Summary: Using bioengineered enzymes to convert grasses growing on marginal land is the next big thing in biofuels — biofuels that do not reduce food production. Here is a brief and current summary. Great promise, potentially a valuable component to replace conventional oil. But (as usual) nothing like promised by the more euphoric promoters.
Cellulosic ethanol is a biofuel produced from wood, grasses, or the non-edible parts of plants.
It is a type of biofuel produced from lignocellulose, a structural material that comprises much of the mass of plants. Lignocellulose is composed mainly of cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Corn stover, switchgrass, miscanthus and woodchips are some of the more popular cellulosic materials for ethanol production. Production of ethanol from lignocellulose has the advantage of abundant and diverse raw material compared to sources like corn and cane sugars, but requires a greater amount of processing to make the sugar monomers available to the microorganisms that are typically used to produce ethanol by fermentation.
Switchgrass and Miscanthus are the major biomass materials being studied today, due to high levels of cellulose. Cellulose, however, is contained in nearly every natural, free-growing plant, tree, and bush, in meadows, forests, and fields all over the world without agricultural effort or cost needed to make it grow.
Like so many alternative energy sources, it is touted as ready to go — commercially feasible real soon on a large scale. As usual, the truth is somewhat different. Much more R&D is needed, then the years-long process of moving from pilot plant to development project to first commercial to mass rollout. Here is a current status report from one of the premier sources of information about food: “Cellulosic conversion spurs debate at biotech conference“, Peter Meyer, Milling and Baking News, 26 August 2008 — Emphasis added. Excerpt:
The Bio International Conventionwas held June 17-20 at the San Diego Convention Center. There were 20,108 attendees from 70 countries and from 48 states in the United States, including 4,270 attendees and exhibitors from California, the worldwide home of the biotech industry.
… The area of cellulosic conversion raised the two key issues facing the industry.