Feds fund Idaho tests converting straw to ethanol
by Bill Loftus
Cellulosic ethanol is the hottest commodity in alternative fuels. Made by converting the sugars that provide plant cells with rigid stability into fuel, the alcohol could replace gasoline and render moot fuel vs. food conflicts.
The federal government made Idaho one of the testbeds for the new technology in February 2007. The U.S. Department of Energy will contribute $80 million to a plant near Shelley that will produce fuel from straw of wheat, barley and rice, plus corn stover and switchgrass.
A consortium of businesses, including Iogen Energy Corp., Goldman Sachs, Iogen Corp., and The Royal Dutch/Shell Group, plans to begin construction next year and to begin producing 18 million gallons of ethanol annually beginning in 2010.
Bob Zemetra, UI wheat breeder, knows a bit about the possibilities of straw as a fuel feedstock. His efforts focus on producing new wheats with less lignin or at least more accessible cellulose.
Zemetra investigates the lignin question
Lignin, a glue-like compound, holds plant cells together and gives stems strength. It can also inhibit fermentation that converts the sugars from cellulose into alcohol for fuel. "A big question has been can we reduce the amount of lignin to increase ethanol production without damaging the plant," Zemetra said.
The biggest promise of cellulosic alcohol is that it could lessen the demand for corn, which is the most common feedstock for current ethanol production. As corn supplies tightened with demand for ethanol production, corn prices rose. The price of cereal grains including wheat and barley also rose, reflecting increased demand from livestock producers.
A joint USDA and DOE grant is helping to underwrite the research at Idaho's Moscow and Aberdeen breeding stations and at Washington State University.
"We're looking at using a part of the plant that is not affecting our production of food, and we're not reducing our food supply to increase our production of fuel," Zemetra said. "Another consideration is if we take the straw away, what is the impact on the land?"
Contact Bob Zemetra at firstname.lastname@example.org.
illustration by Noah Kroese