Ethanol fuel produced from waste materials

Recently, a new technology to producing  ethanol fuel from throwaway materials such as newspapers and orange peels has been developed by professor Henry Daniell at University of Central Florida, with funding from U.S Department of Agriculture.

Daniell’s approach is called, by scientists, a groundbreaking approach to produce ethanol fuel since it is less expensive and cleaner than current methods that are used to run vehicles on clean fuel. This approach is also aimed to reduce the world’s dependence on fossils fuel by relegating gasoline to a secondary fuel.

The concept if this technique is to use plant-derived cocktails to break down the waste products such as orange peels into sugar, then is fermented to ethanol.  As well-known, corn starch is now used to produce ethanol. However, ethanol derived from corn is not clean since it causes more greenhouse gas emission than gasoline does. Oppositely, Daniell’s method creates ethanol in such a way that emitted greenhouse gas is much lower than both gasoline and electricity.

The nice thing about this new technique is that its application can be placed on non-food products such as straw, sugarcane, switchgrass, etc.

Someone may be skeptical that how many tons of waste products needed to produce a significant amount of ethanol? In his paper published this month in Plant Biotechnology Journal, Daniell pulled out an interesting example that only in Florida, the amount of discarded orange peels could be used to produce 200 million gallons of ethanol each year. This number is very impressive and thought to be a convincing answer to the question above. There are also other abundant sources of discarded fruit peels and other throwaway products that could be used without affecting the world’s food supplies or raising the food prices.

Even though Daniell’s findings are experimental and more research needs to be conducted to bring it from laboratory to market, this new technique is very promising on making a new way to cheap, clean fuel to power the world’s vehicles while keeping a pure and healthy environment for future generations.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Ethanol fuel produced from waste materials

  1. adsteger

    I do not think the cited 200 million gallons is actually very significant. In 2008 total ethanol demand in the US was 9 billion gallons, which was only 6.5% of the 137 billions of gasoline consumed that year (1). Also, specifically in regards to oranges, Florida produces 74% in the US with California producing 25% (2). So presumably, California would be able to produce 66 million gallons. This combined total of 266 million gallons would only be 2.9% of the ethanol used in 2008.

    Production and distribution also presents more challenges. The majority of ethanol is currently produced in Midwestern states so new plants would need to be build near the desired feedstocks or the feedstocks would need to be shipped long distances to existing facilities (3). Also, once all the ethanol is produced, there is still the problem of distribution. Ethanol needs dedicated pipelines or extensive retrofitting of existing pipelines because of its affinity for water.

    (1) http://www.ethanolrfa.org/industry/statistics/#D
    (2) http://aic.ucdavis.edu/profiles/Citrus-2006.pdf
    (3) http://www.afdc.energy.gov/afdc/ethanol/distribution.html

  2. joshins

    While I agree that alternative means of ethanol production merit research, particularly those that utilize non-food sources, several issues come to mind regarding this concept. My first concern is cost; at the end of the day, if the cost of production is greater than what consumers currently pay for fuel (ethanol or otherwise), this approach to ethanol production is irrelevant. Second, when the author says “Daniell’s method creates ethanol in such a way that emitted greenhouse gas is much lower than both gasoline and electricity,” I’m not sure what this means; I’m assuming that ’emitted greenhouse gas’ includes that of both producing the fuel and consuming it, in say a gas tank. I would find it hard to believe that this method of ethanol production could be less carbon intensive than, for example, electricity produced from other renewable sources such as wind and used to power an electric or hybrid vehicle.

    While this interesting approach DOES solve the food concerns raised by corn-based ethanol production, it does not address the bigger issue of energy intensity. The following is taken from a 2005 study by David Pimentel, a Cornell Professor:

    [In the study,] “Energy outputs from ethanol produced using corn, switchgrass, and wood biomass were each less than the respective fossil energy inputs. The same was true for producing biodiesel using soybeans and sunflower, however, the energy cost for producing soybean biodiesel was only slightly negative compared with ethanol production. Findings in terms of energy outputs compared with the energy inputs were: • Ethanol production using corn grain required 29% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. • Ethanol production using switchgrass required 50% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. • Ethanol production using wood biomass required 57% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. • Biodiesel
    production using soybean required 27% more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced
    (Note, the energy yield from soy oil per hectare is far lower than the ethanol yield from corn).
    • Biodiesel production using sunflower required 118% more fossil energy than the biodiesel
    fuel produced. (Source: http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/NRRethanol.2005.pdf)

    Therefore, while there is still substantial debate about the energy balance of ethanol production, my view is that in our quest to find a replacement to petroleum as a transportation fuel, ethanol does not appear to be the answer.

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