On January 6, 2019, 60 Minutes had a segment on an amazing biofuels breakthrough invention by Marshall Medoff, an “81-year old eccentric with no science degree” (watch the video or read the transcript here).
His stunning innovation has won over many famous board members, such as Steven Chu, the former Secretary of Energy, as well as Shell Oil executive Sir John Jennings, George Shultz, former secretary of state and former defense secretary, William Perry.
Medoff’s company, Xyleco, has also garnered hundreds of millions of dollars from investors impressed with his inventive use of accelerators. Sixty minutes describes this as his “novel idea of using these large blue machines called electron accelerators to break apart nature’s chokehold on the valuable sugars inside plant life – or biomass”.
But wait! There are thousands of research papers going back as far as Imamura (1972) about using electron accelerators to break down lignocellulosic biomass. This is done to create more surface area for the next step, in Xyleco’s case, enzymes to break down the cellulose further. Other ways biomass can be shattered are milling, chipping, shredding, grinding, and pyrolysis.
But all of these are highly energy intensive methods. In fact, one paper thought that electronic beams were probably economically infeasible (Saini 2015).
This plant is also likely to fail because all other commercial level cellulosic ethanol plants have gone out of business. Only one plant still exists, POET’s $275 million Emmetsburg, Iowa facility, with a capacity of 25 million gallons per year. I can’t find out how much was actually produced there, but even if all 25 million gallons were made, that is a far cry from the 8.5 billion gallon cellulosic ethanol mandate of 2007, which will be reduced to 418 million gallons in 2019 because cellulosic ethanol is clearly not commercial yet (Rapier 2018).
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