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The Future of Ethanol

We haven’t been entirely kind to ethanol and the agro-political machine that supports it here in the United States this week, but it’s not all bad, or at least doesn’t have to be. While it’s quite clear that using corn may not be the best idea, for a number of reasons — suspect energy balance, its widespread use as food, the huge political implications — there is one word that has the potential to salvage the future of ethanol as a viable alternative to petroleum: cellulose.

That’s right. By making the fuel from a structural material that exists in most plants, feedstocks are opened up to a huge variety of biomass, including waste from urban, agricultural, and forestry sources. The possibilities are really quite endless, with one caveat: the cost. Cellulosic ethanol requires a great amount of processing, and the different procedure is just starting to become viable on a larger scale. So, it’s not here quite yet, but could be really, really big when (if?) it does arrive. Here are some of TreeHugger’s favorite examples and ideas about taking ethanol out of the golden age (of corn) and into the future:

1) Though there probably isn’t enough waste to make it profitable, it’s good to know that we can make ethanol from cheese [].
2) In Japan, a company called BioEthanol Japan is using leftover wood from construction sites [] to brew their fuel.
3) Another company in Japan, Oenon Holdings Inc., an alcoholic beverage maker, decided to try rice [] as a feedstock for ethanol. Hey, it works for sake…
4) Researchers at Purdue University here in the States looked a bit closer at corn [] and discovered the stalks and not the kernels could be used for the cellulosic variety.
5) Canada-based Iogen Corporation is getting cellulose under their fingernails by actually starting to produce cellulosic ethanol [] — they made the stuff that was used by the G8 summit — and we liked them enough to mention them again [] when Goldman Sachs threw $20 million in the pot to help fund their efforts.
6) BlueFire Ethanol [] took their efforts public last year, and are one of the only companies actively producing ethanol from cellulose.
7) Back up north in Canada’s tobacco belt, ex-tobacco farmers (put out of business by cheaper imports and a general decline in smoking) did their homework and discovered the best crop to brew ethanol in the local conditions: sweet potatoes [].
8) Switch grass [] has garnered a lot of attention as the future of ethanol, even earning a mention in President Bush’s State of the Union address back in 2006.

Will ethanol be part of a green way forward? Some say yes, and some aren’t so sure; we think that, to make it a long-term solution, the cellulosic methods will have be a huge part of it. Stay tuned!