Cellulosic ethanol moves from the lab toward commercial production

The idea of producing plentiful amounts of ethanol from materials such as switchgrass and wood scraps has successfully emerged from the laboratory, but challenges lie ahead.

The ethanol industry spent years honing the necessary science and technology, and that job is essentially finished. Now the work has started to bring cellulosic ethanol to commercial production.

By 2022, a federal mandate calls for annual production of 16 billion gallons of ethanol from cellulose — along with 15 billion gallons from the main U.S. ethanol source now, corn.

A handful of small facilities will begin producing cellulosic ethanol as early as next year, which will test whether the fuel can live up to its potential and be commercially viable.

“I think the science is real,” said Candace Wheeler, a technical fellow for General Motors Inc., which is investing in cellulosic ethanol. “The next couple of years are very critical.”

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