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By Robert Rapier on Mar 27, 2007 with 8 responses

The Logistics Problem of Cellulosic Ethanol

Update: This article got a mention in today’s Wall Street Journal Energy Roundup.


In my essay Cellulosic Ethanol Reality Check, I identified several big challenges that must be addressed before cellulosic ethanol is commercially feasible. One of these is the logistics problem, and a recent story in the Omaha World-Herald emphasizes the point:

The future is not now for biomass ethanol industry

The article describes the logistics challenges for a single ethanol plant:

The logistics of collecting and storing a million tons of corn stubble each year for an ethanol refinery are mind-numbing.

It would take 67,000 semitrailer loads to haul the baled stubble out of the field. That’s 187 truckloads a day, or one every eight minutes. To complicate matters, the need for trucks, machinery and manpower would come during harvest, already the busiest time of the year on the farm. And that’s where a massive federal initiative into cellulosic ethanol may find its biggest bottleneck – on the farm.

According to the article, a million tons would produce 80 million gallons of ethanol. This would be enough on a gross basis to displace 0.04% of our gasoline usage. So, if all the inputs were free, all we would need is 2,500 of these facilities, and we will have met all U.S. gasoline needs (but not diesel, fuel oil, or jet fuel). Ah, but we forgot about energy inputs. How many gallons of fossil fuels did it take to run all of those semi-trailer trucks to take the stubble to the plant? How much natural gas was required to distill off the ethanol? But we are told that these are “small problems.” Easily resolved.

The article also highlighted the cellulosic pilot plants that are being built:

Many of the questions surrounding cellulosic ethanol could be answered in the next 10 years as six pilot plants are built with the help of $385 million in grants from the Energy Department.

The list was interesting, because I have heard several of these described as full-fledged ethanol plants:

Pilot projects
These are the six pilot projects awarded $385 million in grants by the Department of Energy to construct biomass ethanol plants:

Emmetsburg, Iowa – ($80 million). Broin Companies of Sioux Falls, S.D. Using 842 tons per day of corn fiber, cobs and stalks.

Soperton, Ga. – ($76 million). Range Fuels of Broomfield, Colo. Using 1,200 tons a day of wood residues and wood-based energy crops.

Shelley, Idaho – ($80 million). Iogen Biorefinery Partners of Arlington, Va. Using 700 tons a day of wheat straw, barley straw, corn stover, switchgrass and rice straw.

Southern California – ($40 million). BlueFire Ethanol of Irvine, Calif. Using 700 tons per day of sorted green waste and wood waste from landfills.

Kansas (site undetermined) – ($76 million). Abengoa Bioenergy Biomass of Missouri. Using 700 tons a day of corn stover, wheat straw, milo stubble and switchgrass.

Hendry County, Fla. – ($33 million). ALICO Inc. Using 770 tons per day of yard, wood and vegetative wastes.

Again, according to the article 1 ton of biomass is going to produce 80 gallons of ethanol. The capital costs alone on some of these is in the $60,000 per daily barrel range. That puts capital costs at 2-3 times those of a conventional grain ethanol plant, and over 3 times those of an oil refinery. And I suspect that they are going to find that they have very high operating costs as well.

So, what are we going to find out in 10 years? I could tell you, but the ethanol proponents would tell me that I just lack vision.

  1. By Omar Puhleez on October 6, 2011 at 6:42 am

    Unless you belong to the school of belief that says fossil fuels will never run out, you will probably agree that green plants producing cellulosic feedstock will be the foundation of future carbon-based fuels. Yet I get the sense that you look on the difficulties of sustainable biofuel development with considerable relish.

    There is a disconnect in there somewhere.

  2. By Robert Rapier on October 6, 2011 at 1:21 pm

    The disconnect is that I don’t believe that fuel will be cellulosic ethanol, for reasons I have spelled out many times. So I think we have foolishly spent a lot of time promoting and spending lots of money on a fuel that will not be viable at large scale for very fundamental reasons.

    The other thing is that while there are biomass-based fuels that I think will see commercialization, it won’t amount to a large fraction of our current oil usage. You can do that math and see that there isn’t enough biomass. So we might get away with biomass fuels for planes and long-haul trucking, but we are going to have to find a way to efficiently convert solar energy into the driving force for cars to have any chance of using the kind of energy we use today.


  3. By Omar Puhleez on October 6, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    I have not read your stuff on this, but would be interested to see it.
    Incidentally I did a calculation of my own a while ago. I have not got the figures with me but from memory, fossil fuels have been laid down across the last 400 M or so years. To produce the world’s stock of fossil fuel as at 1750, this amounted to about 10,000 tonnes per year globally over those 400 M years.
    That average rate of formation is nothing, and would be easily replicable, except that we are burning it at somewhat higher rate per year than that.

    To me, bacterial conversion looks the most promising.

    Also google: bacterial conversion of cellulose to hydrocarbon

  4. By Robert Rapier on October 6, 2011 at 7:55 pm

    I know some of the LS9 guys and am familiar with their approach. My graduate school work was on using microbes to convert cellulose:


  5. By Omar Puhleez on October 7, 2011 at 8:03 am

    Most interesting reading in that link, Robert.


  6. By Amarjeet on October 18, 2011 at 11:32 am

    Hi everybody,
    my suggestion will be along with supporitng the article on considering biomass for ethanol or any other use apart from food considering the ever increasing population across the world, hence the alternatives have to be not solar but rather two fundamentally material generated every second and found everywhere one by nature i.e. water any kind of and 2nd manmade municipal solid and liquid waste. Hence if the R&D can be worked on both of these for energy sources like power, gas, oil, etc. then we can have sustainable resource which will last till mankind is their in this planet.

  7. By Tim Campion on March 29, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    In the article, you say:

    How many gallons of fossil fuels did it take to run all of those
    semi-trailer trucks to take the stubble to the plant? How much natural
    gas was required to distill off the ethanol? But we are told that these
    are “small problems.” Easily resolved.”

    You might need an expert to weigh in on the use of natural gas in the refining process, but let me resolve the shipping costs for you right now:

    According to your article, it takes 67,000 semitrailer loads of stubble to make 80 million gallons of ethanol. Current heavy trucking fleets get about 6-7 miles per gallon, according to this article from NBC news (about halfway down). Let’s ballpark the distance and say that on average the stubble is shipped 100 miles from field to refinery. Then this works out to a rate of:

    70-80 gallons of ethanol produced per 1 gallon of shipping fuel

    So this isn’t really a significant problem at all. Even if the stubble has to be shipped 500 miles to the refinery, we’d still get 14-16 gallons of ethanol per gallon of shipping fuel. And this doesn’t even take into account the fact that under new regulation, heavy trucking fuel economy is starting to improve (see for instance, the same NBC article I linked to above). Or the option of doing some shipping by rail.

    I’d agree that the logistics of the operation do seem to be challenging. But it’s not a non-starter — it just requires careful planning, like any large-scale industrial project.

    • By Robert Rapier on March 29, 2013 at 7:13 pm

      “Then this works out to a rate of: 70-80 gallons of ethanol produced per 1 gallon of shipping fuel”

      If it’s shipped 100 miles, then you have to half that because then the truck has to return to the field. Further, the other issue is labor. You have a truck driver loading up, driving 2 hours each way, and unloading. Let’s say he spends 6 hours per load, and makes $25/hour, which is just under the median pay for truck drivers. Now you have the fuel plus $150 in wages to get the material to the plant for 35 gallons or so of ethanol — and you have spent zero so far on actually converting it.

      Quite a problem.


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