December 22, 2014

Biofuels

Ethanol: Miracle or Mistake?

Florida is sinking millions into ethanol research and grants. But nobody is even close to making it profitable.

Mike Vogel | 7/1/2008

Bill Widmer
Cost Concerns: USDA researcher Bill Widmer is trying to make citrus waste a low-cost source for ethanol. “We still have a ways to go in improving the economics for producing ethanol from citrus processing waste,” Widmer says. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]
At his global warming summit in Miami last year, Gov. Charlie Crist held out ethanol as a major tool in reducing greenhouse gases. No state, he said, can match Florida’s capacity to produce ethanol. Since virtually all the ethanol in the U.S. is made from corn, Crist was anticipating a time when Florida entrepreneurs could take various forms of cellulose that are plentiful in the state — citrus waste, sugar cane waste, plants and trees — and distill ethanol from them.

Following Crist’s green lead, the Legislature this year mandated that all gas sold in Florida have at least 10% ethanol by the end of 2010. That translates into Florida needing some 861 million gallons of ethanol annually in less than three years. At May’s going price for a gallon of ethanol, that’s $2.4 billion worth each year — money that the lawmakers don’t want to flow only to corn farmers and ethanol distillers in the Midwest. To spur production in Florida, the Legislature allocated $8 million this year for bioenergy project grants and another $7 million for renewable energy and efficiency grants.

MULTIMEDIA

Sources of Biofuel
You may be surprised what researchers are tapping for sources of ethanol and biodiesel — manure and citrus waste are just two.
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That’s on top of the $60 million the state already has given to would-be ethanol developers and other biofuel researchers in Florida. “About every state has a cellulosic ethanol initiative,” says University of Florida professor Lonnie Ingram, who has a $20-million state grant to build a cellulosic ethanol demonstration plant with sugar maker Florida Crystals in Palm Beach County. “There’s a lot of money being put into this area.”

Lonnie Ingram
Sweet solution?: UF professor Lonnie Ingram’s patented method of producing ethanol from sugar cane waste may actually generate water rather than consume it. The breakthrough came 17 years ago, however, and there’s still no refinery. [Photo: Jeffrey Camp]

Indeed. The federal government, which has been pushing cellulosic ethanol for more than 30 years without so much as one commercial refinery to show for it, has mandated 36 billion gallons of ethanol — 16 billion from cellulose — in use by 2022 and is funding a host of research efforts around the country.

But even as the government pours out research dollars and ethanol-use mandates, new questions have arisen — and old questions persist — about whether ethanol can live up to its billing as the clean, green path to energy independence.

Aside from the now-debated question whether ethanol may actually be worse for the environment than fossil fuels, cost and risk remain a big issue, even with oil spiking northward of $130 a barrel.

Chemically, ethanol’s not hard to make — it’s just a matter of distilling alcohol from sugar. “Everybody who has moonshined” knows how to make ethanol, says Ali Raissi, director of the University of Central Florida’s advanced energy division, who is leading research on a state grant. The problem is that it’s technologically hard and expensive to break down cellulose, the woody parts of plants and trees, into a fermentable, simple sugar.

Tags: Around Florida, Agriculture, Energy & Utilities, Environment

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