To many, cellulosic ethanol - long held out to be alternative energy's savior - remains nothing more than a distant hope and one which, in all likelihood, may never prove commercially viable. Indeed, as Grist's Tom Philpott recently noted, new research by leading agricultural economists has suggested that cellulosic ethanol - even when taking into account the 2007 energy bill's subsidy-replete Renewable Energy Standard mandate - will not prove viable in the long run. At best, it would only slightly offset future fossil fuel use.
Yet even despite these bleak scenarios, several enterprising companies and scientists have been plowing ahead with new research and technologies aimed at tackling this daunting challenge. Researchers at the University of Maryland are claiming to have made a new breakthrough with their proprietary enzyme mixes derived from biomass-hungry bacteria. Steve Hutcheson and Ron Weiner, whose nascent start-up, Zymetis, will be selling the mixes, were able to replicate an enzyme found in the Chesapeake Bay marsh grass bacterium, S. degradans; the result, Ethazyme, rapidly degrades cellulosic materials found in a wide variety of biomass sources, including "waste paper, brewing byproducts and leftover agriculture products," and breaks them down into ethanol-ready sugars. They claim the process is much cheaper than alternatives and that it uses few caustic chemicals; furthermore, by selling the mixes to other firms, they are hoping to reach a much wider market.
Most promising is their claim that the process would also be carbon neutral and that, when fully operational (they didn't provide an exact date or range), it could lead to the production of 75 billion gallons a year of cellulosic ethanol. Brushing aside some of their loftier figures, there is certainly reason to be cautiously optimistic about their work; assuming they are able to rapidly bring costs down as they scale up - and assuming gas prices continue their vertiginous ascent (a fair assumption) - their products could catch on and impact the cellulosic ethanol market in a meaningful way.