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he predicts, biofuels will be cheap and abundant enough to replace
gasoline for almost all purposes.
While Khosla readily acknowledges the limitations of corn-
derived ethanol, he says it has been an important "stepping-stone":
the market for corn ethanol has created an infrastructure and
market for biofuels in general, removing many of the business
risks of investing in cellulosic ethanol. "The reason that I like [corn
ethanol] is that its trajectory leads to cellulosic ethanol," he says.
"Without corn ethanol, no one would be investing in cellulosics."
But back in the Midwest, there is a "show me" attitude toward
such blue-sky projections, and there are lingering questions about
just how the nation's vast agricultural infrastructure will switch
over to biomass. If Khosla's projections prove out, "then wonder-
ful," says the University of Minnesota's Runge. "Meanwhile, we're
stuck in reality." Perhaps the main point of contention, Runge
suggests, is whether corn ethanol will in fact lead to new technolo-
gies---or stand in their way. "It is my opinion that corn ethanol is a
barrier to converting to cellulosics," he says, pointing to the inertia
caused by political and business interests heavily invested in corn
ethanol and its infrastructure.
Runge is not alone in his skepticism. "Unless the cost is reduced
significantly, cellulosic ethanol is going nowhere," says Wally
Tyner, a professor of agricultural economics at Purdue Univer-
sity. Making cellulosic ethanol viable will require either a "policy
mechanism" to encourage investment in new technologies or a
"phenomenal breakthrough"---and "the likelihood of that is not
too high," Tyner says. Farmers and ethanol producers currently
have no incentive to take on the risks of changing technologies,
he adds. There is "no policy bridge" to help make the transition.
"The status quo won't do it."
Despite the sharp di erences of opinion, there's still some com-
mon ground between people like Khosla, whose unbridled faith
in innovation has been nurtured by the successes of Silicon Val-
ley, and the Midwesterners whose pragmatism was forged by the
competitive economics of agriculture. In particular, most observ-
ers agree that annual production of corn-derived ethanol will level
o within a few years. After that, any growth in biofuel production
will need to come from new technologies.
But if cellulosic biofuels are to begin replacing gasoline within
five to ten years, facilities will need to start construction soon. This
fall, Range Fuels, a company based in Broomfield, CO, announced
that it had begun work in Georgia on what it claims is the country's
first commercial-scale cellulosic-ethanol plant. The Range facility,
which will use thermochemical technology to make ethanol from
wood chips, is scheduled to reach a capacity of 20 million gallons in
2008 and eventually increase to 100 million gallons a year. Mean-
while, Mascoma has announced several demonstration units,
including a facility in Tennessee that will be the first cellulosic-
ethanol plant built to use switchgrass. But these production plants
are federally subsidized or are a result of partnerships with state
development organizations; attracting private investment for com-
mercial-scale production will be another matter.
Indeed, ramping up the capacity of cellulosic-ethanol produc-
tion will be a huge and risky challenge, says Colin South, president
of Mascoma. "When people talk about cellulosic ethanol as if it is
an industry, it is an unfair portrayal," he says. "There are a num-
ber of pilot plants, but none of them have gotten out of the pilot
scale. We still need to show we can actually run these in the form
of an operating chemical plant." South says that Mascoma hopes
to begin construction of a commercial plant in 2009 and have it
up and running by early 2011. But he adds that the company will
only proceed when "the numbers are good enough."
Perhaps the most crucial number, however, will be the price
of crude oil. If it stays high, cellulosic-ethanol production could
become economically competitive much sooner. But few people,
least of all the investors who would risk hundred of millions of
dollars on new plants, are willing to take that bet. Many remem-
CREATING NEW FUELS Amyris Biotechnologies is scaling up
production of hydrocarbons made using genetically engineered E. coli.
In a 100-liter fermentation unit, the microbes convert sugars into the
hydrocarbon fuels (right center); additional experimentation to improve
the process is done in a two-liter bioreactor (far right). Lab bottles
(above) are ready to be attached to the bioreactors to "feed" the fer-
mentation process. A micrograph (bottom right) shows the E. coli cells
as small, dark rods surrounded by the large amounts of pure hydrocar-
bon diesel produced by the bacteria.
For further exploration of (and debate about) biofuels:
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