Lignocellulosic ethanol: is it economically and financially viable as a fuel source?

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Recent concerns related to the environmental impact and uncertain future supply of fossil fuels have led to an increased interest in alternative fuels. The objective of the research discussed here was to determine the business attractiveness of utilizing lignocellulosic biomass resources, primarily woody biomass, to produce ethanol in the United States. In addition, we assessed the attractiveness of ethanol made from corn grain in the United States and sugarcane in Brazil in order to provide a contrast between the emerging lignocellulosic and established ethanol industries.

If lignocellulosic-based ethanol is to have the potential to displace large amounts of fossil resources, conversion of biomass to energy products must use processing technologies that are feasible and economical. Given that the majority of biomass available on the surface of the earth is woody biomass, process technologies targeted to this form of biomass are a priority.

As this article explains, lignocellulosic ethanol production in the United States does not appear to be a practical business venture at this time based on evaluation of the relevant risks, uncertainty, and assumptions, and the outcome of quantitative analysis. As technology matures, much of the risk and uncertainty will diminish and the lignocellulosic ethanol project will become more attractive, as has occurred in the case of corn- and sugarcane-based ethanol. This is especially likely as the cost of oil continues to increase.

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© 2008 Wiley. Publisher’s version of record: http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/tqem.20194

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Environmental Quality Management