Tuesday, May 17, 2005

The Five Millionth Patent

The US Dept of Commerce selected it to become the Landmark Patent No 5,000,000. That is indeed some honor, and it seems not without good reason.

The patent was granted to Lonnie Ingram, a microbiology professor at the University of Florida, for being able to use E-Coli bacteria to convert biomass into ethanol. The highlight is that his process can use biomass residue like "sugarcane residues, rice hulls, forestry and wood wastes and other organic materials".

We have already seen how TA Sugars in Tamil Nadu are already using bagasse (sugarcane residue) to make electricity. And this Rajasthani dude is using "agricultural wastes" to produce electricity. The E-Coli process is better because you are converting the biomass into ethanol with a 90% plus efficiency. Plus ethanol can directly replace fossil fuels in petrol automobiles.

The greatest advantage is that it brings to the table a whole new world of renewables as raw material for converting into ethanol. And the technology is rather simple too - which means it can be replicated quickly and rather cheaply. So what are the immediate outcomes of this technological breakthrough?

For a start, we are likely to see a doubling of the ethanol production in the US. In the longer term, this technology has the potential to replace half of all petroleum imports into the US using renewable agricultural and forest waste. In India a lot of these biomass residues are not really "wasted" but conversion-to-ethanol could turn out to a more lucrative market for straw, rice husk and dry leaves. This could give fresh impetus to rural economies. On their part enterprising sugar mills like TA Sugars could start contributing to the electricity grid in a bigger way. It also depends on how the technology is made available.

The downside is it could lead to large-scale tree-cutting, thus depleting the same environment green technologies are trying to save. After all how do you define "waste" wood?

Update: Here's another wood-to-ethanol technology - this time from the State University of New York researchers.