When most people think of ethanol, images of food shortages and vast fields of corn often come to mind. It is because of these negative stereotypes that ethanol has fallen from popularity in the public eye. However, there is a company out there that is taking a new approach to ethanol that could potentially redeem it in the eyes of the public.
Bluefire Ethanol is an Irvine, CA based alternative energy company that is taking a new approach to ethanol production. Like many other companies, BlueFire is looking to use cellulosic materials to convert to ethanol; however the source of this cellulosic material is much different. Bluefire’s goal is to get the majority of its cellulosic feedstock from the local city landfill.
“Any landfill in any community can supply sufficient waste materials to convert into ethanol,” Bluefire CEO Arnold Klann explained. “For the first 8-10 years of the company’s life, we are going to strictly look at landfills as being our supplier for feedstock.”
Klann continued by pointing out that an individual typically generates 6-7lbs of trash per day and 4lbs of that typically is cellulosic materials which can be used in BlueFire’s conversion process.
This conversion process, whose origins can be traced back to World War I Germany, is still very cost effective and market competitive, boasting an “all-in” production cost of a little over $1/gallon.
Additionally, where Klann would argue that much of the negative press about ethanol is unfounded, his company completely sidesteps the mainstream arguments against ethanol. For example, by using trash as a feedstock to produce ethanol, the food for fuel argument is completely nullified.
“We are totally excluded from the food for fuel argument,” Klann said. “We are not using food to produce our ethanol so we have none of the perceived [negative] effects.”
Ethanol production often gets derided for having negative energy ratios. This means that the fuel produced contains less energy than was used to produce it. However, BlueFire can claim a positive energy output which means it produces more energy than it consumes in the conversion process.
“We get 1.6 units [of energy] out for every 1 unit that goes in,” Klann explained.
BlueFire Ethanol will also be partnering with Solazyme, an algae biofuel company. In the partnership, BlueFire plans to sell the simple sugars produced in their conversion process to Solazyme who will feed it to their algae in a fermentation process that creates algae based biofuels. Mr. Klann believes that both ethanol and algae biofuels will play a crucial role in supplying the United States’ future energy needs.
As with most new technologies, people always want to know when they can expect to see results. The good news is that BlueFire has a fully licensed and permitted plant ready to go in Lancaster, CA and are currently working on financing the construction of the plant. Klann expects all the financing requirements to be completed in the next couple months so that construction can begin sometime after November of this year.
So will one of BlueFire Ethanol’s plants be coming to a city near you? If your city boasts a population density of 150,000+, the cellulosic waste level may be high enough to support one of BlueFire’s plants. However, the Lancaster plant must first prove itself sufficient and economical before we can expect widespread adoption.
Ultimately, though, it will take a widespread supply infrastructure in the United States for ethanol to become a major source of fuel. Whether or not the necessary infrastructure will ever materialize is yet to be seen but with people demanding cheaper and renewable sources of energy, companies like BlueFire Ethanol may very well pave the way.
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