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Whatever happened to cellulosic ethanol?

Jul 05, 2022   |   Physics Today

Technological immaturity, falling oil prices, overoptimistic investors, and regulatory uncertainty are blamed for the failure of a promising biofuel technology to perform as hoped.

"'In order for biofuels to take their needed place in a sustainable world, the next decade has to be vastly more successful than the last,' says Lee Lynd, an engineering professor at Dartmouth who cofounded a failed cellulosic-ethanol startup named Mascoma. 'We have got to do things differently, or from a climate change point of view, biofuels will have largely missed their opportunity.'" reported Physics Today.

"... 'DOE, who was sponsoring projects, was pushing very hard for them to be big,' says Dartmouth's Lynd. 'Technology providers had a very strong interest in saying, "Look, the future is here, and we're ready to go today."'

"In the case of startups such as Mascoma, venture capitalists must share blame, Lynd says, for 'inflating expectations way beyond the probable.' During one meeting with investors, he recalls, 'I stood up and said that what we're doing is not that different and not that good. Their response was, "It doesn’t have to be different or good—it just has to be first." And the assumption was that the world would remain really excited about biofuels, and by God it was going to happen somewhere, and you just had to get there. But the world didn't remain that enthusiastic about biofuels.'

"The cellulosic-ethanol field, he says, 'got overheated because each of the parties — the sponsors, technology providers, and investors — were all saying, "Let's go big or go home," and we ended up going home.'...

"... Lynd predicts that carbon dioxide removal will soon become the biggest driver of cellulosic ethanol and other biofuels. Photosynthesis in one form or another is the best way to remove CO2 from the air, he says, and 'the potential for biofuels in this capacity has been radically underestimated.'

"In biofuels that are produced efficiently, Lynd explains, 50–70% of the carbon content of the raw material is released and available for capture at the production site. Yet 40–70% of the feedstock's energy content remains in the fuel that's delivered to a vehicle. He cites a friend telling him that 'biofuels are the only way we've figured out to have negative emissions and something other than negative-emissions [credits] to sell.'"

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