SAO PAULO (Reuters) - The industrial production of cellulose ethanol at a competitive cost with gasoline, seen by many as the Holy Grail of biofuels production, is as close as two years away, researchers said on Monday.
“In the laboratory, there are no more obstacles to speak of. We’ve reached viable solutions to the major problems with cellulosic ethanol production,” said Elba Bom, bioethanol coordinator for Brazil’s Science and Technology Ministry, which allocated 7 million reais ($3.5 million) in financing for the project.
“The question now is putting these solutions into the most efficient industrial models.”
A prototype plant could be built in about two years, by which time production costs for cellulose ethanol from leftover sugar cane would have likely fallen even further, she said.
Cellulosic technology was one of the hot seminars of Brazil’s first Ethanol Summit, which was being held in Sao Paulo on Monday and Tuesday.
The room, hosting one of five simultaneous seminars, was packed with more than 200 businessmen, politicians, scientists and reporters from Asia to the Americas.
Viable forms of cellulosic ethanol production will help take some stress off the industry’s rising demand for foods such as corn — an aspect of U.S. ethanol production that President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela and Fidel Castro of Cuba have been quick to criticize.
But not all cellulose ethanol techniques are created equal.
“There is not one cellulosic technology, because there is not just one feedstock. Some countries, such as the United States, will use switch grass or wood chips, while Brazil will use bagasse and straw from cane processing,” Bom said.
Helena Chum, senior advisor for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory under the U.S. Department of Energy, said the cost of cellulose ethanol production in the United States was expected to continue to keep falling rapidly — from $6 a gallon only a few years ago to $2 a gallon around 2008.
“Eventually, by 2012 to 2016, it should fall to $1 per gallon, when output should reach 20 billion gallons,” Chum said, adding that 5 billion to 8 billion gallons of that will come from cellulose.
The United States passed Brazil as the world’s largest ethanol producer in 2006 and the two countries now account for about 70 percent of world output of the biofuel.
“High petroleum costs are certainly helping reduce the cost of industrial bioethanol production more quickly,” Chum said.
“And the production of cellulose ethanol on an industrial scale will have a great benefit in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”