OK, maybe it’s a personal problem with Brian Westenhaus. A dollar’s worth of gasoline is equal to just less than $1.43 for ethanol at the gas pump to run the vehicle. Butanol comes with very high octane and a $1.06 value. The gasoline to match the butanol octane would have to have additives (ethanol) to match so it might be priced higher still, perhaps more than the joule for joule price of butanol. It’s a dollar thing with me.

When the news broke Monday in the Washington Post about another wonderful bug to make – ethanol – I was again disappointed. Some will say that the octane of ethanol will permit good engine computer management to get equal or better mileage than straight gasoline. But the study work isn’t there for hard proof, the joules just aren’t there. Not likely to happen – not impossible – mind you. This and the other drawbacks to ethanol make it a product of hype as much as of corn and sugarcane. I might as well come out with it, to get biofuels made with biological processes will require a butanol solution or the chemical guys will have the bio guy’s lunch. Its because of the joules per volume discount that ethanol brings to the day we have to cut the members of the team.

We’re saved by Science Digest’s report on Tuesday! The new bug, a bacterium, doesn’t make ethanol, it makes enzymes that breakdown plant materials into sugars which can be made into fuels, actually all the alcohols from ethanol to octanol. Whew.

Washington Post Video Link

Click for The Washington Posts Video Link.

Nevertheless, the press, writers and political types were out in force to hype the new bacterium into ethanol. Never mind the near 50% advantage that butanol and synthetic gasoline enjoy in $/J. The magic word for news is ethanol.

That mass of the misapprehension of the differences from both an energy standpoint and the economics shouldn’t overcome the importance of the work of the discovery and development of the new bacterium.

Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner at the University of Maryland, professors of cell biology, developed the bacterium found in the Chesapeake Bay by scientists at George Mason University. Weiner was soon invited by the discoverers to collaborate and was hooked on the creature that digests most anything into sugars. By 2000, Hutcheson had joined Weiner and they made several attempts to isolate more of the bacterium from the wild with no luck. With help from the U.S. Department of Energy, the genome has been sequenced.

The press releases and press stories all talk about a “process” that yields ethanol, but actually the business that Weiner and Hutcheson have started is in providing enzymes to the ethanol process market. The business that Weiner and Hutcheson have started is called Zymetis and is benefiting from the University of Maryland’s MTECH VentureAccelerator Program. The partners have also sought expertise from the MTECH Bioprocess Scale-Up Facility to determine how to mass-produce the bacterium.

Here is some of the hype: “The new Zymetis technology is a win for the state of Maryland,” says University of Maryland President C.D. Mote, Jr. “It makes affordable ethanol production a reality and makes it from waste materials, which benefits everyone and supports the green-friendly goal of carbon-neutrality.” More? “When fully operational the Zymetis process could potentially lead to 75 billion gallons a year of carbon neutral ethanol.” With U.S. gasoline consumption at just <144 billion gallons annually that sounds good.

But it’s a lot to lay on the bug, S. degradens.

I have another, albeit humble point of view. Maybe the good professors have cracked the biomass to sugar problem! Now that would be big news. I hope that’s the case. I want to see the competition for recycled CO2 get going and if the bio guys want to win they need this announcement in clear form away from the ethanol hype and get on with fuel products that compete with chemically synthesized gasoline or gasoline from crude oil. The ethanol hype isn’t helping, it obscures the real news.

How about this headline instead, “Cellulose and Lignin to Sugar Conversion by Enzymes Discovered.” Congratulations professors, I hope the alternative fuel industry catches on to your product and quickly.


1 Comment so far

  1. What Is This Pyrolysis Fuel Making Thing? | New Energy and Fuel on March 14, 2008 6:08 AM

    […] own here soon. Just keep in mind that pyrolysis is a first step on the biomass path to fuel. It has competition now from the professors at the University of Maryland we saw yesterday. Other cellulosic and lignin decomposition solutions will likely appear over time. The drive to the […]

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