Chemical maker E. I. du Pont de Nemours and Co. (more commonly known as DuPont) and Danish biotech firm Danisco, A/S, are pumping resources into ethanol, which they hope will meet an anticipated rapidly growing demand for the biofuel, a demand that critics say will raise food prices and cause even worse damage to the environment than gasoline.
Projecting not only a demand for more ethanol but a specific demand for cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass, DuPont and Danisco's Genencor
division have committed to spending $140 million over the next three years to launch DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol, LLC, a joint venture to develop and sell technology to help ethanol producers more cheaply and efficiently make their biofuels from plants, including wheat straw and switchgrass, a native North American perennial grass. Switchgrass
) often grows on the borders of cropland naturally and can deliver more than five times more energy than it takes to grow it.
DuPont and Danisco expect demand for ethanol in North America alone to grow from 4.1 billion gallons (15.5 billion liters) in 2006 to 30 billion gallons (113.6 billion liters) in 2020, half of that coming from cellulose (which comprises much of the mass in plants) and the rest from corn. In Europe and China, where the combined demand for ethanol in 2006 was only about one billion gallons (3.8 billion liters), demand will grow to 9.9 billion and seven billion gallons (37.5 billion and 26.5 billion liters), respectively, most of this amount coming from cellulose-based ethanol. South America and other regions of the world will continue to rely primarily on ethanol derived from sugarcane, although they will also see an increased demand for cellulose-based ethanol.
The U.S. Department of Energy has since 2000 given DuPont and Genencor more than $60 million to develop the pretreatment processes, advanced ethanol conversion organisms and improved enzymes that the new company will sell to ethanol makers either as a "bolt-on" to an existing plantâ€”letting it accept cellulosic feedstocksâ€”or as the design basis for a stand-alone cellulosic ethanol facility. The joint venture expects to enable production of commercial volumes of cellulosic ethanol by 2012.
DuPont and Danisco are just the latest of a growing number of large companies that are investing in cellulosic ethanol. Others include General Motors (which recently invested in Boston-based start-up Mascoma
as well as Coskata
, another cellulosic ethanol launch based in Warrenville, Ill.); Marathon Oil (which also invested in Mascoma); and German car maker Daimler, which is teaming with Archer Daniels Midland of Decatur, Ill., and Germany-based Bayer CropScience, a unit of Bayer, to research the use of Jatropha
(the genus of a plant species native to Central America) as a feedstock for biodiesel production, according to a story posted Wednesday by Cleantech Group, LLC
DuPont Danisco Cellulosic Ethanol's birth announcement comes as biofuels look to prime the pump for public support. Last week, E-Fuel Corporation of Los Gatos, Calif., introduced its EFuel100 MicroFueler
at an event in New York City, touting its ability to produce up to 35 gallons (132 liters) of ethanol a week that consumers can pump directly into their cars and trucks. There is no combustion inside the device, which runs on a standard household 110- to 220-volt AC power supply (consuming about 150 watts) and uses a membrane system to distill the sugar, yeast and water solution required to make ethanol rather than combustion heating elements, as commercial ethanol producers do.
Ostensibly, the new company will help ethanol producers make cheap fuel from crops and other resources that are not crucial to the world's food supply, in the process lowering transportation and food prices. This hasn't stopped some, including high-ranking government officials (such as U.S. Sec. of State Condoleezza Rice
) from accusing increased biofuel demand of threatening to raise food prices and take away land previously used to grow food.
In addition to the battle ethanol faces against the heavily entrenched oil and gas infrastructure as well as those who believe we face a choice between driving and eating, the biofuel actually may not be any better for the environment than the fuel it seeks to replace. Mark Jacobson, a Stanford University professor of civil and environmental engineering, says ethanol is no better for air quality than gasoline and last year published a report
in Environmental Science & Technology
noting that ethanol produces less benzene and butadiene than gasoline, but it releases more formaldehyde and acetaldehyde into the atmosphere.