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By Robert Rapier on Dec 8, 2007 with no responses

Holiday Travel Plans and a Letter from a Reader

I will be traveling from December 16th until January 13th with intermittent Internet access. During this time, I hope to put up some posts covering the year in energy, my $1,000 bet on oil prices (which I think I will win by the skin of my teeth), finalize my ethanol FAQ, and take a look back at my resolutions for 2007. I probably won’t cover This Week in Petroleum during this time, as I am unlikely to be around a computer when the report comes out. I may also pull up some interesting mail from readers that I have gotten from time to time and post the exchange from a few of those.

In fact, I will go ahead and start off with one of those. I won’t post last names or e-mail addresses. This was an e-mail I received on 11-29-07.

Dear Mr. Rapier,

As one who is interested in “renewable” fuels, I came across your blog regarding “Ethanol: From Panacea to Pariah” on the WSJ. While my arguments differ from yours, I agree that ethanol from grain is not a long term solution.

My questions to you has to do with your comments: “The difficulty in producing ethanol from cellulose is probably an order of magnitude greater than it is for producing ethanol from corn. Therefore, it is highly unlikely that the growth curve for cellulosic ethanol production (presuming it is ever commercially viable) will rival that of grain ethanol.”

While not a chemical engineer (my late father-in-law was a professor emeritus in Chemical Engineering at Berkeley and I avoided the subject like the plague), I do have a MSME from Berkeley and became interested in producing alcohol from cellulose (specifically the piles of old newspapers we were accumulating) while I was at Bell Labs almost thirty years ago. When I realized that the process required using sulfuric acid in the preliminary process before fermentation and distillation, my interest quickly waned. As attention has grown in recent years, I’ve come to realize that the key to the success of the nascent cellulosic ethanol industry will be the identification of efficient and inexpensive catalysts (enzymes). Once development, I believe the industry will take off, and ethanol from cellulose will become a viable substitution for gasoline.

You more than most understand this missing link, so I am curious why you pose the weakness of cellulosic ethanol as ramp up issue rather than a breakthrough issue.

I would greatly appreciate your thoughts on this. My immediate interest has to do with identifying companies that may develop such breakthrough technology for investment purposes.

In the mid-seventies I remember: the gasoline crisis, my father-in-law talking about greenhouse gases and the end of fossil fuel based energy, my most revered mechanical engineering professor saying that the US would have a hydrogen based energy infrastructure before the turn of the century, and my fellow research assistants at the Lawrence Berkeley Lab proclaiming that the polysilicon based solar cells they were developing would make solar competitive within five years. These, along with my personal experience attempting to commercialize CNG in southern California have left me jaundiced to the notion that there will be significant changes to the energy status quo. However, cellulosic ethanol does make sense to me, although I’m no expert.

My last question is, where do you see energy situation going?

Thanks for you input.


Long Beach, California

PS While in Scotland, I highly recommend a visit to Dunvegan Castle on the Isle of Skye (rest assured I don’t receive any kickbacks)

My response:

Hi Glen,

Don’t get me wrong, I haven’t written off cellulosic ethanol. In fact, I am working on a cellulosic project right now. (And I did my graduate school research on cellulosic ethanol). I think the current efforts are doomed: Transport a lot of biomass to a central location, convert a small fraction into a highly dilute ethanol mix, and then have to transport all that wet waste back offsite. I have written a number of articles on the severe logistical issues. I once did a calculation that showed it would take 850,000 mature trees a year to support a mid-sized cellulosic ethanol plant. You quickly conclude that this is not going to supply us with a lot of fuel.

There are several technologies that I think are promising. Renewable diesel (not biodiesel) either produced from biomass gasification or from hydrotreating plant oils and animal fats should do well. Electric transport, with electricity supplied from wind, solar, tidal, geothermal – and even coal and nuclear in the beginning – is to me a home run solution. And in tropical countries like Brazil, sugarcane ethanol makes a lot of sense. But cellulosic ethanol has been over-hyped at the moment. It has some serious issues. I am hoping that my current project will address them. We are already significantly better than the technology behind the 6 pilot plants that have been announced in the U.S. [although Range Fuels is really apples to oranges].

I think in the short-term, we may see a real energy squeeze. People will have to adopt more efficient lifestyles to buy us some time. Politicians have got to quit adopting pandering solutions that don’t really address the issues. It’s a sticky situation for them. The citizens need tough love, but they tend to vote out politicians who give it to them. So the politicians promise them cake and lollipops.

Cheers, Robert

This may give you some idea of why I took my e-mail address out of the side bar. I generally feel compelled to answer every e-mail, and it got to the point that I was answering e-mails for 2 or 3 hours a day. On top of that, I was trying to work, make time for family, and write blog posts. But, if I use some of these letters as blog posts, I can kill two birds.

As far as the cellulosic project I am involved with – that will come to light in 2008. I have been chomping at the bit to break this news for 6 months now, and hopefully I won’t have to wait too much longer. It will be the best cellulosic technology in the world, via a completely different approach from all the others.