Ethanol Minus the Corn: ATV’s Bill Wiberg on Coskata and Its Big Deal With GM

Switching the nation’s vehicle fleet from gasoline to biofuels such as corn-derived ethanol could reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil, which is why President Bush wants the U.S. to produce 35 billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017. But there are a couple of big problems. So much of the nation’s corn supply already goes to producing ethanol that it’s driving up the price of food. And it turns out that the energy bound up in corn-based ethanol is almost entirely offset by the energy required to grow the corn and process the fuel. So biofuels are looking like a fool’s bargain—unless someone can find a way to make them cheaply, using less energy, from something other than corn.

That’s precisely what Warrenville, IL-based Coskata hopes to do. The company, which says it has developed an inexpensive way to make ethanol from almost any hydrocarbon-rich material, from switchgrass to wood chips to demolition waste, came out of stealth mode with with its pedal to the metal on Sunday, using the Detroit Auto Show as a stage to announce a research and development partnership with General Motors. The struggling automaker says that by 2012, half of the cars and trucks it manufactures will be “flex-fuel-capable,” meaning they’ll run on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, or any mixture in between. Fueling those vehicles will take a huge supply of ethanol, and GM CEO Rick Wagoner said GM’s partnership with Coskata, as well as an undisclosed equity stake it took in the company, will help ensure that supply.

I got the skinny on Coskata yesterday from Bill Wiberg, general partner at Waltham, MA-based Advanced Technology Ventures, which arranged Coskata’s top-secret Series A funding round in 2006 alongside Khosla Ventures of Menlo Park, CA, and GreatPoint Ventures, a seed fund started by the founders of Cambridge, MA, cleantech company GreatPoint Energy. Wiberg says ATV became interested in the ethanol production technology Coskata is developing mainly because it doesn’t depend on corn, with its high sugar content.

“One of the things that’s really unique about Coskata is their ability to handle a wide variety of feedstocks at the front end,” says Wiberg. “It’s not just that you’re getting away from corn. You could use corn stover, municipal waste, rubber tires—anything that can be gasified using commercially available processes.”

In fact, if you look at the nifty Flash diagram at Coskata’s website and you’re a keen reader of Xconomy, you’ll see right away that the first half of Coskata’s process is exactly the same as the waste gasification technology being commercialized by Boston’s Ze-Gen and similar startups. Gasification companies simply dump waste into huge pots of molten iron, where it’s instantly vaporized and siphoned off as “syngas,” a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide.

Ze-Gen plans to sell its syngas to electricity producers. But Coskata has come up with a novel way to use the gas: it feeds it into a specially designed … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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