How Is Biomass Converted to Ethanol

How is biomass converted to ethanol? The ethanol conversion process consumes conventional energy, which means it may not be an ideal alternate fuel source unless the process can change.

Creating ethanol is like brewing alcohol.
On some levels, creating ethanol is similar to brewing alcohol. Biomass largely composed of corn or sugarcane is allowed to ferment, where it creates alcohol that is in turn converted into ethanol fuel. This happens through a yeast fermentation process and is augmented by specifically developed enzymes that make ethanol production more efficient.

During the ethanol process, the biomass must undergo a heat treatment to yield ethyl alcohol and transform into ethanol. This heat generally comes from a non-sustainable source, such as natural gas or other existing fuel sources, thus negating the benefits of using ethanol as a sustainable fuel source. The inefficiency of this biomass conversion process has researchers looking for alternative methods to produce ethanol.

Ethanol production through cellulosic biomass.
As ethanol suppliers pressure manufacturers and researchers to come up with more efficient ethanol production processes, researchers are turning to cellulosic biomass research to produce ethanol. With the aid of enzymes and chemicals, researchers can use cellulosic biomass, such as corn leaves and stalks, to augment the traditional ethanol production process.

This theoretically enables ethanol suppliers to produce more ethanol and use biomass that traditionally has very little value. However, the use of cellulosic biomass to produce ethanol is still a fairly inefficient process, and it has not generally replaced the traditional fermentation process of producing ethanol.

Ethanol production processes are still evolving.
With the high demand for alternative fuel production, researchers are looking for efficient ways to produce enough ethanol to meet demand and provide a net energy benefit to consumers. One process currently under research involves converting biomass into bio-oil using a high-heat treatment, and then converting the bio-oil into a synthesis gas, which could eventually be converted to ethanol.

While this theoretically involves more steps than existing ethanol production processes, it would be more efficient in terms of yield and would provide the ability to transport biomass easily and inexpensively. Biomass could be converted to bio-oil in local stations, which could be transported to large regional stations, where it could be converted to ethanol. This new technology is only one currently under research to produce a more efficient ethanol process and ultimately make alternative fuel sources a viable option for American consumers.

Biomass to electricity may be a more promising avenue for alternative fuel production.
Due to the inherent difficulties and multiple steps involving converting biomass to ethanol, scientists are now looking at the benefits of converting biomass directly into electricity. Scientific studies in California have revealed that converting biomass directly into electricity to power cars yields more mileage than converting biomass to ethanol, and has a smaller negative impact on the environment. Ultimately, ethanol as a fuel source may never become a viable alternative, whereas converting biomass to electricity could provide the real benefits to alternative energy use that the world currently needs.

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