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Future Prospects of Cellulosic Ethanol

As of mid 2013, several indicators have shown a steady progress in the cellulosic ethanol industry, even though the earlier targets set in the United States have not been met, as expected. Techno­economic analysis plays an important role in the realization of cellulosic ethanol. The overreaching goal for the DOE’s office of the biomass program is to demonstrate the cost-competitiveness of cellulosic ethanol with petroleum fuels. The 2011 NREL report on development targets predicted an nth-plant MESP of $2.15/ gal by 2012, as modeled by the NREL process design for a corn stover-acid pretreatment-enzyme hydrolysis plant [2]. This MESP value is comparable to current gasoline prices in the US, since a kilogram of ethanol has about 66% of the energy in a kilogram of gasoline. With continuous R&D efforts in enzyme technologies and energy efficient processing configurations, MESP value is expected go below $2.00/gal in the coming years, boosting inves­tor confidence.

The cellulosic biofuel industry 2012-2013 progress report is a more realistic and a vital indicator, which summarizes the global perspective of the industry [30]. This report gives a detailed snap­shot of advancements made towards the commercial deployment of cellulosic ethanol. According to Sandia National Lab and the cellulosic biofuel industry 2012-2013 progress report, the United States could produce 75 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol with­out displacing food and feed crops [30]. For comparison, the US consumed 134 billion gallons of gasoline in 2011. According to the advanced ethanol council’s 2012-2013 progress report, there are about ten commercial-scale (>20 million gallons/year) cellu — losic ethanol plants in operation or under construction around the world in 2013 [30]. Of course this is a very small fraction in com­parison with first generation corn ethanol production capacity in the United States, which is 13.9 billion gallons/year in 2011 [31]; clearly, cellulosic ethanol is an industry in its infancy. However, entering into a commercial operation phase is an encouraging sign and a testimony for investor confidence on cellulosic ethanol technology. The future of cellulosic ethanol looks promising and the goal of large-scale production of fuel ethanol from abundant lignocellulosic biomass to meet the global energy demand is real­izable in the near future.

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