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GM and Coskata Partner In Syngas-to-Ethanol Technology

The Coskata process can combine a variety of gasification technologies with Coskata proprietary microorganisms and bioreactors. Click to enlarge.

Emphasizing on one hand the importance of ethanol as a shorter-term solution to reducing oil dependence and emissions, and on the other to coming up with alternatives to corn-based ethanol, GM Chairman and CEO Rick Wagoner announced a partnership with Coskata Inc., a second-generation ethanol startup, during his opening press conference at the North American International Auto Show.

Coskata uses a proprietary process that leverages patented microorganisms and bioreactor designs to produce ethanol from practically any carbon-based feedstock, including garbage, old tires and plant waste, for less than $1 a gallon—about half of today’s cost of producing gasoline. The partnership includes an undisclosed equity stake for GM, joint research and development into emissions technology and investigation into making ethanol from GM facilities’ waste and non-recyclable vehicle parts.

Coskata uses a three-step syngas-to-ethanol process:

  1. Gasification. Carbon-based feedstock is converted into syngas using well-established gasification technologies.

  2. Fermentation. Coskata’s proprietary microorganisms convert the resulting syngas into ethanol by consuming the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) in the gas stream.

  3. Separation. Pervaporation technology separates and recovers the ethanol.

Coskata’s process technology is ethanol-specific and enzyme independent, requiring no additional chemicals or pre-treatments.

Coskata’s process uses less than a gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol compared to three gallons or more for other processes. According to Argonne National Laboratory, which analyzed Coskata’s process, for every unit of energy used, it generates up to 7.7 times that amount of energy, and it reduces CO2 emissions by up to 84% on a full well-to-wheels basis compared with gasoline.

A pilot plant will be in operation in the fourth quarter of 2008. GM will use the fuel in testing vehicles at GM’s Milford Proving Grounds. Coskata expects to have its first commercial-scale plant with a capacity of 50-100 million gallons of ethanol per year running in 2011.

Coskata was founded in 2006 by leading renewable energy investors and entrepreneurs, including Khosla Ventures, Advanced Technology Ventures, and GreatPoint Ventures. Vinod Khosla appeared at the press conference in Detroit.



Bottom line: I am a red-blooded American male with insecurities. A gigantic gas guzzling 4x4 truck or SUV with truck nuts dangling from the hitch (the new ones with the hair follicle and skin effects) will help me address those insecurities....okay no truck nuts, and I really don't have major insecurities - but I'm a big guy and love the feel and road presence of a full size truck with a powerful V-8. I had a Tundra once and got rid of it a couple years ago when gas prices went through the roof and it didn't look like they would come back down. Offer me the same kind of vehicle with same size & power, but is clean & cheap to operate & I would go back to a full size truck in a heartbeat.



If you think that this process will allow to sell ethanol at less than 2$/Gallon, you are just dreaming, you sold your Tundra and you did well, production of oil is stalling (we don't discover any more oil these days or so little) when demand keep growing with chinese and indian buying cars. So forget cheap oil or cheap ethanol. This process seems interesting but it won't make a dent in our oil addiction before a while a the cost that GM claims is just smog. You know they still haven't figured out how to carry the huge amount of biomass from the field to the plant to process big amount of ethanol. There is no silver bullet, oil was a gift of god to humankind we are close to have eaten the easy part now the tough part is right ahead of us. If we want to make most of car work with ethanol they will need to be extremely efficient so forget the SUV or the pick up, better try to lose weight to fit in smaller car...


There will never be anything green about overpowered, overweight, or oversized vehicles whether they are fueled by electricity, biofuels, or conventional fossil fuels. Energy efficiency, and life cycle carbon emissions in manufacturing and end use consumption of energy matters, regardless of the source of energy.

However, this is America and in a free market system, if some consumers want to buy these types of road warriors, than he or she should have that right to acquire them, and auto companies, union members, etc., the right to build them. But the vehicle and fuel tax regime should ensure that the end consumer pays the full private and social cost of such wasteful consumption of energy, and related carbon emissions, including the national security and climate impacts.


Perhaps GM would like some of the profits from fuel sales. Might as well, if you are selling cars that require fuel. I am just amazed that auto companies did not do something like this sooner. It is a revenue stream and a hedge against increases in fuel prices causing your vehicle sales to decline.


I wish Coskata luck. And I hope there are many viable alternatives. What we don't need is the government picking favorites.

As far as the popularity of SUV's, it also had something to do with the SUV tax deduction. So now there's tax deductions for hybrids. I suppose that is incremental progress.

High efficiency diesel vehicles should also receive tax deductions. And using biodiesel in them should be relatively straightforward.


I just hate it when the "bad" guys turn around and start doin the right things! It cuts off my right to whine, complain, moan, whimper and stamp my infantile foot against capitalist oppression!! Please stop being good GM - you're killin me...


I do not know about SUV tax incentives, but I did hear about the deduction for vehicles over 6000 pounds, which is still in effect. It was designed for capital equipment expenditures. It became a way for a doctor or lawyer to get a rebate on a Hummer.


I tried to read carefully what they really are claiming using both what is in here and what is in the NY Times article. I think they only claim that ethanol produced this way would cost $1 per gallon, if the energy source is free. This can be the case for some waste streams, but in large scale application fuel will have a cost as well. In this situation the efficiency of the process will start to matter.

They say that they can produce 100 gallons of ethanol from one ton of raw material. Let's be optimistic and assume that the raw material is air dry wood (20%) at 15 GJ/ton. Gallon of ethanol has 80.2 GJ. This yields an efficiency of 53%. Pretty impressive for a process with gasifier (approx. 70% efficiency), scrubber and a bioreactor. Now, let's assume that fuel cost is $5/GJ. 0.005 $/MJ * 80.2 MJ/gal / 0.53 = 0.76 $/gal. This would be additional to the 1 $/gal they claim. So less than $2 per gallon of ethanol, which is quite close to $3/gal of gasoline when the smaller energy density is taken into account.

It is still very impressive price for cellulosic ethanol. Too bad, I was really hoping that we would finally get away from using these terribly inefficient internal combustion engines and also start to do something about the sprawling cities. Well, I think there's still a good chance that EV's will break through this time and at least the first problem could be solved. Cellulosic fibres could be used for combined heat and power production.


The $1 per gallon probably does not include either the capital, or any cost for the fuel. Let's see what happens when they build a pilot plant. I think they will end up putting in a conventional catalyst system after they become frustrated with managing the bioreactor.

Paul Dietz

You can make methanol from syngas without finicky biological reactors. And you can make gasoline from methanol with proven, 20 year old technology. The coal-based synfuel plant at Medicine Bow in Wyoming is using this approach instead of FT technology.


Range Fuels claims they can make ethanol using gasification and catalysts. If a dry ton of biomass costs $30-40 per ton and you can get 100 gallons of ethanol per ton and wholesale each gallon for $2, it could be profitable.

If you include energy and transportation costs, you might have a variable cost of perhaps $1 per gallon.

Now you have to include fixed costs like plant and mangers salaries and the like, but apparently some people out there think it is profitable.


This sounds exciting!
I think burning coal to generate ethanol should be ok if the pollution is less compared to Oil.
Also it can keep the oil prices in check.

Can Coskata process use raw crushed Oil Shale ? If somehow this is made possible , US Could be 100% independent of Oil.
Everyone knows that US has World largest reserves of Oil shale, even greater than the Oil reserves in the middle east.

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