Kevin Bullis

A View from Kevin Bullis

The Real Costs of Cellulosic Ethanol

New figures get beyond startup company hype.

  • November 24, 2009

Ethanol giant POET says it can make ethanol from cellulosic sources–rather than the corn grain it’s usually made from in the United States–for costs that are approaching that of corn grain ethanol. Last year, when it started a pilot plant for making ethanol from corn cobs (one of many potential cellulosic sources), it cost $4.13 to make a gallon of ethanol. Now it costs just $2.35 per gallon. In comparison, corn grain ethanol costs about $1.60 to $1.90 a gallon, a cost heavily dependent on the price of corn and natural gas. The company hopes to get costs below $2 a gallon.

That’s considerably more than the $1 per gallon figure that some startups are claiming, but who knows if those estimates will pan out. The $2.35 figure from POET seems solid–it comes from a company that knows how to make large amounts of ethanol, and the figure includes all of the relevant costs: “interest, depreciation, wages, benefits, repairs, maintenance, insurance, etc.,” according to a company spokesperson. It seems like a good indication that cellulosic ethanol could soon be competitive with conventional ethanol, and fossil fuels.

A number of factors have helped bring costs down, the company says.

· Chemical raw materials required in the process have been reduced, resulting in an operating cost savings of $0.20 per gallon.

· The energy used in the pretreatment process has been reduced by more than half.

· Alternative energy technology has been demonstrated to provide all of the energy for the cellulosic ethanol plant and at least 80 percent of the adjacent corn-based plant.

· Enzyme cost has been cut in half and is expected to continue to decline.

· Through continuous optimization of the process, entire unit operations have been eliminated, reducing overall capital cost by over 40 percent.

Become an MIT Technology Review Insider for in-depth analysis and unparalleled perspective.
Subscribe today

Uh oh–you've read all five of your free articles for this month.

Insider Premium

$179.95/yr US PRICE

More from Sustainable Energy

Can we sustainably provide food, water, and energy to a growing population during a climate crisis?

Want more award-winning journalism? Subscribe and become an Insider.

  • Insider Premium {! insider.prices.premium !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Our award winning magazine, unlimited access to our story archive, special discounts to MIT Technology Review Events, and exclusive content.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

    First Look. Exclusive early access to stories.

    Insider Conversations. Join in and ask questions as our editors talk to innovators from around the world.

  • Insider Plus {! insider.prices.plus !}* Best Value

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Everything included in Insider Basic, plus ad-free web experience, select discounts to partner offerings and MIT Technology Review events

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

    Access to the Magazine archive. Over 24,000 articles going back to 1899 at your fingertips.

    Special Discounts to select partner offerings

    Discount to MIT Technology Review events

    Ad-free web experience

  • Insider Basic {! insider.prices.basic !}*

    {! insider.display.menuOptionsLabel !}

    Six issues of our award winning magazine and daily delivery of The Download, our newsletter of what’s important in technology and innovation.

    See details+

    What's Included

    Bimonthly home delivery and unlimited 24/7 access to MIT Technology Review’s website.

    The Download. Our daily newsletter of what's important in technology and innovation.

You've read of free articles this month.