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Power Science

Startup Claims to Make $1/Gallon Ethanol 456

gnick writes to mention Wired is reporting that an Illinois startup is claiming they can make ethanol from most any organic material for around $1/gallon. Coskata, backed by General Motors and several other investors, uses a process that is bacteria based instead of some of the other available methods. The bacteria processes organic material that is fed into the reactor and secretes ethanol as a waste product.
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Startup Claims to Make $1/Gallon Ethanol

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  • Re:Great, but (Score:2, Informative)

    by Bombula ( 670389 ) on Friday January 25, 2008 @11:40PM (#22190110)
    This is an excellent point. As someone whole lived in the middle east for nearly 20 years, I can assure you that the crap in the media about oil production costs is complete nonsense. Production costs per barrel - not per gallon - in Saudi are under 50 cents. All they have to do is turn the taps. And there is enough oil there fore decades. Everything we hear to contrary is nonsense spewed by oil companies and governments who are making out like bandits with oil at $100/barrel.
  • Re:How soon til... (Score:3, Informative)

    by russ1337 ( 938915 ) on Friday January 25, 2008 @11:40PM (#22190114)
    I recall an article on NPR a while ago. IIRC they were saying that one current but inefficient way to make ethanol from plant matter uses two processes using enzymes. One to break the material down to sugars the other to turn those sugars into ethanol. They were saying the current research is in the direction of having one enzyme do all of this - at reasonable temperatures. They were genetically modifying the same enzymes used to 'stone wash' denim, and IIRC they were investigating enzymes that live in undersea volcanic areas. But who knows, this company could have found another enzyme , or used selective breeding to get the traits they desire.

    Basically, the NPR article made it sound like research in this area is not that extreme. It's just a matter of finding the right enzyme or bacteria.
  • by MacDork ( 560499 ) on Friday January 25, 2008 @11:48PM (#22190162) Journal
    According to the gubmint [] So that's $1.48 a gallon of gas. I haven't seen that price on gas in a loooooooong time.
  • Re:logic (Score:5, Informative)

    by TykeClone ( 668449 ) <> on Saturday January 26, 2008 @12:00AM (#22190236) Homepage Journal
    The worst estimates are that we're getting 124% energy out with ethanol with current technology - a net gain. And those numbers are based upon old data for crop and ethanol yields and equipment.
  • Re:Great, but (Score:3, Informative)

    by T-Bone-T ( 1048702 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @12:08AM (#22190280)
    No one is debating how much oil there is(maybe a little), all I've heard for the last couple years is how the refineries can't refine the oil fast enough. The environmentalists must be rich because they keep trying to shut down any plans to build more refineries to keep up with demand.
  • Re:wrong metric? (Score:2, Informative)

    by jeremiahbell ( 522050 ) <> on Saturday January 26, 2008 @12:38AM (#22190446) Homepage

    From wikipedia...

    Gasoline - 125000 BTU/gal

    Ethanol - 84600 BTU/gal

    ... or about 67% of the energy content of gasoline. So you could compare it to a claim of $1.50/gallon gasoline.

    Pure ethanol can offset the smaller BTU with more efficient combustion. An alcohol engine be ran safely at 12-14 to 1 compression raising efficiency whereas gasoline's upper limit is 10 to 1 in a production vehicle that has to be warrantied.
  • by Nick Driver ( 238034 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @12:39AM (#22190450)
    Ethanol [] has about 84K BTU/gallon of energy for use in a piston engine. Butanol [] has about 110K BTU/gallon, compared to an average of 115K BTU/gallon for unleaded gasoline. Butanol also does not absorb water out of the air like ethanol does readily. Butanol can be made by via bacteria fermentation of biomass similar to like ethanol can. Butanol does have a problem with not vaporizing good enough for cold starts in very low temperatures, but that could be overcome with electric heater incorporated in a vehicle's fuel injector system for operation in cold weather.
  • Re:stop the lies (Score:2, Informative)

    by mixmatch ( 957776 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @12:43AM (#22190472) Homepage
    Well, the numbers may be inaccurate, but this is what I came up with from searching the net:
    US corn production (2003/2004): 259.273m metric tons here []
    US sugarcane production (forecast FY 08): 3.388m metric tons here []
    US sugar beet production (forecast FY 08): 4.549m metric tons here []
    I don't profess to know anything about economics and how supply and demand affect how much of each crop is produced/available for use in fuel, so draw your own conclusions, or provide an explanation if you are so inclined.
  • by calebt3 ( 1098475 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @12:45AM (#22190486)
    Someone didn't read the comments. This process uses the corn husks and stalks rather than the ears themselves. Waste matter. No competition for food.
  • by DECS ( 891519 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @01:03AM (#22190560) Homepage Journal
    Then why did GM refuse to market, sell, or continue the EV-1? As soon as Bush came to power, the government dismantled all electric car development efforts and immediately began talking about hydrogen, a silly and impractical power source that couldn't be economically feasible in our lifetime, even if little other progress was ever made in any other alternative fuel.

    US car companies were ahead of the game in developing all electric cars and in hybrids, but that all got pushed aside to make room for a bullshit smoke and mirrors ad campaign that featured CA Gov. Schwartzenegger driving around in a million dollar hydrogen Hummer prototype that only served as an "environmental" placeholder so everyone would forget about any real alternative to Bush/Saudi oil.

    That enabled Bush/Saudi oil to raise significantly in price without any competition, ensuring rich profits for those selling oil over the current decade, and guaranteeing that little progress would be made in finding any real alternatives until 2008 by the earliest. Even if the US embarked on immediate sensible energy policy immediately after Bush is removed from the White House, there will be little prospects for any real competition to Bush/Saudi oil in the next five years.

    GM and other car makers aren't so much for oil as they are resistant to any change. And in the current political climate, there's more profits in building huge oil burning tanks like the Hummer, which the current administration lined up with huge tax subsidies, than in building or researching alternative energy vehicles.

  • Re:logic (Score:2, Informative)

    by CougMerrik ( 1221450 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @01:20AM (#22190634)
    From the article: 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.
  • Re:logic (Score:2, Informative)

    by Ken_g6 ( 775014 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @01:24AM (#22190654) Homepage
    Meet your miracle machine [], or at least a plan for it. Actually, it's even better than what you suggest: it converts electricity to real oil.

    Unfortunately, I've done some rough calculations assuming $.1/kWh electricity converted at 40% efficiency, and the energy alone comes to $9/gallon of gasoline.
  • Re:the memories (Score:4, Informative)

    by Harl_Delos ( 1227230 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @01:37AM (#22190744)
    Seems to me that the Metropolitan Sewer District already uses bacteria on organic matter, without getting any ethanol. Milwaukee is selling their organic matter as Milorganite, but most other cities just *waste* human waste. Of course, there's always the possibility that your E85-ready vehicle will run like merde. And if your neighbor's RV running biodiesel smells like french fries, what will your E85 car smell like?
  • More on Butanol... (Score:4, Informative)

    by Nick Driver ( 238034 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @02:41AM (#22191104)
    I guess I might as well karma-whore some more...I completely missed the Wiki page for Butanol Fuel []. I also think that Wiki article is wrong about butanol's melting point being 25.5 deg C, that is for pure "tertiary-Butanol", not "n-Butanol" which is the isomer that is preferred for fuel.
  • Re:Mr Fusion? (Score:3, Informative)

    by 0100010001010011 ( 652467 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @05:27AM (#22191804)
    Doc: "Mr. Fusion powers the time circuits and the flux capacitor, but the internal combustion engine runs on ordinary gasoline. It always has. There's not gonna be a gas station around here until sometime in the next century. Without gasoline, we can't get the DeLorean up to 88 miles per hour."
  • Re:logic (Score:5, Informative)

    by Martin Blank ( 154261 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @07:24AM (#22192258) Homepage Journal
    How many acres are we going to have to devote to ethanol feedstock to supplant oil?

    That depends on the feedstock. We can never do it with corn, as the math just doesn't bear out. Consider the following, based on the recently-published Crop Production 2007 Summary:

    Planted area: 93.6 million acres
    Average yield: 151.1 bushels per acre
    Total production: 14.1 billion bushels

    Ethanol production from corn usually nets about 9.5 liters of ethanol per bushel. A conversion of all of the corn to ethanol would net about 134 billion liters of ethanol. Ethanol has an energy density of 24 MJ/L, and gasoline's is 34.6 MJ/L, so E85 would come in at about 25.6 MJ/L. Daily average gasoline consumption in the US is about 1.47 billion liters per day, or about 50.9 billion MJ. To match that with E85 would require 1.99 billion liters of E85, which would require 1.69 billion liters of ethanol. Unfortunately, converting all of the corn production to ethanol would allow only 79 days of consumption of E85 at current energy use rates.

    It's an extreme, unrealistic calculation, as we could never do a complete conversion, and it doesn't factor in energy used for the planting, care, or harvest. But it does help to drive home the point that it's infeasible to use standard plants for ethanol production. Even switching to sugarcane or sugarbeets isn't going to help because of the massive acreage required. The only mechanisms that will be able to reliably replace our reliance on fossil fuels are those that are able to take advantage of volume of organic materials, including excretion methods such as algae and bacteria, and possibly methods such as cellulosic conversion and thermal depolymerization (if they work out profitably).
  • with cars lasting longer these days, people will sell their old one just because the new one gets like double the gas mileage
    Which would be a quite dumb thing to do. Okay, it depends a bit on the car and how long your commute is per day. Let's see an example:
    • I have an 8 year old car which does 10l/100km (23.5mpg []), and as such it's a gas guzzler for European standards. It still is in prime condition though.
    • I do 15000km per year (9320miles [])
    • My current car, new cost 35000€ (± 51000$ [])in 2000, and is currently valued about 10000€ (± 14500$ []) on the second hand market.
    • A new, smaller, more fuel efficient car, like the one my wife has, does 5l/100km(47mpg [])
    • My wifes car cost 23000€ (± 33500$ []) in 2006.
    • Gas currently costs 1.2€/l (6.66USD/gallon []). While one car uses less gas, the prices will soar in the same way and as such the evolution of said price doesn't really matter. It shortens the final calculation, which I admit.
    • One gas tank in both cars is 50l (13.2gallon []). Coupled with the above information, one gas tank costs 60€ (88$ [])

    Now look what happens: I sell my car for 10000€, and buy a new fuel efficient one for 23000€. I now have 13000€ spend, that I have to justify with future gas savings. That's the equivalent of 13000/60 = 217 fill ups! The equivalent of 217*50 = 10850 litres, which means I can drive 108500km with my old car, or 217000km with my new car. That's the equivalent of a bit more than 7 years for the old car and 14 years for the new car. Now look at those figures! In 7 years, my car will be 15 years old and have no value (10 years later it will be a vintage car though) That's a very long time to recoup costs.

    Anyone saying the buy a new car "because it has better mileage" should first do this small calculation. If the cost is not recouped in a short time (which means you drive a lot), then it simply is not worth it. Sure, you might have other reasons, but "saving money" is not a valid one.

  • Re:logic (Score:3, Informative)

    by danbert8 ( 1024253 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @11:48AM (#22193540)
    You make some good points, however you are slightly misguided. First of all, hydrogen can be used in an existing otto cycle engine. Hydrogen combustion can easily run a modified engine since anything explosive and a gas could theoretically work (though random burning things are better suited for diesel engines). They actually did this on Mythbusters and fed hydrogen gas into the carburator of a car. It ran for a couple of seconds until it backfired and burning hydrogen came up in their faces, but that's because hydrogen has a different octane than gasoline (so does ethanol by the way), so both require a modified (more expensive) engine.

    As for your next point, both hydrogen and ethanol require new infrastructure if they are to replace oil. Ethanol contrary to popular belief is not just gasoline from corn. It cannot and DOES NOT take the same production path as gasoline. Oil products are transported primarily by pipeline which costs about a penny per gallon to move it across the county. Ethanol cannot be used in pipelines because A) it grows mold B) is highly corrosive and C) is totally useless if water infiltrates the pipeline. Thus all ethanol today is shipped in barges, rail cars, and mostly by fuel trucks, all of which run on diesel. Thus the cost associated with shipping ethanol is much higher than shipping gasoline, which is the number one reason why E-85 stations are not everywhere.

    In fact, the only reason why ethanol is taking off is because it's a fairly good additive to gasoline to increase the octane rating (much better than lead in any case) and the government pays oil companies to sell it. It isn't profitable at all to make or sell on its own.

    Now if you want to talk about Biodiesel, now that's something totally different. It runs unmodified in diesel engines (and is actually better for them) and it can be piped right along side normal diesel in a pipeline (provided it doesn't get too cold). Plus diesel engines have been more efficient than otto cycle engines for a long time. They only reason they haven't taken off is because ignorant Americans (yes, I'm an American too) have a stupid idea that diesel is dirty technology.
  • Re:logic (Score:4, Informative)

    by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) <{akaimbatman} {at} {}> on Saturday January 26, 2008 @12:16PM (#22193756) Homepage Journal

    hydrogen has a different octane than gasoline (so does ethanol by the way), so both require a modified (more expensive) engine.

    Hydrogen requires more significant changes to the engine. That's what drives up the price. Ethanol only requires shifts in the timing and better fuel lines to handle the corrosive effects of the Ethanol, thus making it a fairly inexpensive conversion. Flex vehicles are able to detect information about the fuel and adjust the timing of the engine.

    As for your next point, both hydrogen and ethanol require new infrastructure if they are to replace oil.

    That's a fair point, but I think you overestimate the amount of new infrastructure needed by ethanol vs. that needed by hydrogen. We have methods of building pipelines [] that can handle ethanol. What we DON'T have is a consensus on how to produce, store, transport, or even fuel hydrogen vehicles. Which leaves a rather massive infrastructure gap between ethanol and hydrogen. Ethanol requires some behind-the-scenes changes. No real biggie. Hydrogen requires brand new vehicles, brand new storage systems, brand new transportation methods*, and brand new production methods. We simply aren't ready to build this infrastructure, no matter how much I wish we were.

    They only reason they haven't taken off is because ignorant Americans (yes, I'm an American too) have a stupid idea that diesel is dirty technology.

    It's not a stupid idea. Up until 2006, the US allowed really crappy quality diesel to be sold on the fuel market. This reduced the pump cost of the fuel, but meant that it was extremely dirty and bad for the environment. There was no way that car makers could create cars that burned these fuels clean enough to meet emission standards. Thus the disappearance of diesel in small vehicles. From Wikipedia []:

    In contrast, the United States has long had "dirtier" diesel, although more stringent emission standards have been adopted with the transition to ULSD starting in 2006 and becoming mandatory on June 1, 2010 (see also diesel exhaust). U.S. diesel fuel typically also has a lower cetane number (a measure of ignition quality) than European diesel, resulting in worse cold weather performance and some increase in emissions. This is one reason why U.S. drivers of large trucks idle their rigs all night rather than risking a cold-weather start.

    In fact, the only reason why ethanol is taking off is because it's a fairly good additive to gasoline to increase the octane rating

    That's been true for decades. As a former resident of Wisconsin, I can tell you that nearly all fuel sold in that state used Ethanol as an octane booster, with many pumping stations advertising as much as "10% Ethanol". What's changed is that ethanol is now being blended in at higher quantities while car makers rush to support these "new" fuels. For the first time in my life, I'm actually seeing E85 fuels pop up at your average, everyday gas station. So no, ethanol is not being driven by its use as an octane booster. Your information is out of date.

    (* Hydrogen leaks out of nearly any container. That's one of the reasons why it's so hard to transport and store.)
  • Re:logic (Score:2, Informative)

    by mOdQuArK! ( 87332 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @01:11PM (#22194130)
    switchgrass, hemp, sugar cane, etc... - there are so many other potential biofuel/ethanol sources that would have a better yield than corn.
  • Re:Brazilian Ethanol (Score:3, Informative)

    by rrkap ( 634128 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @02:10PM (#22194588) Homepage
    Sugarcane is just about the perfect crop if you want to make ethanol. Unfortunately for those of us in the U.S. there are few places here that can grow sugarcane and fewer still that can do so economically (hence the U.S.'s high taxes on imported sugar and our use of high fructose corn syrup as a substitute). Our inability to produce sugarcane has led both to our current corn based ethanol production and to huge investments in research into methods of making ethanol from other feedstocks that are cheaper to grow than corn.
  • by Rinisari ( 521266 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @02:50PM (#22194832) Homepage Journal
    Ethanol is still not an alternative fuel. It's a supplemental alternative fuel. There's not enough corn grown in the US to switch entirely to it. Heck, there's not enough land in the US even to grow enough corn to satisfy our needs.
  • by SEE ( 7681 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @03:32PM (#22195142) Homepage
    The Athabasca oilsands are recoverable for $36 a fully-converted barrel. Nobody expects the long-term average price of oil will drop far enough to make that long-term unprofitable, but that's substantially different than expecting we've reached the oil production peak.
  • Oh, right--papers. (Score:3, Informative)

    by Grendel Drago ( 41496 ) on Saturday January 26, 2008 @04:17PM (#22195408) Homepage
    Here are a few publications on the process. They're not all freely available.

    The original patent by Paul Baskis. (1992) Thermal depolymerizing reforming process and apparatus [].

    A new patent (issues about two months ago, though it was filed more like three years back) by the folks currently working at Changing World Technologies. (2007) Process for conversion of organic, waste, or low-value materials into useful products [].

    A research report for the Illinois Council on Food and Agricultural Research from the University of Illinois on what appears to be a similar process, if not the same one. (1999) Thermochemical conversion of Swine Manure to Produce Fuel and Reduce Waste []. (There's a layman's write up at National Geographic News [].)

    An SAE report on recycling polyurethane foam and other plastic crap from shredded car interiors. (2005) Recycling Shredder Residue Containing Plastics and Foam Using a Thermal Conversion Process [].

    Another SAE report on the same topic. (2006) A Life Cycle Look at Making Diesel Oil from End-of-Life Vehicles [].

    I don't know if anything was published in a peer-reviewed journal; the CWT website doesn't appear to link to anything, and I don't know if that's par for the course for an engineering firm, or if they're not publishing to keep things secret, or if they're selling snake oil.

If I have not seen so far it is because I stood in giant's footsteps.