Biotechnology Makes Ethanol More Efficient

Biotech enzymes can make ethanol cost-competitive with gasoline. Compiled by staff 

Published on: May 10, 2006

Gasoline prices topped $3.00/gallon in some regions of the United States last week. And according to Biotechnology Industry Organization President Jim Greenwood, ethanol is the best, most readily available solution to deal with the expensive domestic fuel supply.

Biotechnology now offers ways to dramatically increase ethanol production and bring down fuel prices. "Industrial biotech companies are developing new enzymes that will make current ethanol processes more efficient," Greenwood says.

Ethanol from corn currently contributes over 4 billion gallons to the fuel supply every year. But Greenwood says we could produce more than 70 billion gallons of ethanol or more each year if we use the entire corn plant as well as other crop residues and dedicated energy crops.

"Agricultural crops and plant matter containing cellulose are an untapped reservoir of energy that is abundantly available throughout the United States," says Greenwood. "Our industrial biotech companies are working with nature to produce new enzymes called cellulases that can convert this cellulose to sugars that can then be fermented into ethanol."

According to published reports, advances in biotechnology now make production of ethanol from cellulose cost-competitive with gasoline. One recent study shows that biotech processes already being used today could produce ethanol from cellulose for less than $1.60 a gallon compared to refined petroleum currently costing as much as $2.60 per gallon (prior to state and federal taxes).

Improvements to the process through research and development underway coupled with expanded production promise to reduce the cost of ethanol from cellulose to below 90 cents per gallon, according to a Natural Resources Defense Council report. For every one-cent reduction in the cost of producing ethanol, American drivers would keep $1 billion in their pockets. "There is enormous potential for ethanol from all feedstocks to reduce the cost of a fill-up for consumers and replace petroleum in transportation fuel," he adds.

Brent Erickson, BIO Executive Vice President, Industrial & Environmental Section, adds that as a nation we need to begin building modern biorefineries that use industrial biotechnology to produce ethanol from cellulose .These biorefineries can also make green plastics and renewable chemicals from grain or other plant matter. "We need to produce all the ethanol we can and by converting a larger share of our agricultural biomass resources to ethanol we can ensure that Americans have access to a stable supply of less-expensive transportation fuel over the long term," Erickson says.

Although the energy bill included several incentives to jumpstart the construction of biorefineries, BIO says more need to be done by Congress. The organization recommends fully funding the President's advanced energy initiative and then follow up with new aggressive policies that move us beyond research to commercialization of advanced biorefineries in all regions of the country.