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Corn is not the only way to make ethanol. Scientists can also make the alternative fuel from the fiber of straw, wood and even corn cobs, scientists told state lawmakers, through a process called cellulosic—or fiber cell wall—technology.
Unfortunately, cellulosic technology is not yet very cost effective for industry, Dr. Karl Dawson of the Kentucky-based research company Alltech told the Interim Joint Committee on Agriculture and Natural Resources. But the potential for cellulosic ethanol, the need for corn as both a transportation fuel and human food source and even government policy could change that, he explained.
“The policies on these (alternative fuels) are changing constantly at the federal level, and I’m sure at the state level you can say the same,” he said. “But there are some technologies that must be invested in…for us to take advantage of alternative fuel sources.”
Dawson said the competition between the use of corn grain to make ethanol and the need for human food is “very intense at this point in time” since many grain rich companies are using corn to make automotive fuel. That could help open the door for more cellulosic ethanol production which Dawson said is a well-known technology with plenty of feedstock.
In the next five to 10 years, Dawson said it is estimated that the U.S. will have 1.3 billion tons of cellulosic material that could be used to produce around 100 billion gallons of fuel. “(That’s) ≤ of the energy we normally get from gasoline,” he said.
Dr. Czarena Crofcheck of the University of Kentucky Department of Biosystems and Agricultural Engineering, who explained the chemistry behind the cellulose to ethanol conversion process, also said that economics will determine how well-used the technology is.
“We can do this. Right now, it’s just expensive,” said Crofcheck. “As it becomes something that’s beneficial for industry to get involved in…I think it will move forward.”
Alltech recently received a grant of up to $30 million from the federal government to move forward with construction of a cellulosic ethanol biorefinery in Springfield, Kentucky. Alltech has announced that the biorefinery will be one of the nation’s first to use cellulose, like corn cobs and corn stover, at a level of up to 30 percent. Another $8 million for the project came from the state.
Committee Co-Chair Rep. Tom McKee, D-Cynthiana, congratulated Alltech on the federal grant.
“That is exciting,” said McKee. “We were so proud of you for receiving that, as a state.”