Jury's still out on ethanol, biofuels

Automotive News reports on the state of the biofuel industry.

Automotive News
3 min read

Automotive News

Whatever happened to ethanol?

With all the buzz about hybrids, full electrics, and plug-ins, the industry doesn't seem to talk a lot about biofuels these days.

But research is continuing. So is a political debate over the amount of ethanol that should be blended with gasoline in the U.S. fuel supply.

Proving grounds tests

Vehicles at General Motors' Milford Proving Grounds in Michigan have started testing cellulosic ethanol made by GM partner Coskata at a new plant in Madison, Pa., outside Pittsburgh. Coskata dubbed its plant, which opened last month, "semicommercial." It is capable of producing 50 million to 100 million gallons of fuel a year from such feedstocks as wood biomass, agricultural, and construction waste, and crops raised specifically to be used for energy.

"The next step is to build full-scale facilities and begin licensing our technology to project developers, project financiers, and strategic partners," Coskata CEO Bill Roe said in a statement.

Among the nation's automakers, GM has been the most visible backer of ethanol. In January 2008, it launched a partnership with Coskata. A few months later, it invested in a second cellulosic-ethanol venture, Mascoma.

Companies such as Coskata and Mascoma are working to address a major criticism leveled against the use of ethanol derived from corn: that it jeopardizes the world's food supplies and raises food prices.

Cellulosic-ethanol companies are looking at ways to make fuel by breaking down cellulose, the material that gives structure to plants. The idea is to get away from relying on corn and other food crops by using waste matter, such as corn stalks.

"We invested in Coskata so that we could enable the rapid deployment of commercially viable and environmentally sustainable ethanol globally," said Bob Babik, GM's vehicle emissions director, in a statement issued at the startup of the Pennsylvania plant.

The debate over cars and ethanol long has centered on the relative scarcity of ethanol fueling stations and the low fuel economy that vehicles achieve when fueled with ethanol.

How much is too much?

Lately, that debate has shifted to how much ethanol should be blended into the nation's gasoline supply.

By law, standard gasoline in the United States can contain up to 10 percent ethanol. Recently, backers of the biofuel, led by a group of ethanol makers known as Growth Energy, have lobbied to increase that limit to 15 percent. High corn prices and a slump in demand, the result of Americans driving fewer miles in the recession, have hit makers of corn-derived ethanol hard. Many ethanol makers have gone out of business.

Flexible-fuel vehicles, which many automakers now offer, are designed to run on such a high concentration of ethanol, a blend specifically labeled E85.

Groups representing carmakers, including the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, are fighting efforts to allow 15 percent ethanol in standard gasoline. They say that engines designed to handle no more than 10 percent ethanol would suffer if the mix rose to 15 percent.

Michael Stanton, CEO of the international association, wrote this summer in a letter to the EPA that if the EPA "were to approve the sale of such fuels, we believe a range of problems would result that could jeopardize the control or reduction of automotive emissions."

Coskata's new cellulosic-ethanol plant does not use corn as its feedstock. Here are details on the plant.
Input: Wood chips, agricultural, and construction waste
Output: Can be scaled up to 50-100 million gallons a year
Partners: General Motors, others
Location: Madison, Pa. (outside Pittsburgh)
Source: Coskata

(Source: Automotive News)