Wired just published a nice overview of cellulosic ethanol. It takes you through the history, the challenges, some of the major players, etc. It is one of the most comprehensive and balanced articles on the subject that you will ever run across. So, if you always wanted to understand both sides of cellulosic ethanol, check it out:
Just a couple of excerpts of interest:
On a blackboard, it looks so simple: Take a plant and extract the cellulose. Add some enzymes and convert the cellulose molecules into sugars. Ferment the sugar into alcohol. Then distill the alcohol into fuel. One, two, three, four — and we’re powering our cars with lawn cuttings, wood chips, and prairie grasses instead of Middle East oil.
Unfortunately, passing chemistry class doesn’t mean acing economics. Scientists have long known how to turn trees into ethanol, but doing it profitably is another matter. We can run our cars on lawn cuttings today; we just can’t do it at a price people are willing to pay.
And here is the part that many do not realize:
The oil crisis of the ’70s spurred a wave of federally funded research on cellulosic ethanol. Then, in the mid-’80s, when President Reagan declared the fuel crisis over, the DOE money vanished with few results. Many academics fled to other fields where funding was easier to get.
Cellulosic ethanol is not a recent invention. It has in fact been around since well before the 70’s. People like Vinod Khosla who draw these Moore’s Law type growth curves for cellulosic ethanol should ask themselves where computer technology was in the 70’s, and where it is today. The point is that while cellulosic ethanol has made some progress since the 70’s, the learning curve has been flat when compared to Moore’s Law. It has never before been on a Moore’s Law trajectory, but we are being confidently told that’s what the future holds.
What I would argue is that we certainly should continue to fund cellulosic ethanol, but we also need to have realistic expectations. We can’t simply legislate technological breakthroughs as many of our political leaders seem to believe.