Despite being a bit of a skeptic when it comes to biofuels, I'm very cautiously optimistic - more or less - about a new process for producing ethanol from wood pulp at paper plants.
Forget corn processing. Don't wait for switch grass. The real key to producing enough ethanol for America's cars and trucks this century is wood.It's hard to know what to make of this. It's pretty clear that they're talking about fermenting the pulping byproduct xylan into ethanol by means of ethanologenic microorganisms. There's certainly nothing new about doing that. Reading between the lines, what seems to be comparatively new is the high-temperature pre-treatment of the biomass, and (I'd assume) the use of heat-resistant microorganisms...much as is described in this patent application. Or perhaps the innovation is to paper-production methods, or machinery. Who knows? The description of the process is hopelessly vague, as is the environmental impact, which is addressed in this comically hyperambiguous quote:
That's the contention of researchers at the State University of New York (SUNY). By revamping the way paper is made, they've found an economical way to extract important energy-rich sugars from the trees and then convert these sugars into ethanol, a gasoline additive, and other useful chemicals.
"The materials we dissolve in the water are natural to begin with. We know how to clean up water well. When it is clean, its release to the environment has no long-term negative consequences."That's plain enough, eh?
Also missing from the equation, not surprisingly, is any discussion of the energy it takes to produce ethanol through this process. (Something has to provide the heat, after all.) The word "economical" refers, as far as I can tell, to current prices and capabilities. But what's "economical" today may be unfeasible tomorrow (or today, for that matter). Whether it'll feasible to produce ethanol from paper mills in the future depends to a great extent on whether it'll be feasible to produce paper.
That said, the biomass used to produce ethanol (and acetic acid, which is fairly valuable, at a whopping 45 cents per pound) is currently going to waste. The main positive here - at least, it seems at first glance to be a positive - is that SUNY researchers are concentrating on utilizing "biomass willow," which is apparently fast-growing, and much less energy-intensive than corn. If we really must produce ethanol, even the slightest move away from the gargantuan, heavily subsidized fraud of corn-based biofuel is cause for celebration, in my opinion.