Is Cellulosic Ethanol Going To happen?

I read about this process years ago…if you could convert cellulose into sugar (and ferment it) you can make jillions of barrels of ethanol. The advantage is that everything (switchgrass, garbage, wood pulp) can be converted, and we can meet our transportation needs by using ethanol, instead of gasoline.
When that day comes, we can stop sending $$billions to OPEC, and tell them to go to hell.
So, is the process anywhere near possible? Or is it like Fusion power…thirty years ahaed?

My guess is no, not on a large scale anyway. It would never be more than a stop-gap solution. Now, if you speculated about the use of biomass to generate syngas, maybe so. Although syngas has less than half the energy per volume than does natural gas, it can be used in Fischer-Tropsch synthesis to make diesel fuel, and is a useful feedstock for producing some higher value added chemicals.

It’s certainly not as distant or challenging as fusion. Some of the companies that are developing the technology seem to be getting close to economically viable production. This NYT article states that one company has a process that produces ethanol for about $2.35/gallon, and they’re planning to open a large-scale plant next year. With bigger scales and more process development, they’re claiming that they can reduce costs even more. Basically it looks like the technology is right on the cusp of being an economically viable way of producing fuel.

Now, even considering that, I doubt we’ll have a future where cellulosic ethanol meets all of our energy needs. “Stop-gap” is a somewhat subjective term, but it’s probably a good way to describe the long term picture. My WAG is that cellulosic ethanol will grow to meet a sizable minority of our fuel needs over the next several decades – optimistically somewhere around 20 or 30 percent, 20 years from now.

I think it’s very hard to put a timetable on cellulosic ethanol.

With something like nuclear fusion, we know we’re a decade away from a way to test ideas that will take a decade or two to test; hence the 30 years. But it should be emphasized that 30 years is not the time frame for implementation, but the time frame for knowing if we’re even on the right track.

Conversely, cellulosic ethanol is a matter of getting the right chemical process or genetically engineered critter in place. We know it’s possible already. What we’re looking for is a way to do it more economically and reliably. It’s entirely possible that a break-through procedure could be discovered tomorrow and rushed into production within a few years, or it’s possible that a series of small steps will yield something feasible in decades.

I guess the real question is whether ethanol can become cheap enough as a fuel faster than batteries can become cheap enough for cars.

Right now it takes about a gallon of fossil fuels to make a gallon of ethanol. Getting all of that wood pulp, switchgrass, and garbage into the ethanol plant requires fuel for transportation. The plant that processes the ethanol needs fuel. If you switch all of these vehicles and machines to run off of ethanol, you end up making about as much ethanol as you end up using. Ethanol production in the U.S. is profitable right now partly because we use fossil fuels to make it and also partly because the U.S. government subsidizes it. Now granted, if you ramp up to larger scale production you could gain some efficiencies so that you wouldn’t use quite as much fuel as you produce, but it’s still not efficient enough to be used as a main fuel source yet.

The other issue is that the U.S. needs a LOT of fuel. As much as I want to stick it to OPEC too, the simple fact of the matter is that there isn’t enough biomass in the U.S. to even come close to providing enough fuel to replace oil.

On a small scale, though, turning garbage into ethanol or biodiesel is a great way to get rid of the garbage. It won’t solve the country’s fuel needs but it will solve the problem of what to do with a lot of the waste that we produce. This sort of thing is already done in Europe, but it isn’t done much in the U.S.

I actually live just down the hill from the epicenter of the main body of research that goes into cellulosic biofuels at the LBNL and EBI (Energy Biosciences Institute). The last I’ve heard from them is that the technology has been proven on a laboratory level, but it seems like it’s still a ways away until large-scale commercialization. I think the biggest impediment so far is just the inefficiency in converting cellulosic mass into fuels; there’s a lot of research in trying to improve this process without relying on harsh polluting chemicals.

You seem to be conflating two things. The reason it takes about a gallon of fossil fuels to make a gallon of ethanol right now is because corn is so energy intensive to grow, and corn is the only game in town right now for ethanol. This is exactly WHY they are trying to use other source materials. Switch grass only needs to be planted once, and will carry on for years, doesn’t require multiple applications of herbicides and fertilizers, and can be harvested twice a year or more.

Liquid fuels of some sort will have a place in transportation for a long time to come, if not forever.

Batteries may become decent replacements for most folks short daily weekday commutes, but for jobs/industries that require driving all day or long distances or the average joes occasional long drive to visit the relatives or go camping or whatever you are going to need liquid fuel.

And for all practical purposes, aviation will almost exclusively require liquid fuels as well. There are real limits on how good batteries can get. They CANNOT do everything.

If we get lucky, batteries will get very cheap and have a low environmental impact in their construction and reuse, and non-fossil fuel power will be used to charge them. In the smaller percentage where batteries will not cut it, environmentally friendly synthetic liquid fuels will take up the rest.

I’m aware of that. I didn’t go into too much detail because it was just a short post, but yes, other technologies have the potential to be more efficient than corn. However, you also have to factor in the fact that ethanol has a lot less energy per gallon than fossil fuels do (76,000 BTU/gal compared to 116,000 BTU/gal if my google skills are working today). Like I said, though, if you ramp up these new technologies to full scale production you will gain some efficiencies, but there is still a lot of energy going into the process which makes it less than desirable as a main source of fuel.

The ALMS racing series has some cellulosic ethanol entries as part of their “Green Challenge”. The Corvette team uses Cellulosic e85, and does pretty well in the challenge (which was formulated in part by the EPA and seems to be a decent reflection of the “environmentalness” of each car).

Obviously, racing is inherently not a “green” sport, but some of the technologies in use in ALMS are pretty impressive and are quite competitive while being at least somewhat more environmentally friendly. I think there is a series hybrid car in the works for this year, it did really well in an exhibition run.

But to answer the OP, we have cellulosic ethanol used for real applications; the problem is not the technology, it’s the cost/infrastructure problem.

ETA link: http://www.insideline.com/chevrolet/corvette/2008/corvette-alms-racer-to-use-new-age-ethanol.html

Although this thread was not about fusion, it has been mentioned. According to this: Fusion's False Dawn - Scientific American
the timetable for usable fusion is between 100 years and never. In over fifty years of intensive research, they have never got a reaction that generates more energy than it uses. But assuming they pass that threshhold (that the author believes is imminent) their troubles have only begun. I never realized that while the reaction itself does not involve radioactives, the energy comes out in the form of neutrons that are extremely dangerous in themselves and make everything that captures them radioactive. They have to be captured to generate usable power and the vessel that captures them will be damaged thereby. All the development has been concentrated in getting a positive energy balance with little or no effort to solve these problems which could prove as difficult as the original or worse.

The energy savings for not using corn have to be balanced against the lower production of biomass with ordinary grass. Mowing the lawn - whether 3-inch grass or 3 foot grass - can’t be very energy-efficient either. The other problem is how wide a collection range you need for a big plant. I’ll go the opposite direction, and suggest the ideal conversion units minimise transport distances; say we had washing-machine sized units that sat n any small rural farm and made tractor fuel from the left-overs.