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Published on October 30th, 2008 | by Nick Chambers

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Ethanol Innovation Turns Wood Into Sugar at Room Temperature


In what could be a major breakthrough for second generation ethanol production, German researchers have developed a new method that easily converts raw wood into sugar using a liquid ionic salt bath at room temperature followed by reaction with a solid acid resin.

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The process works by chopping the complex raw wood molecules into smaller and simpler bits — the end product being single sugar molecules. The method can also be used on other second generation ethanol feedstocks such as grass straw. Once you’ve made the sugar, the rest of the process of making ethanol is as simple as making beer — literally.

The current conventional method of making second generation cellulosic ethanol — or, “celluline,” as I like to call it — is actually very energy intensive and uses harsh chemicals to digest the woody materials in very strong acids and/or at extremely high temperature.

This new method, developed by the research group of professor Ferdi Schüth at the Max-Planck-Institut für Kohlenforschung, foregoes those energy intensive methods and works at room temperature.

Right now, the major stumbling block for the new method is that the materials used to make the salt bath are expensive. But, as with everything, I imagine that when used at a commercial scale those costs would fall dramatically.

A while back, fellow gas 2.0 writer Alex Felsinger, wrote a post about a new new energy-efficient process that turns sugar directly into gasoline. Seems to me that if we were to marry these two processes, we might actually have the holy grail of our future biofuel transportation needs. Are those two groups talking?

So, put the fight about corn ethanol, energy efficiency, energy independence and food supply aside for a moment and take a long view of the future of biofuels. I really don’t mean that facetiously, it’s just that I believe we so often get caught up in the issues surrounding corn ethanol and making fuel from food crops that we tend to write off biofuels as a flop.

In reality, corn ethanol is a stop gap to help us develop an infrastructure for the second generation of non-food biofuels like cellulosic ethanol. I just hope that these seemingly disjointed groups of researchers start talking to one another and combining these constant breakthroughs into a coherent and commercializable product so that we can move on with our energy future.

Image Credit: superiphi‘s Flickr photostream under a Creative Commons License

Source: Renewable Energy World (via Biofuels Digest)




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About the Author

Not your traditional car guy.



  • Brian

    “Once you’ve made the sugar, the rest of the process of making ethanol is as simple as making beer — literally.”

    Try putting beer in an ethanol-burning engine and tell me how that goes. It has to be distilled first, which is decidedly more complex than making beer.

  • Brian

    “Once you’ve made the sugar, the rest of the process of making ethanol is as simple as making beer — literally.”

    Try putting beer in an ethanol-burning engine and tell me how that goes. It has to be distilled first, which is decidedly more complex than making beer.

  • Nick Chambers

    Brian,

    My man. I understand the desire to nitpick (I fall for that myself sometimes) but I believe you’re missing the point of my point. On a relative scale of “things that are difficult to accomplish during the production of cellulosic ethanol” the “fermentation/distillation of sugar” part is at the bottom that list — considering the basics of these techniques have been known for centuries.

    As a fervent homebrewer, I do understand your point, but think that if that’s what you picked up on from my article you may have missed how big this development truly could be.

  • Brian

    No, no… I get the main point. (And hey, nice to interact with a fellow homebrewer.)

    Getting good sugar conversion from the feedstock (especially from cellulose) is the trickier and least efficient part of the process now. This news is certainly good news, and a step toward lowering the overall costs. Being from Maine, a place with plenty of wood product waste, this could be big for us down the road.

    It’s certainly a better long-term objective than corn ethanol, and I hope your bit about the “holy grail” comes to fruition one day.

  • Brian

    No, no… I get the main point. (And hey, nice to interact with a fellow homebrewer.)

    Getting good sugar conversion from the feedstock (especially from cellulose) is the trickier and least efficient part of the process now. This news is certainly good news, and a step toward lowering the overall costs. Being from Maine, a place with plenty of wood product waste, this could be big for us down the road.

    It’s certainly a better long-term objective than corn ethanol, and I hope your bit about the “holy grail” comes to fruition one day.

  • http://thealternativeenergyinvestor.blogspot.com Ray The Money Man

    As long as it is Cellulosic you guys have my vote all the way.

    Great Post!

  • http://thealternativeenergyinvestor.blogspot.com Ray The Money Man

    As long as it is Cellulosic you guys have my vote all the way.

    Great Post!

  • Anon

    Great development. But I would rather have efforts put towards non CO2 emitting holy grails.

  • Anon

    Great development. But I would rather have efforts put towards non CO2 emitting holy grails.

  • David

    Anon, trees eat CO2 out of the air and release O2, then the wood is converted into ethanol which releases CO2 and eats O2. It’s a cycle – no net CO2 is “emitted.”

  • David

    Anon, trees eat CO2 out of the air and release O2, then the wood is converted into ethanol which releases CO2 and eats O2. It’s a cycle – no net CO2 is “emitted.”

  • Seerak

    Bah. If this has any promise of actually working economically, the envirocult will turn against it, just as they have against wind power. After all, they have already crippled the logging industry in many places, and that’s *before* this potential added demand for cellulosic biomass even exists.

    Instead of competing with food uses, this will boost demand for lumber and its byproducts, putting it in the sights of the “old-growth” lovers.

    And lastly, even if they can find enough non-lumber cellulose sources, the previous commenter is already signalling the plan of attack to be used in that case: this isn’t a “non-CO2″ pathway.

    It doesn’t matter that this pathway involves CO2 taken out of the atmosphere by the growing woody plants first; the envirocult isn’t about “nature” so much as they are against human activity.

    Their actions make a lot more sense when seen in that light.

  • Dennis

    Sugar, alchol and yeast; if I understand correctly these are basic requirements for ethanol. MIT developed a powerful yeast product(?) that increases th ealchol content to 20% vice the natural level of 10%. This 10% stoping point is a fact of nature. yeast turns sugar into alchol then distroyes itself when the content reaches 10%. This is why ethanol is so very inefficient. The MIT discovery doubles the power of ethanol.

    The question is is this energy enhancer being used and does it do the job with this new process?

  • Seerak

    Bah. If this has any promise of actually working economically, the envirocult will turn against it, just as they have against wind power. After all, they have already crippled the logging industry in many places, and that’s *before* this potential added demand for cellulosic biomass even exists.

    Instead of competing with food uses, this will boost demand for lumber and its byproducts, putting it in the sights of the “old-growth” lovers.

    And lastly, even if they can find enough non-lumber cellulose sources, the previous commenter is already signalling the plan of attack to be used in that case: this isn’t a “non-CO2″ pathway.

    It doesn’t matter that this pathway involves CO2 taken out of the atmosphere by the growing woody plants first; the envirocult isn’t about “nature” so much as they are against human activity.

    Their actions make a lot more sense when seen in that light.

  • Dennis

    Sugar, alchol and yeast; if I understand correctly these are basic requirements for ethanol. MIT developed a powerful yeast product(?) that increases th ealchol content to 20% vice the natural level of 10%. This 10% stoping point is a fact of nature. yeast turns sugar into alchol then distroyes itself when the content reaches 10%. This is why ethanol is so very inefficient. The MIT discovery doubles the power of ethanol.

    The question is is this energy enhancer being used and does it do the job with this new process?

  • Dan

    But what about spotted owls?

  • Dan

    But what about spotted owls?

  • http://smartflix.com/store/video/585/Biodiesel-How-To-1-The-Veggie-Fuel-Video Travis from SmartFlix

    I wonder how esoteric the chemical reactions are – is this something that will only be done at an industrial level, or might we woodworkers get to convert the sawdust under our tablesaws and lathes into fuel in our garage, like the biodiesel / fryolater-scavengers do?

  • http://smartflix.com/store/video/585/Biodiesel-How-To-1-The-Veggie-Fuel-Video Travis from SmartFlix

    I wonder how esoteric the chemical reactions are – is this something that will only be done at an industrial level, or might we woodworkers get to convert the sawdust under our tablesaws and lathes into fuel in our garage, like the biodiesel / fryolater-scavengers do?

  • J G

    “In reality, corn ethanol is a stop gap…”

    Nothing receiving a government subsidy is a stop gap. It’s here forever!

  • J G

    “In reality, corn ethanol is a stop gap…”

    Nothing receiving a government subsidy is a stop gap. It’s here forever!

  • Harold

    This is great news. Unlike one reader, I worry about non-CO2 producing technology. The experimental hydrogen fuel cell cars produce water vapor, a green house gas hundereds of times more efficent at trapping heat than CO2. Thus hundereds of fuel cell cars = thousands of combustion engine cars in terms of greenhouse effect.

    Of course with the recent rapid global cooling we may want more greenhouse gas in the near future.

  • Harold

    This is great news. Unlike one reader, I worry about non-CO2 producing technology. The experimental hydrogen fuel cell cars produce water vapor, a green house gas hundereds of times more efficent at trapping heat than CO2. Thus hundereds of fuel cell cars = thousands of combustion engine cars in terms of greenhouse effect.

    Of course with the recent rapid global cooling we may want more greenhouse gas in the near future.

  • Jon Ravin

    Query: how much wood does this take to make the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline? A cord of wood would make how much, say? I’d like to get a feel for how much forest land would be needed for US gasoline needs – I hope it won’t have to cover Canada!

  • Jon Ravin

    Query: how much wood does this take to make the equivalent of a gallon of gasoline? A cord of wood would make how much, say? I’d like to get a feel for how much forest land would be needed for US gasoline needs – I hope it won’t have to cover Canada!

  • chsw

    This wood to sugar process sounds promising.

    And spotted owls are a bit stringy and scrawny. Their meat has to be braised for a long time, or else they have to be boiled for soup.

    Spotted owls live in barns, store signs, inside house roofs, etc. They are adaptable. Bring them to NYC so they can help reduce the mouse problem.

  • chsw

    This wood to sugar process sounds promising.

    And spotted owls are a bit stringy and scrawny. Their meat has to be braised for a long time, or else they have to be boiled for soup.

    Spotted owls live in barns, store signs, inside house roofs, etc. They are adaptable. Bring them to NYC so they can help reduce the mouse problem.

  • George

    Can this process convert junk mail into ethanol?

  • George

    Can this process convert junk mail into ethanol?

  • Alpha one

    I wish someone would stick a fork in this “cellulosic ethanol”. It’s BS. The whole experiment fails because the TRANSPORT of the materials will consume more energy than can be produced from the materials. WEIGHT! How much does an acre of “switch grass” weigh? How much does it cost to cut? How much production can you get out of it? You think the cuttings from an acre of corn are worth more than the corn? We’ve already seen what “unintended consequences” we get from idiot government mandates in the free market. And to all those with perpetual heartburn over “globull warming” and the “vast increase” in CO2, get a life. 38 parts per hundred thousand IS NOT ENOUGH TO CAUSE GLOBULL WARMING.

  • Alpha one

    I wish someone would stick a fork in this “cellulosic ethanol”. It’s BS. The whole experiment fails because the TRANSPORT of the materials will consume more energy than can be produced from the materials. WEIGHT! How much does an acre of “switch grass” weigh? How much does it cost to cut? How much production can you get out of it? You think the cuttings from an acre of corn are worth more than the corn? We’ve already seen what “unintended consequences” we get from idiot government mandates in the free market. And to all those with perpetual heartburn over “globull warming” and the “vast increase” in CO2, get a life. 38 parts per hundred thousand IS NOT ENOUGH TO CAUSE GLOBULL WARMING.

  • Jose

    You people just don’t get it. If you want to significantly reduce the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere and causing climate change (such as the cooling during the last 10 years) the simplest solution is to replace the coal used in thermoelectric power plants with saw grass, agricultural wastes, sawmill wastes, yard wastes, waste grease from restaurants and lots of timber, especially the dry brush that feeds those California wild fires. The energy value from all this stuff would all go into creating electrical energy and there would be no energy waste such as in all the hair-brained schemes to produce ethanol from cellulosic materials, and, in addition, no chemicals would be involved. You ain’t gonna get more energy in the form of ethanol out of these processes than there is already in the starting cellulosic material.

    Of course, we would soon run out of available cellulosic stuff as there is a limit to the amount of cellulosic material that we can grow sustainably in a year without depletion of cellulosic stock, regardless of whether it is used to feed thermoelectric power plants or used as a substrate in processes to produce ethanol. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the detrimental effects that growing and harvesting that much cellulosic material will have on depleting the soil of nutrients, reducing water tables and degrading streams, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Our farm lands should be used exclusively for producing food products and our forests should be used to produce lumber for building homes.

  • Jose

    You people just don’t get it. If you want to significantly reduce the amount of CO2 entering the atmosphere and causing climate change (such as the cooling during the last 10 years) the simplest solution is to replace the coal used in thermoelectric power plants with saw grass, agricultural wastes, sawmill wastes, yard wastes, waste grease from restaurants and lots of timber, especially the dry brush that feeds those California wild fires. The energy value from all this stuff would all go into creating electrical energy and there would be no energy waste such as in all the hair-brained schemes to produce ethanol from cellulosic materials, and, in addition, no chemicals would be involved. You ain’t gonna get more energy in the form of ethanol out of these processes than there is already in the starting cellulosic material.

    Of course, we would soon run out of available cellulosic stuff as there is a limit to the amount of cellulosic material that we can grow sustainably in a year without depletion of cellulosic stock, regardless of whether it is used to feed thermoelectric power plants or used as a substrate in processes to produce ethanol. And this doesn’t even take into consideration the detrimental effects that growing and harvesting that much cellulosic material will have on depleting the soil of nutrients, reducing water tables and degrading streams, rivers and the Gulf of Mexico. Our farm lands should be used exclusively for producing food products and our forests should be used to produce lumber for building homes.

  • richard katz

    pop sci.

    tell us how the guy converts wood into alcohol, exactly? that’s okay; just tell us how you get the cellulosic bonds broken down to glucose. cellulose – polymeric glucose, but how do you break cellulose into glucose, exactly? come on. no bullshit. how’d you do that, dude? you tell me that, and i’m a believer. ie WTF is your cellulase? No handwaving now; you got some of that in a test tube, some little white powder or other, or whatever? come ON, man, you got that activity? man, I hope you do, if you do, you would be the MAN!!! or woman. whhatever.

  • richard katz

    pop sci.

    tell us how the guy converts wood into alcohol, exactly? that’s okay; just tell us how you get the cellulosic bonds broken down to glucose. cellulose – polymeric glucose, but how do you break cellulose into glucose, exactly? come on. no bullshit. how’d you do that, dude? you tell me that, and i’m a believer. ie WTF is your cellulase? No handwaving now; you got some of that in a test tube, some little white powder or other, or whatever? come ON, man, you got that activity? man, I hope you do, if you do, you would be the MAN!!! or woman. whhatever.

  • peer

    This is neat science. But it is considerably easier to simply drill for oil in santa barbara and in alaska and off the eastern and western seaboard and in north dakota than it is to pay money to build new plants to make a substance that does not burn very well in cars. The crazy self imposed restrictions put on industry so they can not get OIL for the USA by politicians produces a false market for energy and hurts the country drastically.

    We are not running out of oil. the earth is getting colder ( it snowed in october over most of the east coast of the usa and in London for the first time in over 100 years) and we are being forced to become poor because of government restrictions on energy production at home, and we sent ten times the cost of the iraq war overseas in the last two years in oil payments to foreigners. I am tired of wearing a hair shirt for politicians who dont have my best interests, and i see no reason why the public should be forced to support giving energy credits to alternative energy producers who are otherwise uneconomic when there is plenty of energy at home

  • peer

    This is neat science. But it is considerably easier to simply drill for oil in santa barbara and in alaska and off the eastern and western seaboard and in north dakota than it is to pay money to build new plants to make a substance that does not burn very well in cars. The crazy self imposed restrictions put on industry so they can not get OIL for the USA by politicians produces a false market for energy and hurts the country drastically.

    We are not running out of oil. the earth is getting colder ( it snowed in october over most of the east coast of the usa and in London for the first time in over 100 years) and we are being forced to become poor because of government restrictions on energy production at home, and we sent ten times the cost of the iraq war overseas in the last two years in oil payments to foreigners. I am tired of wearing a hair shirt for politicians who dont have my best interests, and i see no reason why the public should be forced to support giving energy credits to alternative energy producers who are otherwise uneconomic when there is plenty of energy at home

  • peer

    This is neat science. But it is considerably easier to simply drill for oil in santa barbara and in alaska and off the eastern and western seaboard and in north dakota than it is to pay money to build new plants to make a substance that does not burn very well in cars. The crazy self imposed restrictions put on industry so they can not get OIL for the USA by politicians produces a false market for energy and hurts the country drastically.

    We are not running out of oil. the earth is getting colder ( it snowed in october over most of the east coast of the usa and in London for the first time in over 100 years) and we are being forced to become poor because of government restrictions on energy production at home, and we sent ten times the cost of the iraq war overseas in the last two years in oil payments to foreigners. I am tired of wearing a hair shirt for politicians who dont have my best interests, and i see no reason why the public should be forced to support giving energy credits to alternative energy producers who are otherwise uneconomic when there is plenty of energy at home

  • Fred Brilla

    I usually do not get involved with writing comments about news stories as the story is usually very superficial as this one is. The ionic liquids are a really cool thing to use and have been in use for several years in cellulosic conversion in the labs. They are not and probably won’t be used commercially for some time to dissolve plant matter or biomass because they are extremely expensive and may be an environmental night mare. The usual ionic liquids for cellulose are not commercially available and must be made batch wise in the lab (yes, there are some commercially available, but, generally not for cellulose). There are other research groups actively researching ionic liquids for cellulose. A google search will quickly identify these others working in this area. Most current research groups are using dilute acid hydrolysis or an alkaline process similar to AFEX. All have their pluses and minuses.

    Also, the United States converted more corn grain to ethanol last year than any other year. The United States also exported more corn grain for feed and food than any other year last year. The ethanol from corn grain process produces 9 to 17 pounds of dried distillers grains per bushel of corn that is used as animal feed.

    Lets get off of middle east oil and quit paying the people that hate us over a billion dollars a day and get behind the biofuels. Even if corn grain to ethanol is a stepping stone, we need to have the fortitude to stick with it until we have cellulosic ethanol worked out and commercially feasible.

    Fred Brilla

  • Fred Brilla

    I usually do not get involved with writing comments about news stories as the story is usually very superficial as this one is. The ionic liquids are a really cool thing to use and have been in use for several years in cellulosic conversion in the labs. They are not and probably won’t be used commercially for some time to dissolve plant matter or biomass because they are extremely expensive and may be an environmental night mare. The usual ionic liquids for cellulose are not commercially available and must be made batch wise in the lab (yes, there are some commercially available, but, generally not for cellulose). There are other research groups actively researching ionic liquids for cellulose. A google search will quickly identify these others working in this area. Most current research groups are using dilute acid hydrolysis or an alkaline process similar to AFEX. All have their pluses and minuses.

    Also, the United States converted more corn grain to ethanol last year than any other year. The United States also exported more corn grain for feed and food than any other year last year. The ethanol from corn grain process produces 9 to 17 pounds of dried distillers grains per bushel of corn that is used as animal feed.

    Lets get off of middle east oil and quit paying the people that hate us over a billion dollars a day and get behind the biofuels. Even if corn grain to ethanol is a stepping stone, we need to have the fortitude to stick with it until we have cellulosic ethanol worked out and commercially feasible.

    Fred Brilla

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