Refining ethanol from waste

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Enzyme technology is ready for market. What we need now is commercialization and deployment of advanced biofuels in order to help meet our country’s most pressing energy and environment challenges.” –Adam Monroe, president, Novozymes North America

Get this: turning paper and cardboard waste into sugars that are then fermented into fuel for cars and light trucks. Pretty slick, eh? The key ingredient are man-made enzymes in this process that literally “eat” waste paper products, with the sugary byproduct then capable of being refined into an ethanol-like fuel that can be mixed with a little gasoline to power vehicles.

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I got an up-close look at this waste-to-fuel process at the recent Washington Auto Show held here in the nation’s capital. A company named Fiberight uses a sequence of pulping, pre-treatment and washing combined with enzymes (basically fast-reproducing microorganisms) from Novozymes that turn paper and cardboard waste into sugars that are then fermented into ethanol-like biofuel. They then mix it with gasoline to make “E85” – a blended fuel of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

Fiberight believes its process has the potential to unlock the 85 gallons of biofuel contained in every ton of non-recycled trash. So, for the 170 million tons of excess trash generated each year in the U.S. – contaminated paper, food wastes, yard discards and other organic degradeables – could translate into over 10 billion gallons of renewable biofuel.

The funny part about all of this is that Fiberight’s key “fuel production” concepts largely come from CEO Craig Stuart-Paul’s association with the “micro-brew” side of the beer industry – and work with the waste industry as well. Combining refuse and beer brewing expertise – what they dub “special biotech knowledge” – they came up with a means to efficiently sort, pulp, process, digest and refine organic waste materials to produce high yields of glucose, which is converted into alcohol and then into the end product – cellulosic ethanol.

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The Novozymes’ microorganisms critical to this fuel-making process are the result of several years of experimentation. Novozyme received two contracts from the Department of Energy (DOE) for its research efforts; the first contract in 2002 for $2.2 million, and the second in 2008 for $12.3 million. As a result of this work, Novozymes said it’s been able to achieve significant reductions in enzyme costs over the years, notably the 50% reduction as of 2009. Most recently, the company received a $28.4 million tax credit toward the construction of its enzyme manufacturing facility in Blair, NE.

Sounds like a nice research project, I’m sure, but there’s an important timeline driving all of this – the implementation of federal government mandates requiring higher use of renewable fuels. Under the EISA Renewable Fuel Standards (RFS2), the use of such “cellulosic ethanol” fuels must increase from 100 million gallons annually in 2010 to over 16 billion gallons by 2022.

This is a big worry for those following the “food versus fuel” debate, as almost all the ethanol used in the U.S. comes from agricultural sources; mainly corn and similar feedstocks. So the ability to generate fuel from non-agrarian sources would short circuit that debate in a hurry.

There’s another neat corollary to Fiberight’s “fuel brewing” process: the “refineries” required to make this stuff can be small and located in urban areas, right next to refuse transfer stations and landfills – and thus a mere hop, skip and jump from local filling stations.

The company uses what it calls efficient “mini-mill’ style facilities – a 50,000 square foot operation – that thus can be constructed at much lower initial capital investment due to the smaller scale. Lower plant investment cost enables initial market viability at reasonable feedstock input and production rates, with transportation and feedstock logistics also much simpler to manage, Fiberight said.

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Now, two other companies at the Washington Auto Show – Ricardo and Growth Energy – are joining forces to take full advantage of high-ethanol content fuel by “re-optimizing,” in their words, gasoline engines to run more efficiently on ethanol.

The companies showed off a couple of demonstration vehicles equipped with Ricardo’s new ethanol-boosted direct injection (EBDI) engine package to highlight that, even for larger vehicles, extreme optimization of ethanol combustion can enable engine downsizing of the order of 50% while still delivering substantial fuel economy improvements – up to 30%, Ricardo estimates – with no loss of power or performance.

Ricardo and Growth energy are testing a Ricardo EBDI flex fuel engine built off a production 3.2-litre V6 gasoline engine to repower two GMC Sierra 3500 HD pickup trucks, each with a curb weight of 6, 000 pounds.

“We are substituting a 3.2-litre V6 engine in a 1 ton pickup truck vehicle usually powered by a 6.0-liter V8 gasoline or a 6.0-liter diesel engine,” noted Rod Beazley, director of the Ricardo's Spark Ignited Engines Product Group. “The EBDI platform takes full advantage of ethanol’s properties of high octane and latent heat of vaporization to deliver near-diesel levels of engine efficiency, whereas a standard gasoline engine might suffer a fuel economy penalty of about 30% when operating on higher ethanol blends such as E85.”

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And, according to DOE estimates, ethanol use reduces the price of gasoline by as much as 20 to 35 cents per gallon, potentially saving the average American household $150-$300/year.

“If we are ever to achieve the energy independence that is vital to the economic and national security of our nation, we must begin to put more ethanol into our fuel tanks – and less gasoline from foreign oil,” noted Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, co-chairman of Growth Energy.

“As science moves from making ethanol from corn to producing it from corn cobs and other plant materials, ethanol will provide even greater sustainability,” he added. “Through this project with Ricardo we aim to be able to put potential customers in the driving seat and demonstrate to them that with EBDI technology, ethanol can deliver performance and fuel economy and offers an attractive and sustainable transport solution using an American produced renewable fuel. Consumers should have a choice at the pump – and domestic ethanol should be one of those options for fuel.”

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