In the near future, the gasoline flowing in your car’s tank will not only be the barrel of increasingly expensive “black gold” dredged from the deep sea or underground. Leftover wood chips from lumber mills, farmers’ discarded straws, and rice hulls will all be turned into fuel that will make your car run faster.
Cellulosic ethanol is seen as one of the most promising feedstocks for gasoline blends. Various countries are just starting in this technology now, and once someone is one step or even half a step ahead, it means huge commercial benefits.
Unlike wheat-based ethanol, the new technology uses cellulose-containing straw and wood chips to produce ethanol. This replaces some of the gasoline, makes it clean and environmentally friendly, and reduces the cost of raw materials.
At present, the internationally popular technologies for manufacturing ethanol from starchy products are divided into three categories: one is the use of food crops such as corn or wheat. The second is the use of non-staple grains such as sweet potato, cassava, sweet sorghum, etc. The third category is the production of waste organisms contained in crop straw, forestry processing waste, sugarcane bagasse and municipal waste, collectively known as cellulose.
Of the three technologies, the most mature is corn or wheat technology. Large-scale manufacturing sites already exist in Europe and the United States, especially in Brazil and the United States. In the United States alone, the total amount of corn used as its ethanol product has now reached 18% of the total local corn production in the United States. In China, the government decided to stop new corn-based ethanol projects not long ago in order to ensure stable corn prices and adequate food supplies.
Straw is a waste product of grain. It is scattered in rural areas. China has about 700 million tons of straw to use every year. However, the straw is not easy to transport because of its long shape. So if you want to build an ethanol processing plant, the best way is to set up a processing base in each township.
In addition, the technical disadvantage of straw is that, due to its low starch content, the extracted ethanol is not yet comparable to corn.
In the United States and other places, straw ethanol is also still in the research process. No company has yet declared that it has been successful. The U.S. government also believes that cellulose technology may take up to six years to be completed.
The current cost of making ethanol from cellulose reaches $6,000 to $7,000 per ton, and the cost of making ethanol from grain, in general, is $4,800 to $5,000. Their goal is to reduce the manufacturing cost of the former to about $5,500 per ton. Then, once supported by state subsidies, the cost is basically not comparable to that of grain.
Still unclear is the question of when the fuel tax will be introduced. If a fuel tax is introduced, then the price of gasoline in China will go up. By that time, cellulose-based ethanol will be available directly to the market without state subsidies.