Startup Says It Can Make Ethanol for $1 a Gallon, and Without Corn

Friday, January 25th, 2008

Startup Says It Can Make Ethanol for $1 a Gallon, and Without Corn:

Coskata uses existing gasification technology to convert almost any organic material into synthesis gas, which is a mix of carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Rather than fermenting that gas or using thermo-chemical catalysts to produce ethanol, Coskata pumps it into a reactor containing bacteria that consume the gas and excrete ethanol. Richard Tobey, Coskata’s vice president of engineering, says the process yields 99.7 percent pure ethanol.

Gasification and bacterial conversion are common methods of producing ethanol, but biofuel experts said Coskata is the first to combine them. Doing so, they said, merges the feedstock flexibility of gasification with the relatively low cost of bacterial conversion.

Tobey said Coskata’s method generates more ethanol per ton of feedstock than corn-based ethanol and requires far less water, heat and pressure. Those cost savings allow it to turn, say, two bales of hay into five gallons of ethanol for less than $1 a gallon, the company said. Corn-based ethanol costs $1.40 a gallon to produce, according to the Renewable Fuels Association.

The company plans to have its first commercial-scale plant producing up to 100,000 gallons of ethanol a year by 2011. Friedman and Greene said the timeline is realistic.

May Wu, an environmental scientist at Argonne National Laboratory, says Coskata’s ethanol produces 84 percent less greenhouse gas than fossil fuel even after accounting for the energy needed to produce and transport the feedstock. It also generates 7.7 times more energy than is required to produce it. Corn ethanol typically generates 1.3 times more energy than is used producing it.

Making ethanol is one thing, but there’s almost no infrastructure in place for distributing it. But the company’s method solves that problem because ethanol could be made locally from whatever feedstock is available, Tobey said.

“You’re not bound by location,” he said. “If you’re in Orange County, you can use municipal waste. If you’re in the Pacific Northwest, you can use wood waste. Florida has sugar. The Midwest has corn. Each region has been blessed with the ability to grow its own biomass.”

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