Shell moves forward on cellulosic ethanol

The push toward fuel made from cellulosic ethanol made a giant leap yesterday.

Royal Dutch Shell began a pilot program to sell for one month, starting today, regular gasoline at a single service station containing 10 per cent cellulosic ethanol. That’s right, ethanol made from wheat straw. This is what the world has been clamouring for - using the straw itself to make fuel instead of just the wheat, corn or soybean. In other words, using the rest of the plant – not the food itself.

Yet few are heralding such an important leap. This could well be because the service station that has become the first in the world to provide gasoline containing advanced biofuel made from wheat straw is in Ottawa, Canada. Not exactly easy for the world’s mainstream media to head out to.

Indeed, one has to wonder at Shell’s soft sell approach.

The talk out of Shell certainly makes it seem the oil company believes the move is important.

Dr Graeme Sweeney, Shell’s executive vice president for future fuels and carbon dioxide, made all the right sounds:

I am excited we are leading the pack in cellulosic ethanol production technology and, with this event, showing what is possible in the future.

The biofuel is produced locally from non-food raw materials at Iogen Energy’s demonstration plant, using advanced conversion processes. Iogen and Shell are partners in the plant, which produces about 40,000 litres of fuel each month.

The amount is, to be honest, insignificant. Indeed Dr Sweeney noted that it will be some time before general customers can buy this product at local service stations. That said, he did note that Shell was working with governments to make large-scale production economic.

Brian Foody, chief executive officer of Iogen, said building a demo plant is one thing but then comes the  process of operating the new technology at scale, learning, modifying and lowering costs.

Certainly that is true for anything new. But the idea of cellulosic ethanol being a futuristic fuel is no longer true. At least at one station in Canada.

Related links:

Valero bets on ethanol production (FT, 10/04/09)

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