New Ethanol Process Boosts Recoverable Energy By 2000%


With so much focus on electric cars these days, it can be easy to forget how much money and effort is being funneled into biofuels. Ethanol has gotten a bad rap in recent years, with everyone from conservative deficit hawks to liberal environmentalists deriding it as a dead end. But a new breakthrough from researchers at Michigan State University increases the amount of recoverable energy by about 2000%.

A Biofuel Breakthrough Of Epic Proportions

The new process uses bacteria and fermentation processes optimized to extract as much energy as possible from corn stover, the leftover stalk, stem, and husks from corn plants. This leftover farm waste is sometimes utilized as fodder, but just as often it goes to waste. Traditional biofuel processing methods have been able to extract just 3.5% to 4.5% of the recoverable energy.

But a new bioelectrochemical process pioneered by Gemma Reguera utilizes microbial electrolysis cells, or MEC’s, to break down and ferment ethanol feedstock. The difference is that this new procedure used carefully-selected fermantative bacteria that were optimized to deliver the most energy, the least waste, and to produce byproducts that could also boost recoverable energy. “Basically, each step we take is custom-designed to be optimal,” says Reguera. The first fermentation step alone boosts recoverable energy to the 35% to 40% range.

Meanwhile, the byproducts produce electricity, which is used to generate hydrogen to further boost the recoverable energy, up to 73%. Keep in mind, traditional processing methods gather, at best, 4.5% of recoverable energy. This even accounts for pre-treating the corn stover with an ammonia-based fiber expanding process pioneered by another researcher.

Don’t Call It A Comeback

Personally, I try to stay away from hyping up every ethanol “breakthrough” that floods my inbox, but this breakthrough really could make ethanol fuels not just practical, but dirt cheap as well. Boosting the output of recoverable energy by a factor of 20 would mean that biofuel makers just scraping by now would be able to increase output to unprecedented levels. America’s heartland, which is suffering the worst drought in almost 60 years, could become the thriving heart of a new American-based fuel industry if this breakthrough delivers the kind of performance the researchers claim. And I don’t have to tell you how important making our own fuel will be in the coming decades.

Could Reguera’s discovery lead a biofuel comeback?

Source: MSU News

About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.
  • John

    While this is a good development, ethanol is still a terrible idea. There are far too many people to sustainably use the Earth’s land (ecosystems) for growing plants to then convert into energy.

    • Pretend this is 5th grade math class and show your work. Save the unfounded claims for Fox News’ Facebook wall.

    • T Adkins

      this is just part of the model where people feel there wont be just one solution to address the problem. This is one of many things being worked on. So the research has been done and it seems to be a huge improvement over something they were already doing. So for how every much “yard waste” it takes to make one gallon of fuel or unit of energy they now get 20.

      Just one of many options to maybe fix where we are and now it is up to 20 times better. It isnt great it isnt the one big solution, but they took stuff that they would just burn or place in a landfill and are making usable energy, and doing this up to 20 times better.

      I would love to see what else anybody could do with this waste product

  • Marc P.

    If it transforms something we were going to throw away, fine.
    If it transforms something we were going to eat… not fine ! Period.

    • 1. this is a ridiculous statement, as I’ve already shown: Lurk more.
      2. Define “we”.
      3. How about we all cut back on beef 10%, and convert that billion or so TONS of animal feed into fuel? Or would that be too much pandering to the “greens”?

      • RWS

        Amen to that – cut meat consumption 10%… better yet, cut it in half. Your body will greatly appreciate it. So will the planet. And so will the animals, esp the ones who do not have to be born!
        Here in Ecuador I see untold millions of hectares of beautiful mountainsides stripped of trees for the f#%&$ing cows… they are everywhere. Too many people, too many cows and dogs.

        • The same is true in Costa Rica, all so people can have McDiabetes. A**holes.

    • T Adkins

      So if they were to say be able to take something you could eat and turn it into fuel, and then directly or indirectly use that to make even more food that you could eat it would still be bad…… Period?

    • J Westrick

      Nobody eats yellow corn #2. It’s animal feed.

  • kevin

    Hemp makes a much better biofuel crop than heavily subsidized monsanto GMO Corn. I will support biofuel when they start using industrial hemp as it’s source. Hemp requires less water than corn and would provide far more fuel.

    • T Adkins

      I am all for hemp for so many things including fuel, but if what is being done by these folks for corn can later be used for the hurd, stems, and seed shells, to make yet another useful thing and improve the cellulose ethanol process it will be better. Then with the less water less pesticides less fertilizer and 2-4 harvest a year hemp will do what it was meant to do. But for now we cant grow it in the US so it will be yet another thing we import from china or canada.

      • Stemsnblunts

        Hay man, who said you can’t grow your own hemp. It can be planted next to the corn and you don’t have to fertilize it…..the corn farmer does. Instead of pesticides you will have to deal with those dudes that uh uh……I forgot. Oh look butterflies.

  • george

    Just think if “WE” sold this ethanol to the liquor industry, imagine the taxes collected.

  • william

    Corn stover is not really a waste product. When left on the ground, it protects the soil from erosion. This process will be great if it can be used on a local level by farmers, to produce their own fuel. Collecting, and transporting the stover will be expensive.

  • There is a great deal to be said for taking stuff that nobody wants (like agriwaste) and turning it into fuel – which everybody needs. So long as the capital cost of the plant needed to make this process commercial is realistic in business terms (sadly the only benchmark) it must be a good thing.

  • joe

    I agree w/ William.. That “Corn Stover” actually called “trash” in farm talk.. Is very important for fields.. It is fertilizer as well as protects the soil. Still our farm fields need to become become more efficent.. Consider using SwitchGrass which is a perennial… not have to till fields every year, Switch grass would solve several problems.. especially runoff, into our lakes and rivers wouldn’t get so bad. We would be harvesting natuarl Grasses and being able to keep that into production for a few years.. Then rotate another crop. It would be more efficent to bale hay, rather than pull a plow through the field and combine spring and fall.. plus save on erosion by keeping that grass in the field.

  • Terry

    What I don’t understand is why people insist on using corn. I get that we have a lot of it around here, but there are some grasses that can be used and give a higher output. I have a friend that works for a large ethanol distiller who tells me all the time that the way we do it is just pain dumb.

  • Ahto

    Corn stover/stalks energy content at 10% moisture – 7050 BTU/lb, at bone dry bases 7760 BTU/lb. It means 17 mln BTU chemical energy in bone dry ton. By using chemical/biological technology (milling-chemical pretreatment-enzymatic hydrolysis-C5/C6 fermentation-distillation-drying) it is posible to get 80 gallons of absolute ethanol from 1t of corn stover/stalks. There is 76000 BTU energy in gallon of ethanol so 80×76000 BTU= 6 mln BTU. All the input energy (electricity + thermal) for process comes from lignin in corne stover/stalks. 2000% is 20 times more energy compare to ethanol – 20×6 mln BTU=120 mln BTU which is nearly 10 times more enrgy out than feedstock contains. What a BS!

    • Interesting math. Cite your sources.

    • Nixon

      Ahto — you failed to account for the inputs to the equation that the fermantative bacteria themselves contribute.

      This isn’t a refinery, it is a biological process. You’ve confused a biological process with a pure chemical process.

  • Favorable lab results rarely scale to commercial viability. I don’t pay much attention to them. What matters is EROEI at commercial scales and how much it cost to get it, which at this point is unknown. Corn ethanol is about 1.3, cane ethanol about 8 or 9. Odd that they would consider corn stover a waste product. It goes back into the soil increasing its organic content. Take that away and you will just have to replace it with something else.

    • Nixon

      Russ, you are making a false either/or fallacy argument regarding corn stover. You are implying that corn stover can EITHER be used to produce ethanol OR be plowed into the ground.

      The truth is that there is more than plenty of corn stover to go around for many uses. We can use some corn stover for producing ethanol, while still using some for bulking up animal feed, and some for bedding, and some can be plowed into the ground. The fact that plowing some corn stover into the ground has benefits doesn’t preclude making ethanol from other corn stover. The two are not mutually exclusive because producing some ethanol from some corn stover won’t automatically consume 100% of the corn stover.

      And there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. For example, fields where too much corn stover is plowed into the ground can run into problems too. Ranging from fungal infections from an over abundance of decomposing bio matter in the soil, to a pH shift in soil acidity.

      Keep in mind that there is nothing natural about modern farming practices, so trying to imply that plowing under corn stover is somehow automatically the most beneficial solution as if it were part of a natural process is false. No natural plows drove around tilling any natural “crops” into the ground. Much of the area we farm was covered with grasses that often was burned up by wildfires, not plowed into the ground by any natural process.

  • Mark

    I wonder about article author Christopher DeMorro as well as those folks commenting to this discussion blog. Just how many of you have ever toured a corn ethanol plant or a lignocellulosic-version ethanol plant? Who among posters is actually familiar with the biology-driven processes which employ acidic enzymes to convert corn starch into sugars for secondary fermentation via yeasts in a 4-day batch process?

    Who commenting here actually understands what extra expensive, extra acidic enzymes are which are designed to convert lignin in corn stover or wood chips into far less sugar molecules than that occurs with starchy corn kernels? Who really understands ligno-cellulosic which has not scaled or commercialized to become a 7-day batch fermentation process which typically yields only 1/3 the volumes of corn kernel ethanol?

    Who has ever disposed of and fed the distillers dried grains to cattle, poultry or swine? Who has ever landfilled or burned the mush leftovers from fermenting corn stover or wood chips with extra strong acid precursors? Whom among you could even describe the difference between wet or dry milling front-ends to a corn ethanol plant?

    However, I’ll bet that some of you have smelled the odor of batch fermentation distilleries. Not everyone wants to live downwind of one of these batch plants, even their equity owners…

    Don’t get me wrong here, I’m a staunch supporter of ethyl alcohol as a substitute fuel ($75 FFV chips necessary) or as a blend stock to gasoline as ethanol does work to improve combustion efficiency and lower tailpipe emissions. The fact that ethanol blends also typically lower auto and pickup mileage by 2-3 or 4% is because the ethanol is only 2/3’s as strong on a BTU level as hydrocarbon gasoline is. No alcohol can ever match gasoline, jet fuel or diesel’s BTU value because these and other liquid/solid hydrocarbon fossil fuels do not incorporate a missing oxygen atom which is central to all alcohol molecules.

    The oxygen atom is what fans the flames and gets all of the complex hydrocarbons to more fully combust and emit less pollutants to the atmosphere. Yet the oxygen atom in each molecule of C2 ethanol doesn’t contribute one BTU of combustion strength to ethanol at 75,500 BTU’s/gallon where most gasoline delivers approximately 112,000 BTU’s.

    The oxygen atom also changes the molecule’s polar magnetism and instead of floating on water such as oil does, alcohols dissolve into water, and into oil and also into coal. The saving grace of fuel alcohols is that they dilute into water and micro-organisms and green plants can consume them for lunch and pop off a water molecule. Biodegradability is the greatest benefit which fuel alcohol provides – and this is missed by nearly everyone.

    The key element in this article is the new (genetically modified? – they don’t admit this) biobugs which do a better job of converting carbon atoms in the lignin and cellulose stalks into ethanol. The author never says how the leftovers generate electricity. I wonder if he realizes that these leftovers are burned like a smokey campfire to generate steam electric? And then this electricity is used to generate hydrogen. Just how? Electrolyze water? Now we are back to the old hydrogen hallucination once again. Hype recycling here.

    The process being described will probably never scale commercially. While I admire new advances in biologic conversion — however when the genetics of biobugs are altered to effect this – I draw the line, as my own college degree is in Biology. I’ve also learned that biological methods of batch fermentation in tanks which must be sterilized between each batch — cannot compete with thermal process steam used as a 24×7 process driver instead of batch bio-bug conversion methods. The ethanol molecule is a simple one. C2H5OH.

    What articles like this do is to provide hope to investors and citizens who actually do not understand one iota of the science, biology, genetic manipulations of organisms and chemistry behind such technologies. Instead, these citizens are all looking for the saving grace from science.

    Thus, I personally do not believe that the claims [hype] being made herein for 20x improvements in a bio-digested conversion process for corn stover will become scaled, mainstream or even profitable. Simply adding my own 2¢ here as I’ve toured over six dozen ethanol refineries over the decades.


    • Christopher DeMorro

      @ Mark

      Actually, I have toured several ethanol facilities, and I have numerous contacts in the ethanol processing world at many different companies. The brain power, money, and technology invested into these planets is producing some stunning results, and many of the people I have talked to in regard to this say it really does have the potential to boost ethanol output substantially.