NREL ethanol money lags

Lab's research funding has not grown, despite push for new fuel

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden has seen flat budgets and incremental progress in its quest to produce low-cost cellulosic ethanol - the biofuel that President Bush highlighted in his State of the Union address this week as well as the same speech last year - lab officials said.

Meeting Bush's goal of the United States producing 35 billion gallons of petroleum substitutes annually by 2017 - displacing 15 percent of projected annual gasoline use - requires leaps in the production of ethanol, with cellulosic ethanol viewed as the fuel of the future.

America's cornfields seem infinite to those driving through Iowa and Nebraska. But a boom in the production of corn-based ethanol - the kind produced in large commercial volumes in the United States - will push production to its limits before 2017. Cellulosic ethanol and "alternative fuels," as the Bush administration calls them, would presumably fill the balance.

"Alternative fuels" include coal-to-liquid-fuels processes such as the Fischer-Tropsch processes that kept the Axis powers rolling during World War II. The process is inherently polluting and produces more heat-trapping gases such as carbon dioxide than traditional petroleum production.

Cellulosic ethanol is nearly carbon-neutral, harnessing microbes and designer enzymes to create biofuel from stalks, wood chips and plant waste.

NREL has the world's top cellulosic ethanol research group, but its research funding has not grown with its political and strategic importance.

Bush's 2007 budget was to add $59 million to cellulosic ethanol research, a 65 percent rise. Congressional disagreement over the budget has delayed its passage.

Bush's 2008 budget includes $179 million for the biofuels initiative.

"We have no idea what our budget is," said NREL spokesman George Douglas.

Douglas said NREL scientists have made small gains in identifying microbes capable of living in higher ethanol concentrations and in research into the enzymes that chew up woody biomass into more pliant starches, which convert easily to ethanol.

An Earth Policy Institute analysis released Jan. 4 said the 116 U.S. ethanol plants running at the end of 2006 made 5.8 billion gallons of ethanol last year, and that the 79 new plants under construction and 11 expansions would add another 5.6 billion gallons.

Douglas said a U.S. Department of Energy study to be published in coming days shows that the country could produce 60 billion gallons of biofuels by 2030, most of it from cellulosic ethanol.

"When cellulosic ethanol becomes a commercial reality - our goal is 2012 - then we can get billions and billions of gallons, depending on how quickly the factories can be built," Douglas said.

The energy department is reviewing multiple bids for two plants to be producing thousands of gallons of cellulosic ethanol per day by 2010 or 2011, which would put the country on track for commercialization by 2012, Douglas said.

"There are people who think it will develop much faster," he said.

The 2008 Bush budget would include $2 billion in loans for cellulosic-ethanol plants.

And there may be other solutions, said Jim Sears, founder of Solix Bioenergy in Boulder. His company is working with Colorado State University to produce biodiesel from vats of algae. A competitor, Greenfuel Technologies Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., announced a deal with a South African biodiesel producer last year to generate 6 million gallons of algae-based biodiesel a year.

"I think in 10 years we'll have large plants in operation," Sears said.