Not too long ago many investors made the bet that renewable fuels from biomass would be the next big thing in energy. Converting corn, sugarcane and soybeans into ethanol or diesel-type fuels lessens our nation’s dependence on oil imports while cutting carbon dioxide emissions. But already the nascent industry faces challenges. Escalating demand is hiking food prices while farmers clear rain-forest habitats to grow fuel crops. And several recent studies say that certain biofuel-production processes either fail to yield net energy gains or release more carbon dioxide than they use.
A successor tier of start-up ventures aims to avoid those problems. Rather than focusing on the starches, sugars and fats of food crops, many of the prototype bioethanol processes work with lignocellulose, the “woody” tissue that strengthens the cell walls of plants, says University of Massachusetts Amherst chemical engineer George W. Huber. Although the cellulose breaks down less easily than sugars and starches and thus requires a complex series of enzyme-driven chemical reactions, its use opens the industry to nonfood plant feedstocks such as agricultural wastes, wood chips and switchgrass. But no company has yet demonstrated a cost-competitive industrial process for making cellulosic biofuels.
So scientists and engineers are working on dozens of possible biofuel-processing routes, reports Charles Wyman, a chemical engineer at the University of California, Riverside, who is a founder of Mascoma Corporation in Cambridge, Mass., a leading developer of cellulosic ethanol processes. “There’s no miracle process out there,” he remarks. And fine-tuning a process involves considerable money and time. “The oil companies say that it takes 10 years to fully commercialize an industrial processing route,” warns Huber, who has contributed some thermochemical techniques to another biomass start-up, Virent Energy Systems in Madison, Wis.
One promising biofuel procedure that avoids the complex enzymatic chemistry to break down cellulose is now being explored by Coskata in Warrenville, Ill., a firm launched in 2006 by high-profile investors and entrepreneurs (General Motors recently took a minority stake in it as well). In the Coskata operation, a conventional gasification system will use heat to turn various feedstocks into a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen called syngas, says Richard Tobey, vice president of engineering and R&D. The ability to handle multiple plant feedstocks would boost the flexibility of the overall process because each region in the country has access to certain feedstocks but not others.
Instead of using thermochemical methods to convert the syngas to fuel—a process that can be significantly more costly because of the added expense of pressurizing gases, according to Tobey—the Coskata group chose a biochemical route. The group focused on five promising strains of ethanol-excreting bacteria that Ralph Tanner, a microbiologist at the University of Oklahoma, had discovered years before in the oxygen-free sediments of a swamp. These anaerobic bugs make ethanol by voraciously consuming syngas.
The “heart and soul of the Coskata process,” as Tobey puts it, is the bioreactor in which the bacteria live. “Rather than searching for food in the fermentation mash in a large tank, our bacteria wait for the gas to be delivered to them,” he explains. The firm relies on plastic tubes—filter-fabric straws as thin as human hair. The syngas flows through the straws, and water is pumped across their exteriors. The gases diffuse across the selective membrane to the bacteria embedded in the outer surface of the tubes, which permits no water inside. “We get efficient mass transfer with the tubes, which is not easy,” Tobey says. “Our data suggest that in an optimal setting we could get 90 percent of the energy value of the gases into our fuel.” After the bugs eat the gases, they release ethanol into the surrounding water. Standard distillation or filtration techniques could extract the alcohol from the water.