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Ethanol in the Silicon Valley spotlight

ethanol2.jpgHere's our Mercury News story today about how ethanol is all the rage (free registration), especially "cellulosic" ethanol, which could begin to transform our fuel economics within the next three to five years.

It is just one possible way to reduce the nation's dangerous dependence on foreign oil, and to respond to the now overwhelming consensus view -- finally -- that the environment is at risk because of greenhouse gases.

Everyone is getting into the act. Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates is plowing money into a Fresno company, Pacific Ethanol. Virgin's Richard Branson has moved on this. The human genome guy, Craig Venter, is rolling up his sleeves. And you've got a host of guys here in Silicon Valley, including well known venture capitalist, Vinod Khosla, and various Stanford professors. John Doerr, of Kleiner Perkins, has talked about it, and tells us his firm is looking to make an investment.

Here's the table showing how ethanol matches up to gasoline.

Here's a brief description of the production process. (The secret sauce is the sun. Plant leaves and stalks take energy from its rays, and cellulosic production unlocks that energy)

As usual, we had limited space for the print article. Ethanol is controversial, because there are widely divergent views on how to calculate costs. There are plenty of skeptics. We hope we didn't take too many shortcuts. (If we did, feel free to add comments below).

There are ethanol stories we didn't get to. Neil Kohler, who is chief executive of Pacific Ethanol, was co-founder or otherwise involved in two other ethanol companies in California, which for a while were the only two ethanol producers in California, according to this story.

There's not much written up about Neil. But his brother, Tom Koehler, Pacific Ethanol's spokesperson, told us about Neil's activities. Here are the two companies:

parallel products.jpg
--Parallel Products in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., makes ethanol out of the refuse of beer or soda production (Tom tells us there are tons of cases of this stuff that would otherwise be thrown away because the liquid has exceeded expiration dates or otherwise not met quality specs). Here's the company's page on ethanol; it has some useful links at the bottom.

--Golden Cheese Co, based Corona, Calif., which extracts ethanol from cheese whey residue left from cheese processing.

Here's the California Energy Commission site on ethanol.

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Tracked: March 27, 2006 9:53 AM


"Shredding" biomass is just a simple mechanical "fiber prep" step in producing cellulosic ethanol. A much more critical step is "steam explosion" of biomass (http://www.sunopta.com/bioprocess.html) used to separate cellulose from hemicellulose and lignin, otherwise enzymes can't act on the cellulose to convert it into sugars.

Robert on February 26, 2006 2:30 PM
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If you want to change the world, take a look at this company. Granted it would not necessary help Global Warming, but we will have continued oil needs and we will always have trash and waste.

What will it take to make THIS public?

When will reporters focus on the Geothermal that our dear president uses on his ranch in Texas??

Seems to me that alternative fuels offer us the chance to create jobs in America, be they solar, wind, biomass, or geothermal. No one seems to care about the economic angle. Paying the world for oil, or pumping up our own economy!

Peter on February 26, 2006 3:10 PM
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A more obvious link to the company I was trying to mention. Turn just about anything with CARBON into real oil.

At least in California new builders will have to offer new homeowners the chance to include solar in their new homes. Between solar and battery powered cars, there is an answer for the future. Odd it took our President 6 years to get around to figuring out. WHO was at the energy meeting early on... and what did they plan?

Peter on February 26, 2006 3:14 PM
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The growing interest in ethanol is very encouraging. One big however: if you aim to produce 140 billion barrels of ethanol to substitute for all the gasoline used by cars and trucks, you create big infrastructure and greenhouse gas problems.

The key is to use plug-in hybrids (which Matt Marshall has covered a couple of times and we at the entrepreneurial non-profit http://www.CalCars.org are promoting) to power most of our miles electrically. Otherwise we'll need more ethanol than we can make sustainably. It's a two-part solution: plug-in hybrids powered by increasingly renewable electricity are the primary fuel and E85 is the range extender.

Felix Kramer on February 26, 2006 10:59 PM
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I would rather send my money to farmers in the United States than to the Middle East.

Richard Vakoc on February 27, 2006 5:29 AM
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The State of Cellulosic Ethanol Technologies:

1. Current advanced gene-bacteria technology can co-ferment Glucose, Xylose, and Arabinose together with 80~90% high yield already;
2. Cellulose and Hemicellulose require differnet enzymes, so it would be not necessary to separate them during pretreatment/hydrolysis processes. Of course, Ligin has to be taken out anyway before or after.
3. The actual cost of ethanol production from cellulosic biomass is amazingly around low $1 range even without federal subsidies using current advanced technologies.
4. This country has enough biomass/waste to generate over 100B gallon of biomass ethanol per year.
5. Sure, ethanol will not be the only magic silver bullet to solve WW energy problem, but at least it can reduce pollution from long-run and reduce oil D&S pressure.
6. Cellulosic ethanol production will create more jobs in the US (6-10 times more) comparing to other industries. Why not promoting it in light of oursourcing?

David Gong on February 27, 2006 9:52 AM
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There's an apples vs. oranges aspect to the energy balance figures cited in Sunday's ethanol article, because they are "per unit of *fossil* energy used in production" (emph added).

In each case,
E_m -- the energy of the raw material
+ E_p -- the energy consumed in processing the material
E_f -- the energy of the fuel produced
+ E_b -- the energy contained in any byproducts
+ E_w -- waste energy (heat)
[Enh, that doesn't line up right, but I hope it's clear enough.]

For gasoline they're figuring (E_m + E_p) : E_f,
while for ethanol they're just figuring E_p : E_f.
For gasoline, the latter figure is about 1:15 -- far higher than ethanol.

*Cellulosic* ethanol does look like a promising energy source, but if fossil fuels really took more energy to produce than they made available, they wouldn't have been the dominant energy source for the last century. It's not as if ethanol were a new invention (hic).

Bill Woods on February 27, 2006 11:18 PM
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"At least not yet." - what a coy way the article has of alluding to peak oil and the US with a huge trade deficit and less than 5% of the world population consuming 25% of the world's oil. I guess the media doesn't feel any responsibility to mention even the basics of the situation - at least not yet.

David Israel on March 3, 2006 9:47 PM
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I wrote a story about cellulose ethanol and the Iogen Corporation. You can read it at;


Lou Ann Hammond on March 7, 2006 7:35 PM
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One thing that was not mentioned in the article was why the emphasis on ethanol and not methanol? Cellulose is readily converted by yeast into methanol, aka wood alcohol. Why not use methanol?

Tom Harrison on March 9, 2006 2:22 PM
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For more info about ethanol, visit:


Ethanol on May 9, 2006 6:06 PM
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