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Cellulosic ethanol to hit the racetrack this year

It's bacteria power for Corvette in 2008.

You can't buy cellulosic ethanol at the pump just yet, but Corvette Racing will use it on the track this year in the American LeMans circuit.

The Corvette team will put a version of E85 ethanol (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) made from cellulosic ethanol into its cars for the 2008 season. Unlike conventional ethanol, an alcohol made out of corn or sugar cane, cellulosic ethanol is made from sawdust, wood chips, and agricultural waste. Processing cellulosic ethanol is trickier, but advocates say it could result in a cheap form of transportation fuel someday because the feedstock (i.e. the wood chips) has very little commercial value.

Several researchers and start-ups are also tinkering with ways of deploying bacteria and enzymes to convert the wood chips into ethanol. Currently, producing ethanol requires several stages of heating and boiling, which can consume almost as much energy as the ethanol provides. Employing bacteria to do the conversion is expected to drastically improve the so-called energy balance (the ratio of energy in to energy out) of ethanol and thereby make it a more viable fuel for mass consumption.

KL Process Design Group of South Dakota will provide the cellulosic ethanol in conjunction with Western Biomass Energy of Wyoming (KL devised the process and Western Biomass makes it.). The first cars to use the fuel in a race will appear at the Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring on March 15.

KL says that it and Western Biomass have become the first companies to begin to sell cellulosic ethanol. The fuel, however, is available only in limited quantities. KL developed it with the South Dakota School of Mines. Even regular ethanol remains tough to find. It's only found in around 1,400 of the 170,000 service stations in the country, according to GM CEO Rick Wagoner.

Other teams this year will race on conventional ethanol.