To Bio Or Not To Bio

The US Energy Department in Washington announced yesterday that it intends to invest in six bio-refinery projects worth $385 million to produce cellulosic ethanol, a type of ethanol made from nonfood crops and agricultural waste.

Speaking at a press conference in the US capital, Energy Secretary Samuel W. Bodman explained that, as envisaged by the 2005 Energy Policy Act, the projects will be developed over four years, thus advancing the present administration’s plan to make cellulosic ethanol costs competitive with those of gasoline by 2012 and cut America’s gasoline consumption by 20 percent in the space of ten years.

Though many ethanol refineries using corn will be based over the next two years, they will not suffice to meet environmental goals. ‘Corn-based ethanol is already playing a key part in reducing our dependence on fossil fuels and mitigating the growth of greenhouse gases,’ Mr. Bodman said, ‘but we cannot increase our use of corn grain indefinitely.’

Corn-based ethanol, furthermore, only has a small effect on greenhouse gases, whereas cellulosic ethanol cuts them effectively. The problem is that no company has yet built a commercial cellulosic plant since cellulosic ethanol is twice as expensive as corn-based ethanol.

Though the grants announced yesterday should help boost the new cellulosic industry, Mr Bodman is by no means convinced that ethanol is the only possible substitute for petroleum.

‘We are unclear whether ethanol will be the winner,’ he concluded. One alternative is bio-butanol, which, insofar as it provides as much energy per gallon as gasoline, is, according to Bodman ‘an inherently better fuel’.

New York Times

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