Producing Ethanol with "A Dumb Iron" Approach

There has been a flood of stories on two new studies showing that many biofuels are worse for the climate than fossil fuels. That’s because “there are immense amounts of soils and vegetation on the earth, and when you clear them [to grow crops for biofuels], carbon is released,” explained University of Minnesota professor David Tilman, author of one of the studies, to Newsweek.

See also my colleague Adam Aston’s item on this:

But don’t forget that there are approaches to biofuels other than clearing the native vegetation from the land, and planting corn or oil palm. One alternative is planting prairie grass, such as switchgrass, on already degraded farmland. The grass would actually add carbon to the soil because of its deep roots.

Another promising approach comes from a California-based company called Bluefire Ethanol. The company’s plan: use urban trash and other waste as a cellulose-rich feedstock. No only does this source avoid the land-clearing problem, it also has the advantage of being free.

In addition, Bluefire Ethanol figures it can make ethanol more cheaper than competitors who are also using feedstock that’s primarily cellulose. Most of these competitors are going the biotech route, harnessing enzymes to break down the cellulose into sugars. See

But Bluefire has a simpler method. “We are not biotech,” says CEO Arnold Klann. “We use a dumb iron approach.” Or more specifically, strong acid. The process uses sulfuric acid to break down the waste into sugars and lignin (which can be then burned to meet more than 2/3 of the process’ energy needs). The acid is then recovered to be used again. Klann claims that this method can produce ethanol for less than $1 per gallon, less than half of what it now costs to use the more exotic biotech enzyme approach. The method can also make butanol as well as ethanol, which in the long run, may be a better fuel. (

Bluefire Ethanol recently snared a $40 million grant from the Department of Energy for its process, and plans to break ground on its first plant this spring. If it works, it will be another example of how smart people can come up with innovative solutions.

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