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Cellulosic Ethanol: Firsts, Failures, Myths and Risks

Wires have been buzzing with news about the "first" commercial production of cellulosic biofuels, a project of POET and the Dutch State Mines (DSM) in Emmetsburg, Iowa that is to produce ethanol from corn stover.
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Wires have been buzzing with news about the "first" commercial production of cellulosic biofuels, a project of POET and the Dutch State Mines (DSM) in Emmetsburg, Iowa that is to produce ethanol from corn stover.

There have actually been several "firsts" already, testament to the fact that each of those ended in failure, clearing the path for a new "first." For example, Ineos Bio in Vero Beach Forida announced it was the first back in 2013. But then followed in December with an "operational update" announcing they would be "de-bottlenecking over the coming year. Hopes were pinned on Kior, but after spending 629 million dollars on a facility in Mississippi they are now headed into bankruptcy.

We've been told for years not to worry about the impact of corn ethanol on global food prices because corn ethanol was only a "stepping stone" to cellulosic fuels. We've also been told for years -- since the initial mandate or ethanol was adopted back in 2005, that cellulosic ethanol was "just around the corner." So now we have the latest "first," supposedly to be followed in short order by two others: Dupont in Iowa and Abengoa in Kansas.

The POET DSM refinery is referred to, absurdly, as "Project Liberty," but investors are concerned that federal policy may not reflect their enthusiasm for the idea that corncobs will deliver us from oil state bondage. Does anyone really believe that we will achieve any significant degree of energy independence nirvana using biofuels?

Right now we are putting around 40 percent of our corn crop into ethanol in the US, which is causing reverberating impacts around the world. Globally, the biofuel boom is driving up food prices, stimulating land grabs, depleting soils and waterways and causing loss of biodiversity. And even with all of these impacts, biofuels are providing only about 2 percent of global transportation fuel.

It hasn't been cheap either, dependent on absurdly generous subsidies. Project Liberty itself received $105 million dollar loan guarantee, $20 million in grants from the state of Iowa, USDA funds to support feedstock delivery and more. Our tax dollars at work. According to the International Energy Agency, global subsidies for biofuels in 2010 were around 22 billion, rising 67 billion per year to a cumulative projected accumulation of 1.4 trillion in subsidies from 2011-2035. What else could that money be used for?

Making fuel from corn cobs requires harvesting, transporting, storing, refining process, more transporting.... all of which require energy and infrastructure while also depleting soils, waterways and ecosystems. A government funded study published in Nature Climate Change recently concluded that biofuels made from corn stover would release 7 percent more CO2 than the gasoline they supposedly replace. (Dupont's own lifecycle analysis (surprise surprise!) revealed a fabulous 100 percent greenhouse gas reduction over gasoline).

Another recent study published in the Proceedings of National Academy of Science reported that around 530,000 hectares of precious remaining biodiverse prairie lands in the western corn belt had been converted to corn and soya between 2006 and 2011 (i.e. since the biofuel mandates).

Removing corn stover or other agricultural residues means soils get more compacted and less organic matter is recycled back into the soils, which are also left more exposed to erosion. More soil depletion means using more fertilizers. Fertilizers are made with fossil fuels and their application causes emissions of nitrous oxide (a potent greenhouse gas) and contamination of precious freshwater resources.

The refinery process in use by Project Liberty isn't clear to me, but involves some proprietary "enzymatic cocktail" followed by fermentation with DSM's "advanced yeast." Presumably these enzymes are produced using genetically engineered microbes, and the yeast also are genetically engineered.

Tinkering with microbial genomes via both traditional genetic engineering and recently evolving synthetic biology techniques is risky business that we appear to be plowing headlong into without much thought or oversight! Tiny single-celled organisms are near impossible to contain. They are also known to engage in a range of gene transfer trickery (such as horizontal gene transfer, which means passing genes not only from parent to offspring, but also to unrelated individuals. (It is the primary mechanism for bacteria growing resistant to antibiotics). Are we sure that these engineered microbes and yeasts will be harmless when they escape the confines of Project Liberty?

Corn ethanol was initially lauded as a path to reduce emissions from transportation, but has since proven to be a path to hunger, biodiversity loss, increased greenhouse gas emissions, water eutrophication and more.

Do we need to keep repeating history in pursuit of the myth that we can substitute living plant biomass for fossil? Is it not already clear that we desperately need to protect soils, waterways, forests and ecosystems? Is it not obvious that with a rapidly expanding population to feed, escalating climate impacts and dwindling resources, biofuels are a flagrant and dangerous waste?

Why not focus on the one thing that is absolutely guaranteed to effectively reduce emissions and deliver lots of collateral benefits: drastically cut down on fuel consumption? The answer my friend, is blowing in the wind, a gale force wind heading right down Wall Street.

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