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Jungle Rot: the Future of Ethanol?
Jeremy Faludi, 17 Nov 05

Researchers at the Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy lab (EERE) and National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) have been working for years on making ethanol out of cellulose--straw, corn stalks, and other agricultural waste leftover from growing food crops. This would mean ethanol would finally make sense as a fuel, because its Energy Return On Energy Invested would be positive (since the cellulose would be waste from food, it would be "free" in terms of energy), it could be produced in large quantities (since it would not compete with food for land), and it would be cheap.

The main obstacle to making ethanol from cellulose is that cellulose doesn't break down easily or quickly. But some years ago, people found that jungle rot (the fungus Trichoderma reesei) did it quite well. Since then, NREL, EERE, and many universities and companies have been trying to make it even more effective.

Iogen Corporation, in Canada, was the first company to have a cellulose ethanol manufacturing plant--in 2004 they opened a "demonstration-scale facility", and are working to scale to mass-manufacturing. Last month they told the New York Times that they plan to produce cellulosic ethanol at the equivalent of US$1.08 a gallon; but right now they're still working out some kinks. They're using straw as the feedstock, which costs about 50¢ per gallon of ethanol you can get from it, and according to EERE, the T. Reesi enzyme still costs about 50¢ per gallon of ethanol. However, EERE thinks they can bring down the cost of T. reesi tenfold, and Iogen has been smart-breeding more effective strains of it. Costs will also become less of an issue as oil prices rise.

This isn't going to sweep the world tomorrow, but eventually the threshold will be crossed where cellulose ethanol becomes cheaper and more eco-friendly than gas.

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Canadian company SunOpta, in partnership with Abengoa Bioenergy of St. Louis, is currently building the world's first true commercial-scale biomass to ethanol plant in Salamanca, Spain. This plant will produce over a million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year from wheat straw starting in 2006:

The key to efficient production of ethanol from cellulose is "pre-treatment." SunOpta uses a patented technology called "Steam Explosion" to separate cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignin, thus reducing enzyme-loading requirements and increasing ethanol yield, while separating out other "fractions" used for valuable co-products such as bio-plastics and the sweetener Xylitol.

SunOpta does not have the PR machine Iogen does, which is why few people know that SunOpta/Abengoa is actually far ahead of Iogen in terms of viable commercial biomass to ethanol production.

TORONTO, Aug 08, 2005 (BUSINESS WIRE) -- SunOpta Inc. (SunOpta or the Company) (Nasdaq:STKL) (TSX:SOY) today announced that it has signed a 4.7 million Euros ($7.1M Cdn) contract to supply its patented steam explosion equipment and process technology to Abener Energia S.A. of Seville, Spain, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Abengoa S.A. (Abengoa) (Madrid Stock Exchange - ABG), for the first commercial production facility in the world to convert wheat straw into ethanol. This facility, which is scheduled to be operational in the fall of 2006, will be built in Babilafuente (Salamanca), Spain and is located adjacent to an existing cereal grain to ethanol plant operated by Abengoa. Abengoa is the largest ethanol producer in Europe and the second largest in the world.

SunOpta is recognized as the world leader in the preparation, pretreatment, steam explosion and extraction of value added compounds from plant biomass material.

The awarding of this contract follows extensive development work completed at SunOpta's pilot plant and laboratory facilities located in Norval, Ontario. The development was sponsored by Abengoa Bioenergy R&D of St. Louis, Missouri, with a focus on the production of ethanol from biomass.

The soaring price of oil and the concern over greenhouse gas emissions has created a strong interest in the demand for ethanol, with President Bush recently calling for a substantial commitment to increase the production of ethanol in the U.S. Several States and Provinces have legislated the inclusion of 10% ethanol in auto fuel and others are considering similar legislation.

Ethanol is largely produced from cereal grain in Europe and corn in North America and it is generally recognized that the cost effective supply of grains and corn will be a limiting factor in meeting the growing demand of ethanol for energy use. Experts agree that it is critical to utilize technology that extracts fermentable sugars from the whole plant, including wheat straw and corn stalks to meet this growing demand.

SunOpta entered into a partnership in May 2004 with Abengoa of St. Louis, Missouri, to develop technology for the integration of the production of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass and from starch to improve the commercial viability and to provide an unlimited growth opportunity in the ethanol industry. SunOpta was selected due to their commitment to innovation and sustainable development.

Murray Burke, Vice President and General Manager of SunOpta's StakeTech Steam Explosion Group, commented that "SunOpta is delighted to partner with Abengoa and its affiliates to deliver our expertise and proprietary technology to the formidable team that Abengoa has assembled. This world class facility will be the benchmark for all future biomass to ethanol plants."

SunOpta Inc. is an operator of high-growth ethical businesses, focusing on integrated business models in the natural and organic food markets. For the last seven consecutive years, SunOpta was included in Profit magazine's 'Profit 100' list of the 100 fastest growing companies in Canada. The Company has three business units: the SunOpta Food Group, which specializes in sourcing, processing and distribution of natural and organic food products integrated from seed through packaged products; the Opta Minerals Group, a producer, distributor, and recycler of environmentally friendly industrial materials; and the StakeTech Steam Explosion Group which engineers and markets proprietary steam explosion technology systems for the pulp, bio-fuel and food processing industries. Each of these business units has proprietary products and services that give it a solid competitive advantage in its sector.

SOURCE: SunOpta Inc.

Posted by: Robert Pontius on 17 Nov 05

Congratulations! Keep up the good work. My hopes are with you.


Posted by: Gerald Farrow on 18 Nov 05

I read an article in one of our farm papers recently about cellulosic ethanol. I believe Iogen had costed their their raw product(straw) at $50 a ton. They are heading for a rude awakening! I currently sell my straw in the field, unbaled, for $35 to $40 a ton. They need to calculate baling, handling several times, storage, and delivery. Everybody seems to have ignored the fact that their is no infrastructure for straw, corn stover, etc similar to grain corn or sugar cane.

Posted by: Owen on 18 Nov 05

"but eventually the threshold will be crossed where cellulose ethanol becomes cheaper and more eco-friendly than gas."

Isn't $1.08/gallon already cost competitive with gasoline at $2.50 a gallon retail? What is the after production cost of gasoline?

Posted by: Jesse Jenkins on 19 Nov 05

And thanks Robert for the scoop on SunOpta. I hadn't heard of them but as you point out, they seem to be ahead of and certainly competitive with Iogen (who I've heard much more about). If they get the first commercial scale cellulosic ethanol refinery online by 2006, that's big news. Cheers...

Posted by: Jesse Jenkins on 19 Nov 05

Ummm, you cannot eat your cake and keep it too?
So they “have been working for years on making ethanol out of cellulose--straw, corn stalks, and other agricultural waste leftover from growing food crops. This would mean ethanol would finally make sense as a fuel, because its Energy Return On Energy Invested would be positive (since the cellulose would be waste from food, it would be "free" in terms of energy).”

One problem. After peak oil and gas we are going to need all those agricultural “left-overs” AND MORE just to eat! We are going to be struggling to keep enough NPK in the soil just to grow our food crops. Every scrap of biomass excess from the crop will have to be raked back in, and then tons and tons of extra external biomaterial will have to be added just to grow our food! In bio-farming, there is no “waste leftover from growing food crops”… at least not in this sense.

I say massively investigate solar & wind energy just to keep our electricity grid going, upgrade rail, and forget cars! It’s just too dangerous to risk increasing desertification any further. The age of the individual car is over.

We need a broad thinking scientific panel on peak oil.

The problem is too huge for any one “silver bullet”. There might be some areas for some communities to grow their own ethanol and biodiesel, but let’s not pretend that these fuels will come to any significant percentage of the enormous volumes we use today. Let’s not insult our farmers by telling them that left over biomass is available for the energy industry, when farmers are going to be struggling with the constantly rising price of NPK fertilizers after peak oil. Let’s get real here, because our lives depend on getting this right.

These corn stalks are “Free” in terms of energy? I don’t think so. Time to build a solar chimney and electric railway instead.

Posted by: David Lankshear on 21 Nov 05

Also, the rain forests are being diminished further in order to supply ethanol to Europe and North America:

Very convenient for some countries, because they get to meet their Kyoto requirements by shifting the problem to another country.

Posted by: mbg on 30 Nov 05



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