U.S. Maps Ethanol Research to Replace 30 Percent of Gasoline

WASHINGTON, DC, July 7, 2006 (ENS) - Replacing a third of the gasoline burned in U.S. vehicles with ethanol produced from inedible plant fiber is now an attainable goal due to recent advances in biotechnology, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) said today. The agency released a "research roadmap" for developing new technologies to make cellulose ethanol into an economically viable, carbon neutral transportation fuel.

Cellulose ethanol is a renewable, advanced biofuel that can be used in today's cars. It is one of the most cost effective ways to reduce gasoline consumption and greenhouse gas emissions from automobiles.

"Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to be a major source for transportation fuel for America's energy future," said Under Secretary for Science Raymond Orbach.


Farmer examines his switchgrass, a fast growing plant now being considered as a useful feedstock for cellulosic ethanol. (Photo courtesy NREL)
"Low production cost and high efficiency require transformational changes in processing cellulose to ethanol," said Orbach. "DOE's Genomics: GTL program is poised to help do just that."

The research roadmap responds to the goal announced by Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman of displacing 30 percent of 2004 transportation fuel consumption with biofuels by 2030.

The goal is based on a joint study by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy that concluded that the land resources of the United States could produce a sustainable supply of biomass sufficient to displace 30 percent of the country's present gasoline consumption.

To meet this 30 percent goal, annual U.S. production will need to increase from about four billion gallons of corn grain ethanol per year to about 60 billion gallons per year from a variety of plant materials, the DOE estimates.

The roadmap identifies the research required for overcoming challenges to the large-scale production of cellulosic ethanol to help meet this goal.

A commercial industry based on converting cellulosic biomass to ethanol does not yet exist in the United States, but the DOE says the technology is ready to be deployed in pilot or demonstration facilities. production

Production system used to pretreat the plant fibers before enzymes are added to convert them to ethanol (Photo courtesy NREL)
Iogen Corporation, a biotechnology company in Canada, operates the largest demonstration facility, which annually produces about one million gallons of cellulosic ethanol from wheat straw, corn stalks, and switchgrass.

Iogen technology converts biomass into cellulose ethanol using a combination of thermal, chemical and biochemical techniques. The yield of cellulose ethanol is more than 340 liters per metric ton of fiber. The lignin in the plant fiber is used to drive the process by generating steam and electricity, eliminating the need for fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas that emit the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

Scientists following the DOE's new research roadmap will concentrate on maximizing biomass feedstock productivity, developing better processes by which to break down cellulosic materials into sugars, and optimizing the fermentation process to convert sugars to ethanol.

The focus of the DOE research plan is to use advances in biotechnology to jump-start a new fuel industry whose products can be transported, stored and distributed with only modest modifications to the existing infrastructure and can fuel many of today's vehicles.

The new technologies were first developed in the Human Genome Project and continued in the Genomics: GTL program in the DOE's Office of Science.


Scientists are creating enzymes that produce ethanol in a more cost-effective manner. Technician Tina Williams and chemist Charles Lee use an automated liquid handler and a microplate reader to measure enzyme activity. (Photo by Scott Bauer courtesy USDA)
The new roadmap was developed during a December 2005 workshop hosted jointly by the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the DOE Office of Science and the Office of the Biomass Program in the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

The success of the plan relies heavily on the continuation of the partnership between the two offices established at that workshop.

"Biofuels represent a tremendous opportunity to move our nation toward a reduced dependence on imported oil," said DOE Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Alexander Karsner.

The report, "Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol: A Joint Research Agenda," and a fact sheet on the report is online at: http://www.doegenomestolife.org/biofuels/.

For more information about the Genomics: GTL program in the Office of Biological and Environmental Research in the Office of Science, see: http://www.doegenomestolife.org/.

For more information on the Office of the Biomass Program in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, visit: http://www1.eere.energy.gov/biomass/.