Monday, August 25, 2008

Bacteria Boost Efficiency

A group at Washington University in St. Louis have managed to use bacteria to break-down unusable portions of the ethanol process in order to make methane. With this extra methane, the researchers are able to provide a readily usable fuel to power the ethanol making process, thereby increasing the efficiency. While only in the laboratory stages, the researchers hope that the process will scale up to the size of commercial ethanol plants. The numbers from their tests prove promising -- they are able to cut the natural gas/coal usage for the ethanol process by 50% when using this technology. Since natural gas accounts for approximately 60% of the process energy needed to produce ethanol, this could mean that the new technology would increase corn-ethanol's energy efficiency from plus 20% to up to plus 70%! This would be an emphatic jump and would contribute to the short term benefits of retrofitting current ethanol plants, which is the goal of these researchers. If the numbers hold up, this might be a great energy and cost-effective patch to put on current ethanol plants, minus the obvious need for initial capital to build another bacterial reactor and the needed infrastructure to capture the methane.

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