the point across without introducing new jargon.

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