Remember the end of Back to the Future, when Doc Brown drops a banana peel into the Mr. Fusion port to fuel up the DeLorean? Seemed pretty awesome (and pretty implausible). But now, that scene is no longer so far-fetched.
Two U.S. based companies, KiOR and INEOS Bio, recently announced that they have produced commercial quantities of ethanol from wood chips and non-food plant matter. And INEOS says it plans to begin making ethanol using garbage from the nearby municipal landfill.
Yep, fuel made from trash … and right on schedule (if you recall, Doc was returning from 2015)!
The fact that it’s made from waste isn’t just cool — it also could make this fuel a truly viable alternative to gas. This is advanced cellulosic ethanol, not corn ethanol (which has been at the center of a lot of controversy in recent years).
The rise and fall of corn ethanol
In the big green push of the last decade, ethanol made from corn seemed like our best bet for an alternative fuel. It can be produced domestically, can reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and can cut greenhouse-gas emissions by about 20 percent compared with gasoline.
But some analysts say the emissions reduction is offset by the pollution associated with corn ethanol production. And those numbers don’t factor in land-use changes (forested land being converted to cropland), which can create their own share of greenhouse emissions. Critics of corn ethanol say it can also raise the price of food.
And while all gasoline-burning cars built after 1980 can run on a 10/90 ratio of ethanol and gasoline, only specially equipped flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs) can use blends with higher percentages of ethanol.
These factors, combined with recent droughts, have taken a toll on ethanol producers and tarnished some of the shine on corn ethanol’s promise.
The advantages of cellulosic ethanol
Cellulosic ethanol is made from non-food vegetative matter, which can mean switchgrass, wood chips, yard clippings, and yes, household garbage. It doesn’t affect the price or abundance of food and (except for switchgrass) it doesn’t require large-scale cultivation. Plus, the waste used to create the ethanol can also be used to power the factories (INEOS, for example, uses methane from the nearby landfill). The factories often produce more power than they need and can sell the excess to utility companies. Because of these factors, cellulosic ethanol could cut greenhouse gas emissions by 85 to 95 percent compared with gasoline.
Cellulosic ethanol also shows strong potential as a drop-in biofuel (one that can be used in existing cars and trucks without special modifications). KiOR says its fuel is chemically identical to conventional gasoline.
From landfill to windfall
Americans generated over 36 million tons of food waste in 2011. That’s a lot of banana peels and coffee grounds. Wouldn’t it be great to use some of that to power our cars and help protect the earth in the process? My apartment building doesn’t allow for composting, and I feel kind of guilty tossing my wilted veggies in the trash. I’d feel much better if I knew they would have an afterlife.
We aren’t quite Back to the Future
As exciting as these breakthroughs are, the oil companies shouldn’t get nervous just yet. Cellulosic ethanol would need to be made in very large quantities in order to be competitive with gasoline — and that’s still a ways off. Not everyone is a fan of biofuels, either. In fact, some experts feel that plug-in vehicles using solar- or wind-generated electricity are the better solution.
What do you think?
Is cellulosic ethanol the fuel of the future or just one more flash in the pan? Would you fill up your car with fuel made from trash? Sound off below.