Canadian Dreams of Ethanol Distilled from Grass

Brian Foody, CEO of Iogen

hide captionBrian Foody, CEO of Iogen, is working to make ethanol an efficient and affordable fuel. Unlike most of the ethanol that's sold in North America, Foody's fuel is made from straw, not corn.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR

It's been a dream for many years: Distill clean-burning ethanol from grass, the cheapest vegetation. It's not just a dream anymore. An entrepreneur in Canada has a small factory operating already. He claims that he's ready to blanket the continent with such factories.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This may sound like a fantasy, cars that run on fuel created by fermenting straw or grass, but it really exists. The fuel is called cellulosic ethanol and it's a favorite alternative to gasoline. President Bush even talked about it, enthusiastically, in his last State of the Union Address.

Right now, though, there's only one factory that's actually making cellulosic ethanol. It's in Canada. NPR's Kathleen Schalch visited the plant and the CEO of the company who built it. Her report is part of a series on people who are shaping America's energy future.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Brian Foody's Chevy Impala can run on either gasoline or fuel that's 85 percent ethanol. That's not so unusual.

Mr. BRIAN FOODY (CEO, Iogen Corporation): It's one of five million flexible fuel cars on the road in North America.

(Soundbite of pumping fuel)

SCHALCH: But the fueling station where Foody fills his car up is the only one of its kind, because the ethanol it dispenses isn't made from corn kernels, like the rest of the ethanol sold in North America. It's made from straw. Foody's company, Iogen, makes it here at its experimental plant on the outskirts of Ottawa.

(Soundbite of a forklift)

SCHALCH: Just inside the building a forklift heaves thousand pound bales onto a conveyor belt.

Mr. FOODY: We chose straw, wheat straw, in particular, that you're looking at here because people do collect some amount of it. There's equipment for baling, equipment for handling. So there's skills available for people to process it. But in the great grain growing areas, by and large, it's just left to rot, or sometimes even burned in the fields.

SCHALCH: Because it's not edible, it's cheap and really plentiful. Foody says there are lots of other possible ingredients: corn stocks, fast-growing weeds like switch grass, even municipal waste.

Mr. FOODY: Somewhere between 50 and 100 billion gallons a year of cellulose ethanol could be made in the United States, just from the available resources. So that is something like a 50 percent replacement of all of the gasoline we use in America today.

SCHALCH: So why aren't we already doing this? Because it's not easy, to brew alcohol you need sugar, but the chains of sugar molecules that form cellulose are very tough to break. That's no accident, says Foody. Tough lignin in cellulose structures help plants fend off attacks.

Mr. FOODY: By different kinds of microbes, which have wanted to eat them, digest them, and make food out of them. And they are there because they've survived. And we now have to develop processes, which counteract that long history.

SCHALCH: Thirty years ago, Foody's father took this on. His idea was to convert wood fibers into something cows could digest, by making them explode, like popcorn. Then he heard about a discovery made on Guam, during World War II. Soldiers' tents and clothes were rotting away in a matter of days. The Army investigated.

Mr. FOODY: And they found a fungus that produced a chemical called an enzyme that would break all sorts of fiber, cotton, clothes tents, down into sugar. And it would then eat the sugar.

SCHALCH: Perfect for turning cellulose into ethanol. Patrick Foody and his sons hoped to harness this to solve the energy crisis. They built their experimental plant in the early 1980s. But within a few years, it seemed there was no use for it. Gasoline was cheap again. The Foodys ended up selling enzymes to clarify apple juice, whiten paper, and give blue jeans that stonewashed look, without the stones.

But they never gave up on the dream of making ethanol. They've spent years genetically tweaking the tropical fungus to make it grow faster, and turn out more and better enzymes. Brian Foody leads the way to Iogen's laboratory and pulls a petri dish out of a refrigerator. It's covered with gray fuzz.

Mr. FOODY: We take this fungus, this furry little bit of mold, scrape it off and put it inside a small flask. And shake it around.

(Soundbite of a centrifuge)

SCHALCH: A few days later there's enough to fill up silos five stories high out on the factory floor.

(Soundbite of laboratory tanks)

Mr. FOODY: And it's those big tanks that are making all of the noise.

SCHALCH: So this multiplies really fast.

Mr. FOODY: It does. In a matter of a week and a half, it goes from milligrams in weight up to the weight of a blue whale.

SCHALCH: Foody climbs metal stairs and crosses catwalks through a maze of steel tanks and pipelines. It looks and smells like a cross between a brewery and a diary barn. Foody explains the steps. You have to collect the enzymes, mix them with water and exploded bits of straw, and wait for the enzymes to turn the cellulose into sugar. Then you add yeast, ferment it, and distill it to collect the alcohol.

Foody stops near a machine that looks like a giant accordion. It's strains out lignin from the mixture. He says you can burn it to make steam and electricity.

Mr. FOODY: So when you actually look at a cellulose ethanol facility, it doesn't take in any fossil fuels at all. It's run entirely off the power that's in that fiber, that was originally collected from the sun, through photosynthesis.

SCHALCH: Foody grins and says this isn't just about energy independence and a little extra income for farmers. It's about saving the planet. Burning ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions, since you're just putting carbon back into the atmosphere that was recently pulled out by the plants. But to make ethanol from corn, the way we do now, you have to burn a lot of gas and coal to drive tractors and power factories.

You could make cellulosic ethanol with a tenth as much fossil fuel, according to Dartmouth researcher Lee Lynd. He says the challenge is to bring down the cost of manufacturing it.

Dr. LEE RYBECK LYND (Professor of Engineering, Adjunct Professor of Biology, Dartmouth College): In my lab, one of the big ideas we're working on, is to try to develop microorganisms using genetic engineering, that let us do, in one step, what we're now only able to do in more than one step.

SCHALCH: Doug Faulkner, from the U.S. Department of Energy, says other researchers are making progress, too.

Mr. DOUGLAS FAULKNER (Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary, Department of Energy): We think in six years, we can bring down the cost of ethanol from cellulosic material, to be cost competitive with gasoline. And then, that's a starting point to start working on getting that fuel into the marketplace in volumes that can make a big difference.

SCHALCH: Production isn't the only hurdle, though. If ethanol is going to start replacing gasoline, carmakers will have to build more cars that can run on this fuel. And more gas stations will have to sell it. There has to be a system for shipping ethanol to those gas stations. You can't use existing gasoline pipelines and trucking it around is costly. Iogen's Brian Foody says he could help solve the problem by building ethanol plants everywhere.

Mr. FOODY: That would be many hundreds of plants like this, but much bigger, all over America. And we hope that a great number of those will be Iogen plants, patterned right after this facility here.

(Soundbite of Iogen plant machinery)

SCHALCH: And that leads to perhaps the biggest hurdle that Brian Foody faces: money. This month, Goldman Sachs invested nearly $30 million in the company. But building the first commercial plant will cost $300 million, roughly six times as much as a conventional ethanol plant. Iogen hopes to get loan guarantees from the U.S. government to help attract more investors. It's signed contracts with Idaho farmers to buy hundreds of thousands of tons of wheat and barley straw, and hopes to break ground on the first plant, possibly in Idaho, next year.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: Stories about wind power, coal, and other alternative fuels, talked about in this series, are at npr.org.

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