Moving to the next biofuel generation

November 3, 2010

This week, The Economist has a survey of the future of the biofuels industry, headlined “The Post-Alcohol World.” The opening premise of the discussion is that ethanol as fuel has become passé due to its many drawbacks, e.g., low energy content relative to gasoline, tendency to absorb water, corrosiveness, etc. The real promise lies in so called “drop-in” fuels that are chemical equivalents to existing hydrocarbons and can be added to conventional fuels with nobody noticing the difference.

The discussion points out that much is happening with this newer approach, and it is pulling the limelight away from plain old corn ethanol and the hugely disappointing efforts to create economically viable cellulosic ethanol. The assumption is that sugar will still likely be the main feedstock, but the product will be a hydrocarbon that can be blended with conventional fuels. Cellulose and even lignin will eventually enter into the picture, but that is still a long way off.

Producers of corn-based ethanol have to look at this scenario and wonder if they have any place in it. This concern isn’t hard to understand. Such companies have had reason to be worried for some time given the vagaries of public opinion and relentless cost pressures. It’s an industry that has always teetered near the edge. If legacy plants can’t be modified and repurposed without too drastic a cost, they may have to take up a new line of work.

I’ve often thought that moonshine on an industrial scale could take over. Imagine adding a bottling line to your local fuel ethanol plant where you could fill standard two-liter soft drink bottles with a 100 proof industrial alcohol/water mixture. This “yellow lightning” could have great potential as a punch base for frat parties at some of our more recreationally minded universities. If the ATF folks (revenooers) could be kept out of the equation, it could create a whole new income stream.

At the same time, The Economist has also just published an interesting chart that says alcohol is the most harmful abused drug, and the only one where harm to others is greater than harm to the user. Maybe my suggestion isn’t that good an idea after all.