Termite guts and canvas-eating jungle bugs could be the key to kicking the oil habit and achieving energy independence. At least that's what scientists working on creating ethanol from plant waste are hoping. In a process much like making grain alcohol or beer, microbes that can process woody cellulose into sugar are put to work on plant waste; after a few microbiological twists and turns, the result is ethanol without the corn. Last year, current practices yielded only 4 billion gallons of ethanol last year (compared to the 140 billion gallons of gasoline used in the U.S.), and there's growing concern throughout the Midwestern corn belt that the 95 U.S. ethanol plants are increasingly poaching corn meant for the dinner table or livestock feed. The plant-waste process, called "cellulosic ethanol," dodges this problem by making fuel from farm waste such as straw, corn stalks and other inedible agricultural leftovers.
Breaking cellulose into sugar to spin straw into ethanol has been studied for over the last 50 years. Until quite recently, the technological hurdles and costs have been daunting enough to force ethanol producers to rely on heavy government subsidies to squeeze fuel from corn. Lately, though, it's received a boost from an unlikely source: President Bush and the State of the Union address. While the remark itself may have been more soaring rhetoric and another empty promise, the mere mention of it could prove beneficial to this burgeoning process. "We have been at this for 25 years and we had hoped to be in commercial production by now," said Jeff Passmore, an executive vice president at Iogen, an Ottawa-based ethanol-maker. "What the president has done is -- perhaps -- put some wind in the sails." Iogen is producing ethanol by exploiting the destructive nature of the fungus Trichoderma reesei, which caused the "jungle rot" of tents and uniforms in the Pacific theater during World War II. Nathanael Greene, an analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council, adds, "The technologies are out there to do this, but we need to convince the public this is real and not just a science project."
Iogen opened a small, $40 million factory in 2004 to show it can produce cellulosic ethanol in commercial quantities. In the last two years, it has produced 65,000 gallons of ethanol that is blended with 85 percent gasoline to fuel about three dozen company and Canadian government vehicles. Oil giant Royal Dutch Shell has invested $40 million for a 30 percent ownership stake in Iogen; Petro-Canada and the Canadian government are also investors. The company will build a $350 million, commercial-scale factory next year if it can secure financing -- which has long been a big if and remains one of the biggest stumbling blocks to bringing cellulosic ethanol to gas pumps. Under a best-case scenario, Passmore said Iogen won't be producing commercial quantities until 2009. Keep up the good work, guys!