GM Investing in Mascoma's Cellulosic Ethanol

 |  About: General Motors Company (GM)
by: James Fraser

General Motors Corp (NYSE:GM). and Mascoma Corp. today announced "a strategic relationship to develop cellulosic ethanol focused on Mascoma's single-step biochemical conversion of non-grain biomass into low-carbon alternative fuels to help address increasing energy demand."

Mascoma's single-step cellulose-to-ethanol method, called Consolidated Bioprocessing, or CBP, lowers costs by limiting additives and enzymes used in other biochemical processes.

The relationship, which includes an undisclosed equity investment by GM, complements an earlier investment in cellulosic ethanol startup Coskata that uses a thermo-chemical process to make ethanol from non-grain sources.

"Taken together, these technologies represent what we see as the best in the cellulosic ethanol future and cover the spectrum in science and commercialization. Demonstrating the viability of sustainable non-grain based ethanol is critical to developing the infrastructure to support the flex-fuel vehicle market.

One of the things that attracted us to Mascoma was its R&D team. Their development of best-in-class microorganisms and enzymes could lead a transformation to a new era of biofuels."

-- GM President Fritz Henderson

Mascoma is testing its CBP technology and expects to begin producing ethanol later this year at its demonstration plant under construction in Rome, NY. Mascoma also has partnered with The University of Tennessee to develop a switchgrass-to-ethanol pilot facility near Knoxville, TN, and is pursuing opportunities in the state of Michigan.

Mascoma ... was founded in 2005 based on technology developed by Drs. Lee Lynd and Charles Wyman in Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering. Together, the two have more than 50 years of research into biofuels derived from wood chips, switchgrass and other naturally occurring feedstocks known as cellulosic biomass.

This press release implies that Mascoma's CPB process may be further along than I had been led to believe. This process potentially reduces the cost of cellulose ethanol significantly by using fermenting microbes, in a single step, to both hydrolyze and ferment all the sugars in a biomass, resulting in a simpler process. A startup called Zymetisrecently claimed to have a similar process.

It seems that cellulosic ethanol made from non-food sources is starting to take hold and it will not be too many years before ethanol can be produced at a cost less than that of gasoline. The U.S. will never be able to produce enough ethanol to replace gasoline as presently used, but through imports from friendly nations, combined with the development of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles, by 2050 or possibly earlier, we may able to wean ourselves off the dependence on oil from the Mideast and Africa, along with a significant reduction in emissions.

While it does not really matter in the long run, I wonder why the oil and chemical companies, with exception of BP, which could offer some technical assistance, are not getting involved in the ethanol business. BP has a half share in a billion-dollar venture to produce ethanol from Brazilian sugar cane. Dupont and BP also have a partnership to develop biobutanol, which could well be a better fuel, if they can get the cost down to a reasonable level.