Sunday, January 27, 2008

A Breakthrough in Ethanol?

Wired is reporting a potential breakthrough in the technology of Ethanol production - the plant-based alternative to petrol that is currently being hailed by some as a major solution to greenhouse gas emissions.

Coskata, a new bio-fuel company based in the United States, claims it has mastered a technique for producing ethanol from virtually any organic substance, including food waste. When burned as a fuel, ethanol dramatically reduces the production of carbon monoxide, nitrous oxides and sulpher dioxide. Even more impressively, Coskata claims it can roll out the fuel at a cost of $1 a gallon.

Despite widespread use in Brazil, where half of all cars can run on ethanol, the new fuel is controversial with some. Criticisms include the probability of price rises in food (corn and sugar have been the traditional crops of choice for ethanol production so far), and questions about the amount of energy produced compared with the energy spent producing it.

At a more primitive level, there is, it must be admitted, a bias in some quarters against any energy technology that originates from America. The not-too-sophisticated reasoning goes something like this: American energy companies are bad; Bush denies the science of global warming; all attempts to address the problem of global warming by Americans are therefore bound to be suspect.

Concerns and prejudices aside, the news from the States is potentially significant for a number of reasons:
  • local organic matter can be used in the production of ethanol - reducing the need for raw materials be be sourced from a distance
  • food and other waste can be used - potentially resulting in significant gains in food recycling schemes
  • an over-reliance on crude oil can be reduced, with significant economic (and even political) implications

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