'Generic fuel' might make good slogan

Ethanol – the generic fuel. Nice phrase that might have some merit as a slogan. It’s adapted from a letter to the editor from Merle Wise, Sebastian, Fla.
By Susanne Retka Schill | January 16, 2012

Ethanol – the generic fuel. Nice phrase that might have some merit as a slogan. It’s adapted from a letter to the editor from Merle Wise, Sebastian, Fla., that was posted on, the website of several newspapers serving the Florida Coast and Palm Beaches. The letter was about how the Ineos New Plant BioEnergy cellulosic ethanol plant under construction in Vero Beach, Fla., would provide jobs.

In his letter, Merle made an interesting argument I haven’t seen before: “Ethanol is the ‘generic’ for gasoline. It's produced from sugar in Brazil and the Philippines, from corn in the United States and can be produced from a number of renewable crops.”

I like that. It’s a different twist to talking about the renewable fuel that reminds a person how adaptable ethanol is. The industry has taken an ancient biologically-based process, fermentation to alcohol, and created a large-scale, increasingly more efficient process producing a fuel that is making a difference in the market. The U.S. is dominated by corn ethanol because the Midwest is best place in the world to grow corn. In Brazil, it’s sugarcane. Russia doesn’t have a lot of ethanol production, but we ran a story several months ago how they are seriously looking at using potatoes from a region that has big potato production. Sugar beets is the feedstock of choice in Europe.

And, of course, there’s the promise of cellulosic ethanol using any one of a number of waste streams high in cellulose. The plant under construction in Vero Beach is commercializing a process developed by Ineos, one of Europe’s big chemical companies. They intend to use municipal solid waste and agricultural wastes to generate power and make ethanol. Indeed, cellulosic ethanol may be the solution to urban waste problems. Rather than landfilling MSW, it will be used for energy. One of the big investors in cellulosic ethanol projects right now is Waste Management, North America’s largest firm specializing in garbage hauling and landfills.

We are very, very close to seeing this take off. The first commercial-size cellulosic plants are under construction. It’s a critical step. Range Fuels is one spectacular example of a process that wasn’t sufficiently vetted before scale-up, and it sank the company. We regularly talk to many cellulosic developers, who always exude great confidence, although most have been methodical about thoroughly testing and tweaking their processes. Many are very close to seeing if they’ve been smart enough to get it right. If they are, I predict three areas will quickly see cellulosic ethanol plants sprout up -- cities with serious landfill problems, forested areas with abundant and underutilized wood resources and prosperous corn ethanol producers who have part of the infrastructure in place and some low-hanging fruit for cellulosic feedstocks.

One big hurdle must be overcome: we have maxed out E10. Just about all of ethanol possible is now being blended with gasoline. E15 is on its way to full approval, but it needs to be successfully introduced as an E10 replacement. There’s a lot of work being done to pin down how to optimize engines for ethanol. Right now, the crappy mileage when using higher ethanol blends is most often a result of engines still being optimized for gasoline, and not taking full advantage of ethanol’s higher octane rating. Instead, we’ve heard that refiners are using ethanol’s octane so they can refine more gasoline out of a barrel of crude and get their high-priced crude to go a little further.

If we’re at the blend wall now with just corn ethanol production in the U.S., there won’t be a market for the cellulosic ethanol when it finally comes online. That is why keeping incentives for cellulosic ethanol in place in the RFS and elsewhere is so important. It is critical that people with FFVs begin using E85. It would be a game changer if FFVs were to start performing better using higher blends, which those engine optimization efforts may yet show.   

Merle’s letter attracted the usual anti-ethanol comments, as will this blog, no doubt. It is a long, hard slog, to turn that sentiment around. But we just have to keep at it. Many of the anti-ethanol arguments are based on distortions and downright fiction. A few have merit, and keep the industry on its toes. Is ethanol a perfect fuel? No. Is gasoline? It’s far worse, in my opinion. You could say -- choose your poison. For me, I’ll down ethanol any day, in the form of wine or a good micro brew. Not only is ethanol the generic fuel, it’s a generic spirit.