Ethanol From Trash: Is the Garbage-Fueled Car Finally Here?

Bye-bye, petroleum. See ya, corn. Find out why cellulosic ethanol may be the fuel of the future.

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.

Related links

Read about some other alternative fuels from sci-fi.
Feeling eco-friendly? Here are some tips for choosing the greenest gas-powered cars.

4 Responses to “Ethanol From Trash: Is the Garbage-Fueled Car Finally Here?”

  1. Avatar for Ellen Hall
    September 1, 2013 #

    This is very interesting, however when it comes to alternative fuel my question has always been how do we actually wean ourselves off oil completely. Oil being a non-renewable resource will run out eventually, however the use of oil in vehicles is not our only use of this resource in our everyday life. So the question becomes do we have enough oil to produce enough cars to be completely non-dependent on oil. Even though the new vehicles may run on a different source, the vehicle itself will still use plenty of oil to make. This includes the tires, paint, not to mention the machines they use to make the parts, and the lubrication that they use to make those parts safely. All petroleum based products. Not to mention the technology world including our computers, phones, and the cables we use for these things even use oil in production. Nice to see that we have been making progress here, but its not all about the fuel. But you have to start somewhere.

  2. Avatar for Ellen Hall
    Darlene H. Allen
    September 19, 2013 #

    This is the route for future car buyers.

  3. Avatar for Ellen Hall
    Lori V.
    September 25, 2013 #

    Compelling information in our day and age. It's nice to have the technology out there. I'm pleasantly surprised finding this quality of content on a car insurance website. Talk about value added!

  4. Avatar for Ellen Hall
    Ronald Will
    November 12, 2014 #

    The great advantage of Cellulosic ethanol is that it can be phased gradually into our E85 current gasoline cars. It does not require a completely new distribution system as do Electrical or Natural gas vehicles. It solves two problems. Increasing amounts of garbage and farm waste can now be used for fuel and at the same time we reduce emissions and pollution. It's also an inexpensive solution and completely renewable. How can this not be the fuel of the future?

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