Say It Three Times, Fast: Cellulosic Ethanol …

It’s pretty hard to make cellulosic ethanol sexy, but John Salazar is having a go at it.

Colorado’s Third District congressman is sponsoring a bill to increase research funding for the alternative fuel source by $2 billion between fiscal years 2007-2013. Cellulosic ethanol research was funded to the tune of $250 million for 2006 by the 2005 Energy Bill.

“Colorado can lead the nation in renewable energy,” Rep. Salazar said. “Agriculture is our backbone. From sun to wind to land, Colorado has all the resources we need to lead the nation in renewable energy creation. There is no reason that our state and country should continue to depend on oil as its primary source of energy.”

Ethanol fuels currently in use are made from agricultural food crops like corn or soybeans. Cellulosic ethanol is made from a variety of other plant materials, like woody plants and trees. The latter are starch-based plants, which are technically easier to breakdown into fuels than the cellulose in plant cell walls. There remain numerous technical barriers to the efficient conversion of cellulosic biomass into fuel.

The payoff for solving these problems could be large, though. A 2005 research report from the U.S. Department of Energy said, “Cellulosic ethanol has the potential to meet most, if not all, transportation-fuel needs.”

These technical challenges may be overcome in part by developments in genomics. The recent complete sequencing of the genome of the black cottonwood, for instance, “lays the groundwork that may lead to the development of trees as an ideal ‘feedstock’ for a new generation of biofuels such as cellulosic ethanol,” according to the consortium that did the work.

“Biofuels are not only attractive for their potential to cut reliance on oil imports but also their reduced environmental impact,” said Dr. Gerald A. Tuskan, of the Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

“Biofuels emit fewer pollutants than fossil fuels such as gasoline. In addition, poplar and related plants are vital managers of atmospheric carbon. Trees store captured carbon dioxide in their leaves, branches, stems, and roots. This natural process provides opportunities to improve carbon removal from the air by producing trees that effectively shuttle and store more carbon below ground in their roots and the soil. Moreover, bioenergy crops re-absorb carbon dioxide emitted when biofuels are consumed, creating a cycle that is essentially carbon neutral.”

Using non-food crops for alternative fuel feedstocks also saves nutrition for a world that faces a food shortage along with an energy shortage.

Salazar’s Cellulosic Ethanol Development and Implementation Act of 2007, which is a companion to Senate legislation proposed by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), provides $1 billion for research and development grants, and $1 billion for a pilot program for installation of 85 percent ethanol fuel at gas stations.

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Dan Whipple

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