March 18, 2007

So. California Air Quality (AQMD) looks at Cellulosic Ethanol

The Southern California Air Quality Management District (SC/AQMD) is both a hero to local health agencies and the bane of existence to emerging technology developers.

Unquestionably, the improvement in Southern California air quality is one of the great national health success stories. Since 1990, per capita smog exposure has seen marked improvement in every county of the region and that is a mostly a result of AQMD "policing" of stringent controls and testing.

However, the San Gabriel Valley, Riverside, and San Bernardino are still seemingly intractable challenges. Until there are significant improvements in vehicular, refinery, electricity generation, and cement manufacturing emissions mitigation, the region's climatological conditions will still produce oppressive smog-filled conditions. And Los Angeles is still ranked as the smoggiest city in America.

It is, perhaps, for this reason that the AQMD sponsors periodic full day forums and roundtable discussions to discuss energy, fuels, and transportation issues that bear on air quality. Since June of 2006, the AQMD has hosted forums on Ethanol, Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles, Diesel Vehicles, Ozone, BioDiesel, and Container Movement Technology.

On February 15 AQMD held a web-cast forum on Cellulosic Ethanol that featured high caliber, national experts in the field. Each presented a 20-26 minute presentation in the morning and participated in a roundtable discussion in the afternoon.

Cellulosic Ethanol Technology Forum and Roundtable Discussion

Transportation sources in the (Southern California) South Coast Air Basin are substantial contributors of air pollution and toxic risk affecting the residents of the South Coast Air Basin, primarily because the fuel used in transportation sources is based on petroleum, such as gasoline and diesel. Such overwhelming dependency on a single fuel makes California and this Basin vulnerable to supply shortages and consequent severe price hikes, that in turn could seriously affect California’s ability to move goods and people.

Alternative fuels, such as ethanol, can reduce this dependency on petroleum and also enable this agency to meet its targeted air quality goals. Twenty percent of the ethanol currently produced in the country is consumed in California. However, production of this corn-based ethanol is ultimately limited by a number of factors. To be sustainable in the long-term and on a large scale, it is imperative that ethanol be produced from forest and agricultural residues such as corn stalks and rice stalks, and other plant materials including grasses and wood grown for this purpose.

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Anonymous said...

I am glad that California is taking such a lead in finding cleaner fuels to clear the air in LA. I just don't see that cellulosic ethanol will be any better that ethanol from corn. If we use the so called "crop waste" to make ethanol, than we will force farmers to use more fertilizer from natural gas to prepare the land for the next years crops. Currantly the crop waste is left on the fields to break down and act as fertilizer for next years crops. I think that we are willing to do anything to avoid the inevitable of having to give up our love affair with the automobile.

C. Scott Miller said...

The conversion factor that is typically used by research scientists and developers is 5-to-1. In other words, the energy return on cellulosic ethanol is about 5 times greater than corn ethanol, primarily because of the lower cultivation and delivery involved.

Some ethanol production is serviced by manure produced methane to replace natural gas. Gasification uses the consuming feedstock as the primary source of energy to sustain heat.

I think in the not too distant future we will incorporate numerous sustainable solutions to substitute for fossil fuels for both conversion ignition energy and crop cultivation. For now we are keeping our systems simple by using what we know best - fossil fuels and fertilizers.

You are probably right about usage, however. Paralleling hard disk capacity experience of the past 3 decades, we will probably use every bit of energy we produce as we move forward - including foreign oil. But we have to replace the growth factor with something other than more dependence on fossil fuels. That is enough of a challenge for now.

Francesco DeParis said...

I agree that cellulosic ethanol should be the production process of the future. The problem we face today is the prohibitively higher production costs than corn/sugar-based ethanol. The cellulosic enzyme necessary for breaking down the tough cellulose wall in plant material is very expensive. Prices are currently around 50 cents/gallon. The DOE has given several US enzyme companies grants to fund R&D to make these cheaper. The target goal is 10-15 cents/gallon. We will definately see an increased interest in ethanol production once this necessary input is made cheaper.

On the flip side, as long as US corn-based ethanol production increases, we will most likely see corn futures increase as well. If the demand for corn continues on its current track, we might see corn ethanol = or > cellulose ethanol. My impression is that once the enzyme cost is reduced, the cheap feedstock costs will allow cellulosic producers to trump their competitors in the corn belt.

Regarding the use of crop waste as feedstock, this is just ONE of the many feedstocks that can be used in the cellulosic process. I am sure California can get very creative with the choice of feedstocks. Please check out my blog for more info on cellulosic ethanol: Energy Spin

Anonymous said...