Baylor University may consider itself a teetotaling campus, but scientists there are enlisted in the cause of cheaper alcohol.
They won a $373,000 federal grant this week for research on making fuel-grade ethanol out of fiber sources such as cornstalks, wood chips and straw.
They are part of an international effort to make ethanol, or grain alcohol, an economical alternative to fossil fuel at a time of dizzying fuel prices.
Corn ethanol is already a popular high-octane additive to make gasoline engines burn cleaner. Cars are built to run on up to 10 percent alcohol, and some can burn fuel with 85 percent alcohol. President Bush this month signed an energy bill that will double the amount of alcohol used in fuel.
The ethanol industry depends on government subsidies, and some critics contend that growing and processing corn for alcohol uses more fossil fuel than it saves.
But using fiber instead of grain could change that equation, said environmental studies professor Peter Van Walsom, who is spearheading the Baylor project. “It does take some energy, but the energy balance compared to corn is better,” he said. “With crude oil above $60 a barrel, the economics are getting better all the time.”
Baylor’s environmental studies department has teamed with the chemistry department over the last two years for preliminary work on the project. The new U.S. Department of Agriculture funding will help the scientists move to larger-scale experiments.
Van Walsom said Baylor’s research is a small but important piece of a larger puzzle of making cellulose-based ethanol affordable. Such fuel could reduce the amount of carbon-based greenhouse gases that cars produce, he said. Although ethanol creates carbon dioxide when burned, it comes from plants that grab carbon out of the air, so there’s no net carbon gain, he said.
Cellulose-based ethanol fuel has already been produced in small batches, and a factory is being planned in Spain. The Baylor team’s research is focused on how to make the process more efficient.
Traditionally, ethanol factories use enzymes to break down corn starches into sugars, then use yeast to convert the sugar into alcohol. Cellulose fiber, such as wood pulp or cornstalks, is a carbohydrate like starch, but its tough cell walls make it difficult to ferment.
The Baylor team has been softening up the fibers with a “thermochemical” process, using acid or alkali chemicals in combination with heat and pressure, said Kevin Chambliss, a Baylor chemist involved with the project. Van Walsom said the process can break down any kind of cellulose, whether sugar cane stalks, sorghum, wood or even weeds. “The nice thing is that once it’s developed, you just find whatever grows best,” he said.
He said he can envision growing and mowing native Central Texas prairie grasses for fuel, which would have the side benefit of restoring wildlife habitat. Such a crop would not require the vast expenditures of fuel and fertilizer it takes to grow corn, he said.
Experts are divided on whether conventional ethanol helps reduce dependence on fossil fuel. In a study published this June, University of California at Berkeley geoengineering professor Tad Patek concluded that making ethanol can require six times more energy than it actually contains.
But Michael Wang, an ethanol expert at the University of Chicago’s Argonne National Laboratory, said those figures are based on “way conservative” assumptions. He said his own studies have shown that 100 units of energy from ethanol takes only 74 units of fossil fuel energy. He said cellulose-based ethanol could improve that ratio, with 10 units of fossil fuel required to create 100 units of ethanol.
Baylor environmental studies professor Larry Lear said gas prices are making ethanol more attractive all the time. Lear started an ethanol plant in Waco in 1981 using candy wastes from the M&M Mars factory, but got out of the business during the oil slump of the late 1980s. At the time, he said, it cost him about $1.15 to make a gallon of alcohol, more than the retail price of gasoline. But he said a manufacturer today could sell ethanol at rates 20 to 30 percent below the gasoline price.
He said he considered starting an ethanol factory in McGregor earlier this year, but wasn’t convinced he’d have a reliable source of local grain.
He said he believes cellulose ethanol has a bright future, but he doesn’t expect ethanol to drastically reduce fossil fuel consumption.
“We use so much fuel in this country, we can’t grow enough corn to replace all the gas we use,” he said. “Conservation has to be a part of it.”
Source: Wacotrib.com Aug. 21, 2005.