The ever receding end zone of cellulosic ethanol

University of Illinois researcher Steve Long with his experimental Miscanthus crop in 2007. Photo: David Sommerstein

University of Illinois researcher Steve Long with his experimental Miscanthus crop in 2007. Photo: David Sommerstein

One of the big reasons the ethanol mandate has become such a controversial political football, and the subject of the Associated Press' investigation into ethanol's environmental harm, is that there was another, greener kind of ethanol always on the horizon.

Cellulosic ethanol was supposed to be more greenhouse gas-reducing, and the crops used to make it could be grown on marginal croplands, thereby preserving quality fields and environmentally sensitive areas.

Researcher Steve Long form the University of Illinois took me to his experimental Myscanthus plot, destined for cellulosic ethanol production, when I was reporting this story in 2007. NCPR's Gregory Warner reported on cellulosic ethanol production attempts here in the North Country the year before.

But the problem is scientists have struggled to make cellulosic ethanol actually work. As the Associated Press reported yesterday:

"Cellulosic has been five years away for 20 years now," said Nathanael Greene, a biofuels expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council. "Now the first projects are up and running, but actually it's still five years away."

Cellulosic makers are expected to turn out at most 6 million gallons of fuel this year, the government says. That's enough fuel to meet U.S. demand for 11 minutes. It's less than 1 percent of what Congress initially required to be on the market this year.

To be fair to Steve Long, I have no idea where his Miscanthus-cellulosic ethanol experiments went. For all I know, he's making some of those 6 million gallons.

But the disappointments nationwide in cellulosic ethanol point to one of the huge issues we face as we cope with climate change: it's not so easy to find clean alternatives to our fossil fuel addictions.

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  1. I remember Hillary Clinton, as senator, announcing funding for two such projects north and west of Syracuse but have never heard of any results.

  2. I wonder if we were to give the ethanol folks the money we're wasting on oil exploration whether they'd be able to get over the hump on this research. Why go after more oil when it's choking us off?

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