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Cellulosic Ethanol Makes Slow Commercial Progress, Business and Industry Trends Analysis

Traditional grain ethanol is typically made from corn or sugarcane.  In contrast to grain ethanol, “cellulosic” ethanol is typically made from agricultural waste like corncobs, wheat husks, stems, stalks and leaves, which are treated with specially engineered enzymes to break the waste down into its component sugars.  The sugars (or sucrose) are used to make ethanol.  Since agricultural waste is plentiful, turning it into energy seems a good strategy.  Cellulosic ethanol can also be made from certain types of plants and grasses.
The trick to cellulosic ethanol production is the creation of efficient enzymes to treat the agricultural waste.  Another challenge lies in efficient collection and delivery of cellulosic material to the refinery.  It may be more costly to make cellulosic ethanol than to make it from corn.  In any event, the U.S. remains far behind Brazil in cost-efficiency, as Brazil’s use of sugar cane refined in smaller, nearby biorefineries creates ethanol at much lower costs per gallon.

Corn and sugar cane are not the only sources for creating biofuels.
Municipal/Agricultural Waste: Might be cheaply produced, but could be in limited supply compared to the billions of gallons of fuel needed in the marketplace.
Wood: Easily harvested and in somewhat healthy supply; however, cellulose can be more difficult to extract from wood than from other biosources.
Algae: The slimy green stuff does have the potential for high yields per acre, but the process for distilling its cellulose is complex, requiring a source of carbon dioxide to permeate the algae.
Grasses/Wheat: Including switchgrass, miscanthus and wheat straw, the supply could be almost limitless. The challenge here is creating efficient methods for harvesting and infrastructure for delivering it to biorefineries.
Vegetable Oils: Including soybean, canola, sunflower, rapeseed, palm or hemp. It is difficult to keep production costs of these oils low.

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