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GM Enters Strategic Relationship with Mascoma for Cellulosic Ethanol

Process
Mascoma is developing a Consolidated Bioprocessing process that results in a simpler, lower-cost pathway for cellulosic ethanol. Click to enlarge. Source: DOE BESC

General Motors Corp. and Mascoma Corp. have entered a strategic relationship to develop cellulosic ethanol based on Mascoma’s Consolidated Bioprocessing single-step biochemical conversion of non-grain biomass into low-carbon alternative fuels. (Earlier post.)

The relationship, which includes an undisclosed equity investment by GM, complements an earlier investment in Coskata, a cellulosic ethanol startup that uses a thermochemical syngas-to-ethanol process to make the fuel from non-grain sources. (Earlier post.)

Taken together, these technologies represent what we see as the best in the cellulosic ethanol future and cover the spectrum in science and commercialization. Demonstrating the viability of sustainable non-grain based ethanol is critical to developing the infrastructure to support the flex-fuel vehicle market.

—GM President Fritz Henderson

Mascoma Corporation was founded in 2005 to pursue the development of advanced cellulosic ethanol technologies based on work developed in Professor Lee Lynd’s labs at Dartmouth College across a range of cellulosic feedstocks. Lynd is one of the scientific founders of Mascoma, as is Professor Charles Wyman.

Mascoma is developing a Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) approach to cellulosic ethanol. CBP involves the use of a single microorganism or group of organisms to break down plant matter through a one-step conversion process of biomass into biofuels—a single-step cellulose-to-ethanol method. This lowers costs by limiting additives and enzymes used in other biochemical processes. Mascoma’s process consists of a mild pretreatment followed by the introduction of cellulose-utilizing and ethanol-fermenting microbes that both hydrolyze and ferment the sugars into ethanol.

Mascoma has raised significant equity from venture capital investments and secured more than $60 million in state and federal grants, including the recent awarding of a $26 million grant from the US Department of Energy.

Based in Boston, privately-held Mascoma is using proprietary microorganisms developed at the company’s laboratories in Lebanon, N.H., and is collaborating with research partners globally to identify and patent additional biomass-to-ethanol technologies.

Mascoma is one of the partners in the DOE BioEnergy Science Center (BESC). BESC, led by Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), is strongly focused on the fundamental understanding and elimination of biomass recalcitrance—the resistance of cellulosic biomass to enzymatic breakdown into sugars.

In November 2007, Mascoma acquired Celsys BioFuels, Inc., headquartered in Indianapolis, Indiana. Celsys was formed in 2006 to commercialize cellulosic ethanol production technology developed in the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering (LORRE) at Purdue University. The Celsys technology is based on proprietary pretreatment processes for multiple biomass feedstocks, including corn fiber and distiller grains. (Earlier post.)

Mascoma is testing its CBP technology and expects to begin producing ethanol later this year at its demonstration plant under construction in Rome, NY. Mascoma also has partnered with The University of Tennessee to develop a switchgrass-to-ethanol pilot facility near Knoxville, TN, and is pursuing opportunities in the state of Michigan.

GM’s multi-dimensional involvement with Mascoma will include projects to evaluate materials and other fuels for specific engine applications as well as collaborating on Mascoma’s efforts to expand its commercialization projects globally, including promotion of increased biofuels distribution.

Resources

Comments

GreenPlease

Perhaps we are seeing a true divorce of Big Oil and Detroit?

First Coskata and now Mascoma, it would appear that GM is on the road to being a new-age oil company.

IMO, both of those investments are wise.

SJC

It looks like they are hedging their bets and not betting on oil for their future any more. It was foolish for them to depend totally on oil in the first place, but that is another story.

Matthew

Well, don't blame the automakers for being hooked on oil; remember, in the early days cars ran on electricity, steam, and petroleum. The market selected petroleum as the winner of that particular battle.

Harvey D

Will GM + Ethanol refineries = more ethanol guzzlers? This could turn out to be an alliance with vested interests (other than the car owners).

Engineer

GM should leave investment in green tech to people with money to burn. As good as it sounds, there is no way to tell if this technology will survive to fruition. GM has zero experience with fuel production. The risks of this investment is considerable. GM can easily get burned.

GM needs to focus on its core business: building cars people want to buy, and doing so for a profit. Of course, high mileage would help with that.

Harry

GM is obsessed with ethanol, as an obvious strategy to continue selling oversized SUV's and pickup trucks.

This isn't a good sign from GM, it's just more of the same from them. What they need are fuel efficient vehicles, and not different fuel for their fuel-inefficient vehicles.

Harry

SJC

Just because oil won the "battle" does not mean that you put all your eggs in their basket. You do not have to and you are foolish to do so. They control you, you do not control your own destiny.

Harvey D

SJC:

The situation you mentionned could change drastically with PHEV-60 and/or BEVs + a few high efficiency PV panels + ESSU at every home.

When people start producing most of the electrical energy required for their electrified vehicle, oil and corn/ethanol producers will sing a different tune.

In our area, we have plenty of Hydro power and huge wind power potential. The domestic sun power approach may not be neccessary. Collocated Wind + Hydro plants, whereas the huge Hydro water reservoirs are used to stock surplus wind and water energy will be common place within a few years. This is easy to do, just make Wind the primary power (base) and Hydro, with its easily varied output, for peak demands and periods with less or not wind. In our area, the best winds happen to be in the same area as the Hydro plants or High Voltage lines. Both Hydro and Wind have about the same max power potential, ie about 80 000 MW each. Close to 50% of the Hydro potential is already developed but Wind is just gearing up with a mear 1% to 2% done.

We need 2 to 3 million PHEV-100 KM or BEVs. The low cost, clean electrical power is there may times over.

gr

Both of these investments are tiny within GM's portfolio. They are significant only in that GM needs someone to seed the alt fuel infrastructure, and since oil seems unwilling - GM steps up. This is crucial to the success of their flex-fuel products of which they have millions on the road.

Greens should be happy that at least one major manufacturer is joining them in the construction of a renewable energy infrastructure. Of course it helps them sell cars. Can't always get what you want...

lance sjogren


I think it's fine that they are developing cellulosic ethanol, although I believe that biofuels will never be producible in the large quantities that fossil fuels have been.

Personally, it looks questionable to me that a hydrocarbon-based transportation system will be viable in the future. (although I expect that hydrocarbons will still be used for niche applications whose customers have the clout to get first dibs on very limited supplies, applications such as military transport and air travel for the very wealthy.

It seems to me, even things like cellulosic ethanol require too much land to be viable on a large scale without massive environmental damage. I guess it's not out of the question that algae biofuels might be able to achieve that, but I think it's a longshot.

Of course, conceivably if in the future we have an abundance of renewable-generated electrical energy but no hydrocarbons, perhaps we can come up with processes that suck up atmospheric CO2 and combine with hydrogen to create hydrocarbons.

(I believe there was an article posted a while back about some guys who were trying to do that sort of thing with nuclear energy)

But, anyway, I think it's great that they are spending money on cellulosic ethanol, I believe biofuels have a future as products serving small niche applications for which there is no substitute.

DS

I'd give GM the benefit of a doubt and call this Greenwashing PR. If they real think Ethanol is going to save their bacon, then they're even more F#ed up than I thought.

lance sjogren


Harvey, your comment about a system combining pumped storage hydro with wind I find interesting.

I previously had the impression that pumped storage was not a very viable large-scale energy storage mechanism because of very limited capacity.

But that makes me wonder- is there any reason that the large existing conventional hydro plants could not be upgraded to have pumped-storage capability? It seems like so long as their reservoirs aren't full, then that ought to be doable.

Although I guess what we really want is to be able to run them backwards at similar capacity to what we run them forwards at. Take Grand Coulee, must be something like 10 GW. So we retrofit it for 10 GW of reverse capability, build a massive number of windmills, and when the windmills are spinning we pump water back up the dam like crazy.

In principle there doesn't seem to be any obstacle. No doubt the capital cost would be massive, of course. And there may be some interesting engineering issues associated with trying to pump massive amounts of water from the bottom of a dam to the top.

Comments?

lance sjogren


Actually, when it comes to the pumped hydro + wind issue, I guess whether to use solar or not is not necessarily that germane an issue.

Solar or wind both are intermittent sources that potentially could be mated with pumped hydro as their associated energy storage mechanism in order to match energy output to demand over time.

So maybe the more important issue is what form of energy storage is the best to use. It seems like most of the focus lately is on heating a tank of molten material or pumping compressed air into big holes in the ground. I thought pumped hydro was out because of inadequate capacity- but maybe I was mistaken.

Andrey Levin

Harvey:

The problem with wind/hydro combination is that it works only when there is substantial reserve hydro overcapacity. Other vice the region faces the risk of blackouts when water flow is low (due to dry summer or cold winter), and wind dies at time of peak consumption.

Combination of nuclear baseload plus hydro peak leveling could produce twice more reliable electricity (for sale, for example) for half the price per KWh than hydro/wind combination.

Herb

Watch pumped hydro. How many dams do you know that can put any significant amount of water back up the hill without impacting the flow of a downstream river or stream. Could work for Niagara Falls, but them why pump? You would need to build a significant downstream resevoir. The holy grail of renewable energy is storage, not supply. Recently a company is looking at storing solar in steam, extending the generation of energy time by hours or even days. I believe they are using molten salts. Other systems, like flow batteries, suffer from the cost per kWh of storage. As much as I like to see solar and wind, I think you need to solve the issue of when it is available. Solar has a better chance of being used as baseload, as it occurs when we need the peak demands the most. Herb

SJC

In California, pumped hydro makes sense because of water resources. We need to make more storage for water so we can do both. Retro fitting a dam with this might not practice or possible. But where you have the terrain, need the power and water it can make sense.

Rafael Seidl

@ GreenPlease -

western oil companies are finding it ever harder to gain access to the remaining untapped reserves of fossil oil. Governments in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East and Russia are all closing their doors to them, at least for now, yet often lack the technical expertise to develop difficult reservoirs. Additional domestic exploration is hamstrung by environmental opposition. Even mighty Exxon is now reporting a decline in production - it cannot replace its existing sources fast enough. The unstated objective of giving US oil companies access to Iraq's vast oil reserves has not been achieved and probably never will be.

Now the Rockefeller family, still a major shareholder in Exxon, is urging shareholders at the May 28 annual meeting to support what would amount to a palace coup against CEO and chairman Rex Tillerson, who is very much a member of the old guard. The times they are a-changing, before long necessity may become the mother of sustainable biofuels invention - even at Exxon.

http://www.reuters.com/article/marketsNews/idUSN2850626520080428

SJC

The trend is clear. The recent run up in the price of oil may have provided the oil companies with the money to move. Exxon is said to be waiting until the biofuel push settles down and then they buy there way in. If 20% of our transportation fuel will be biofuel in 10 years, they want to make sure that 20% comes from them.

Harvey D

Lance:

I didn't mean to use the pump hydro approach. (That is too expensive). Simply make local Wind Farms (or Solar Farms) be the base load power supplier and Hydro the variable power source to supply peak demands + periods when Wind-Solar Farms are not producing or not producing enough. This way you waste zero (or less) Wind-Solar Power and accumulate more water in the reservoirs for dry non-windy and dark periods. Very full reservoirs potentially produce more (increased water pressure) for the same water volume. This combination can maximize both Wind-Solar and Hydro production efficiency.

Using Hydro Wind-Solar combination that way is rather a new approach but it is making its way.

Andrey:

Yes a certain amount of Hydro over-equipment would help to supply very large peak power demands. Most major Hydro sites already have over-equipment. In some cases, more may have to be added to satisfy very large variable demands and to get the very best efficiency. Nuclear is not as good as Hydro as a variable peak power demands supplier. Nuclear is better when used for base loads. It is not easy to use Wind (or Solar) for peak loads because it is so variable.

Making your variable (Wind or Solar) power source handle some (as much as possible) of the base load requires another easily variable power source to handle peaks and periods when Wind or Solar are not producing or not producing enough. Hydro can easily be the variable power source, while not losing energy because unused water will keep on filling the reservoirs (like a huge battery). It would be possible to maximize the efficiency of all three power sources.

Lance & Andrey:

Sorry if I repeated myself. Your questions were almost but not quite the same.

SJC

Iceland is using hydro and geothermal for all their power. They are making H2 to run their buses, fishing fleets and soon cars. Iceland has something like 1/1000th the population of the U.S. and has lots of geo and hydro. For them it works, for us not so much.

lance sjogren


Harvey: I stand corrected- variable hydro, not pumped storage.

One limitation for combined wind/hydro is the fact that hydro is rather geographically limited.

I guess the bottom line is that if renewables like wind and solar are going to eventually be the "core" of our energy supplies (and in the long run I think we have to assume that, until and unless nuclear fusion proves viable), they need to be mated either with energy storage systems of some form, but a reservoir behind a dam should be included within the definition of "storage system".

sjc said:


"Exxon is said to be waiting until the biofuel push settles down and then they buy there way in. If 20% of our transportation fuel will be biofuel in 10 years, they want to make sure that 20% comes from them."


That makes sense. The oil companies seem too timid to invest very much in alternative energy development within their own organization. They will probably find they have to pay and arm and a leg to buy into biofuel companies, however, since the investment community tends to put sky-high valuations on new businesses that are perceived to have huge future potential.

Of course, in the face of $200-$300 per barrel oil the oil companies may find themselves in a position to very easily pay an arm and a leg ...

SJC

Biotech and other concerns are not the expertise of oil companies. Some could argue that good management is not their specialty as well. Running an oil company is like steering a huge oil tanker, it does not take the skills of a speed boat captain.

So, startup companies with good management and technical abilities can do a better job initially. It might cost the oil companies much more to do it in the first place. The inefficiencies, lack of ability and mismanagement might cost much more than just waiting, watching and buying in when the time is right. They would have to do it if no one else was. There seems to be no shortage of new companies getting into the biofuel business.

One of the risks that the oil companies face is too much success in biofuels. If the exit strategy is sell or go public, there could be a dozen fuel companies well funded and doing just fine. Why would you sell for $100 million when you can make that every year in profits for the next 10 years? They face a distribution problem, oil companies have locked it up over the decades, but if they can get to the blenders at the proper distribution level, they might make it.

Harvey D

Thank you Lance. No offense taken.

High quality winds (8 to 9) with potential capacity factor of 45%+ and high hydro potential are very often found in the same geographical area. Where it is so, the total energy production could be doubled, by making better use (100%) of all the nearby wind energy potential and making better use of the water available. Full reservoirs = more water pressure = higher output from the turbines/generators = increased efficient per given water volume.

Existing hydro generating plants over-equipment may have to be increased in some places to maximize peak production and efficiency. It would be good long term investments.

This (reversed) approach may be used where both hydro & wind are available. That's the case in many northern countries.

SJC

North of L.A. they pump water up to Castaic Lake and generate power on the way down south to L.A., as well as provide water to them. They could just as easily have the wind mills in the windy San Joaquin Valley do the pumping up to the lake. To make windmills produce electricity and have electric pumps pump the water may not be as efficient.

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