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.
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.
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.