Commercialisation of cellulosic ethanol

Why is this gap important?

Cellulosic ethanol offers significant CO2 emissions reductions compared with fossil-based transport fuels for internal combustion engine (ICE) passenger vehicles, as well as for trucks and buses when used as ED95 (95% fuel ethanol with lubricants and additives). Although regular vehicles can accommodate ethanol at low blend rates, CO2 emissions reductions are maximised when it is used at high blend shares or unblended in flexible-fuel vehicles. Higher cellulosic ethanol production would also provide the additional benefit of curtailing agricultural residue-burning in fields, which deteriorates air quality. 

Technology solutions

Cellulosic ethanol is one of the advanced biofuels closest to commercialisation, currently at TRL 8 level. Commercial-scale plants in Brazil, Europe and the United States came online during 2013‑16, but their performance has so far been mixed.

Some of these plants are offline due to non-technical issues, while others demonstrate progress in scaling up output but production remains below rated capacity. These plants are in an extended commissioning phase because of the intensive learning curve required to raise yields and utilisation rates through core-process optimisation, design improvements and further modifications to improve process reliability. Important breakthroughs in pre-treatment have been made by several of these plants in the last two years, and improved performance will reduce investment and operational costs for the next generation of projects.

Cellulosic ethanol production Readiness level:

Colored bars represent the Technology Readiness Level (TRL) of each technology. Learn more about TRLs

What are the leading initiatives?

The United States, Europe, Brazil and India lead cellulosic ethanol development owing to a combination of complementary industry and agricultural sectors as well as policy support.

For example, the US Renewable Fuel Standard has a dedicated requirement for cellulosic biofuels, while India has pledged to develop 12 commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol plants.

Recommended actions

Government energy and transport departments

Next 5 years:

  • Introduce or sustain policy measures to guarantee long-term demand (e.g. advanced biofuel mandates) and encourage existing cellulosic ethanol plants to persevere with activity to raise yields and utilisation rates.
  • Provide policy support to encourage investment, e.g. financial de-risking measures.

Key countries/regions: As ethanol can be transported globally demand from any country would support commercialisation efforts. However, at current costs advanced economies are likely to have a key role.

Industry

Next 5 years:

  • Continue to improve yields and utilisation rates to meet investment criteria for replication plants.
  • Exploit synergies between conventional and cellulosic ethanol production to form integrated facilities that cost less and build on existing feedstock availability, infrastructure and expertise.

Key countries/regions: Europe, Brazil and the United States, as they already have commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol facilities.

Academia

Next 5 years:

  • Undertake benchmarking studies on cellulosic ethanol CO2 emissions reductions, and analyse potential production volumes in different regions based on current and future feedstock availability.

Key countries/regions: Globally, although institutions in countries with significant agricultural residue availability, e.g. China and India, are especially relevant.

NGOs and think tanks

Next 5 years:

  • Provide clear and balanced information on cellulosic ethanol and other advanced biofuels, highlighting the benefits they can offer and sustainability concerns they mitigate.