This year begins the ninth year of cellulosic ethanol mandates in the U.S. Today I want to give a brief review of cellulosic ethanol, review the original targets, and examine the current status of the industry.
What is Cellulosic Ethanol?
Conventional ethanol production utilizes a fermentation process to convert starches or simple sugars to ethanol. The vast majority of the world’s ethanol is produced from either corn or sugarcane.
Cellulose is an important structural material for plants, and it is made up of many repeating sugar units. These repeating sugar units can be broken down by various processes into the component sugars, which can then be fermented into ethanol.
The process of breaking down cellulose into sugars was discovered in France in the 1800’s, and cellulosic ethanol production was first commercialized in Germany in 1898. Commercialization in the U.S. followed in 1910, but the process was ultimately abandoned almost everywhere for economic reasons.
Ethanol Mandates Begin
The Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) for the U.S. that required 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel — primarily corn ethanol — to be blended into the fuel supply by 2012.
The act created mandates requiring that increasing volumes of biofuel be blended into the U.S. fuel supply. Corn ethanol production soared and quickly outstripped the mandates. The 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) increased and accelerated the schedule for the mandates. But it also created a mandate to begin blending cellulosic biofuel (which was primarily envisioned as ethanol) into the nation’s fuel supply.
Interestingly, there was no commercial cellulosic ethanol production when the mandates were established, but proponents of the technology were certain that commercialization would come in response to the mandates. The cellulosic ethanol mandate went into effect in 2010 when 100 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol was required to be blended into the fuel supply.
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