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Cellulosic ethanol to surpass 14 years

Cellulosic ethanol. Everyone loves it, but building it to scale will take quite a number of years.

MENLO PARK, Calif.--It's going to take nearly a decade and a half, but cellulosic ethanol will overtake corn ethanol, according to an enzyme maker.

Cellulosic ethanol, in terms of volume, will surpass corn ethanol production in 2022, Joel Cherry, senior director of bioenergy technology at Novozymes, predicted at the Nordic Green conference taking place here at SRI International. That's 14 years away.

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Cherry has a good vantage point into the subject. Novozymes makes enzymes for companies that hope to take wood chips and other vegetable matter and convert it to fuel. Thus, he's in constant contact with people on the front lines of cellulosic ethanol.

The time is needed mostly to scale up. Ethanol production in the U.S. is around 7 billion gallons a year. Cellulosic ethanol is still in the experimental stage--people make it in labs, but that's about it. Getting to 7 billion alone is going to require building a lot of refineries--and corn continues to grow.

Corn, though, can only grow so much. Cherry speculated that corn ethanol production will max out at 15 billion gallons a year. (The U.S. consumes more than 145 billion gallons of liquid fuel a year at the moment.)

The cost of cellulosic plants also needs to decline. Cellulosic plants cost about $2 to $4 per gallon per year. First-generation conventional ethanol plants can make corn ethanol for around $1.50 a gallon. This is the wholesale price. When all the distribution costs and taxes are added, regular ethanol turns out to be more expensive than gas.

The price of cellulosic ethanol "has to be reduced to make it a viable technology," Cherry said.