Cellulosic ethanol uses a process to turn plant waste into ethanol. Rather than using corn, sugar or soybeans to produce ethanol, the waste byproducts, such as stalks and trimmings, can be used. Cellulosic alcohol is chemically identical to ethanol produced by other processes, but contains a higher energy content. This may help resolve the current concerns about using ethanol in auto fuel production due to the fact that standard ethanol contains 30% less energy than gasoline, which reduces mileage.
The problem with using primary products, such as soybeans and corn, is that their use in ethanol production drives up the cost for those products, which in turn affects the price of other products, such as beef cattle. The effective use of farm waste products should theoretically keep the prices stable for farm produce.
Producing cellulosic alcohol requires an extra processing step, called cellulolysis, that breaks down the cellulose in the waste products into sugar. There is also a pretreatment step to prepare the materials for cellulolysis. Almost any type of biomass plant material, such as straw, grasses, wood, leaves and stalks can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol.
The current cost for producing cellulosic alcohol is higher than that of gasoline. In June of 2006, the cost for producing alcohol equivalent in energy to a barrel of oil was estimated at $120. This means that cellulosic alcohol is currently not a good economic alternative to oil, but it can still be used to help reduce the USA’s dependency on foreign oil. Further research should bring the cost down over time.
Cellulosic alcohol may be one of the big three biofuels that help reduce the country’s dangerous dependency on foreign oil. There isn’t any one single solution that will resolve this problem. A collective approach consisting of many alternatives may be the best way to approach the issue. Cellulosic alcohol may be one important part of the puzzle.