20 September 2006

When could straw-ethanol fuel our cars?

How long will it take us to make straw into “fuel”?

The question is raised because of a succession of news. On August 28, an enterprise in Henan Province declared that they would invest 50 million Yuan RMB in building the first straw-ethanol industrialization product line with a capacity of 3,000 tons straw-ethanol. The project hopes to be completed and put into production in the fist half of next year.

On August 30, one enterprise in Shandong Province pushed forward a new enzyme-fermented ethanol technology and its industrialization model project and got approved by the experts from Chinese Academy of Science. This project with a capacity of producing 3,000 tons straw-ethanol annually is claimed to be the first one in our country to realize the industrialized production of fuel ethanol with straw.

Additionally, one oversized state-owned enterprise alleged that they would invest large sum of money in biomass energy industry. This enterprise would build up the capacity of producing 3 million tons fuel ethanol by the end of the 11th Five-year Plan period. And the most attractive investment is in producing straw-ethanol. It is said that they are cooperating with Denmark and the apparatus for producing straw-ethanol is about to be put into operation.

Before analyzing the succession of news, we need to clarify two concepts. First, the “fuel” from straw is the ethanol gasoline. In China, ethanol gasoline refers to the gasoline mixed with 10% fuel ethanol. Second, the straw ethanol mentioned above is actually the fuel ethanol. However, its raw materials are straw, chaff and stalk, which are different from generally called fuel ethanol, whose raw material is maize.

From the above, what this news show is just an impulsion in straw-ethanol industry. It definitely conveys such a signal: straw ethanol is not a dream any more; it is being industrialized at an increasing speed, and will take the place of maize finally.

Is it a reasonable signal? To answer this question, we can never neglect the following two actualities. First, insiders predict that a capacity of 5 million tons fuel ethanol will have been built by the end of the 11th Five-Year Plan period. Facing so great demands, the production of ethanol with maize and other grains will be under great pressure. Adhering to the principle of “neither scrabble for grains with farmers, nor scrabble for land with grains”, straw, the ideal substitute raw material, becomes the focus.

Second, our country has approved to build four test projects of fuel ethanol production, with an annual capacity of 1.02 million tons. The consumption of fuel ethanol has occupied 20% of the whole fuel consumption in our country. However, by far, all these fuel ethanol are made from maize. In another word, in the present fuel ethanol production in China, the straw ethanol accounts almost nothing.

Is straw ethanol after all a dream or not? Firstly, we have to take the technology and the industrialization ability into consideration. The main ingredients of the straw are cellulose, hemicellulose, and lignose. The key technology to produce ethanol with straw is the Hydrolysis technology of cellulose and hemicellulose and the gene engineering bacilli that can metabolize pentose.

It is reported that several enterprises declared that they had mastered the technique of producing straw ethanol and have produced some samples. Some even said that they had built industrialized product lines. No matter how these enterprises preach, one indispensable detail is that among enterprises carrying out straw ethanol experiments, pilot scale experiment only has a capacity of 300 tons at most, and the product line currently being built has a capacity of 3000 tons at most. It can be only regarded as big-scaled pilot scale experiment and is far from industrialization.

Cost is the second factor that we need to consider. The cost of producing ethanol with maize is relatively high. Some pointed factories disclose that maize accounts for 70% of the whole raw materials used to produce fuel ethanol. But the reporter has learned, in order to popularize fuel ethanol, our country has subsidized the pointed factories by the standard of over 1,000 Yuan per ton. Theoretically speaking, the price of straw is much lower than that of maize. The cost of producing ethanol with straw will definitely be lower.

But under the condition that big-scaled industrialization of straw ethanol has not been completed, the economic efficiency will accordingly decrease. The enterprises, who are carrying out experiments on straw ethanol production, said that 6 tons of straw could produce one ton ethanol. But the cost will be equal to the maize ethanol until the 11th Five-Year Plan period.

Therefore, the rational conclusion should be that we have obtained the technology of producing straw ethanol, but we still have to solve problems in industrialization and cost. In this case, the right choice should be that those powerful big-scaled enterprises cooperate with scientific research institutes to carry out pilot scale experiments.

Then utilize the optimized index, carry out industrialization experiment, and finally only after the experiment is proved successful, can it be popularized completely. When doing so, the backup is capital. Therefore, some relevant people appeal that we should lower the doorsill of bank loan to those enterprises who are carrying out straw ethanol test, loosen the refinancing terms in the capital market, and offer favorable consideration on special fund for national major projects.

How far is the straw ethanol from us? For every enterprise and place that has an impulsion in straw ethanol, this question should become one that has to be clarified.

(Cf. news of Sept. 19, 2006.)

Source: China Economic Net Sept. 18, 2006.

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