Anyone who’s taken microeconomics remembers one of its first lessons: things are more efficient when people specialize their tasks. A recent article by Greentech Media points out that this idea could be utilized to give the biomass energy industry a little jolt. What specialization am I talking about? Sugar.
The two types of biomass energy that involve sugar chemistry are cellulosic ethanol and algae/bacteria derived fuel. The latter consume simple sugars and turn them into more useful chemicals; usually ethanol, but increasingly other compounds which might make even better fuels – such as butanol and kerosene (jet fuel).
The scientific challenge has always been to convert cellulose to sugar, but – according to the article – no one (other than academics) has been focusing on commercializing this step alone. Rather, the cellulosic ethanol plants incorporate the cellulose-to-sugar step as part of their overall process rather than focus on it exclusively. The people growing algae and bacteria, meanwhile, are more focused on genetically engineering their bugs to build sugar into exciting new molecules than they are on developing better ways to make that sugar.
Which isn’t to say that research on the issue is not progressing. Currently, we do it with harsh chemicals and lots of heat – not very green, and not very economical. A Wired Magazine article from last year profiled a number of scientists and companies searching for cleaner and cheaper ways to break down cellulose; the goal is to find an enzyme that will speed up the process.
Where are they looking? Tropical rainforests. Termites digest cellulose all the time, with the help of bacteria in their gut. The hope is that a very powerful cellulase (cellulose-digesting enzyme) might already exist in one of the countless undiscovered and undocumented species of bacteria out there in the wild.
Such explorations are exciting, but the main point here is that we need to focus on cellulosic sugar – rather than just cellulosic ethanol - and treat it as a commodity. The Department of Energy has set a goal of bringing the price of such sugar to 6-8 cents per pound (compared to today’s 22 cents per pound for corn-based sugar, even WITH government subsidies). Since sugar is a common feedstock both for those who wish to make ethanol and those who wish to make other compounds, the lessons of economics seem to dictate that there is a future for a companies who wish to specialize in this one step.
Via Greentech Media, WIRED
written by Dave Juszczyk, September 09, 2009
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