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Editorial: Black swan?

Among the many topics in the science news releases last week was one from the University of East Anglia in the U.K.

“A new study pinpoints five strains of yeast capable of turning agricultural byproducts, such as straw, sawdust and corncobs, into bioethanol — a well-known alcohol-based biofuel,” the release said.

We’ve seen similar news dozens of times since the first “energy crisis” in the 1970s. A breakthrough in producing “cellulosic ethanol” has been “just around the corner” ever since. The U.S. imposed standards for the proportion of ethanol in gasoline to come from cellulose rather than corn or wheat, but they’re continually relaxed since the product is not available. Many will remember Canada’s Iogen Corporation, which for several years said it was planning to build a plant somewhere in the West to make ethanol from wheat straw, but it never came to fruition.

As have other prospective cellulosic energy producers, Iogen said its process uses enzymes, a word which sometimes tends to raise the snake oil antenna. Over the years we’ve heard claims for enzymes that can miraculously process manure into pure water or make dirt roads as hard as asphalt.

But enzymes can be for real. In 2013, Iogen was purchased by Novozymes, the world’s largest enzyme manufacturer. Those TV commercials for detergents with enzymes that can make clothes whiter than white? They’re for real, and supplied by Novozymes, a Danish company with about $1.5 billion in annual sales. It says its commercial-size cellulosic ethanol plant using wheat straw in Italy is now operating. Other well-financed companies, including DuPont, are now working on the technology.

Given that kind of financial muscle, it’s hard to imagine that this technology isn’t going to take off someday, if not sooner. We sometimes hear about “black swan” events — unpredictable events such as wars or September 11, 2001, which have dramatic repercussions. Cellulosic ethanol could be a black swan for the grain markets. Almost half the U.S. corn crop now goes for ethanol. Consider what would happen if the whole plant — not just the grain — could be used in the process. Demand would drop by 25 per cent. Corn would also be competing with other higher-yielding, lower-input crops grown specifically for fuel.

The need to develop this technology becomes even more important based on this piece from the University of Wisconsin-Madison — it turns out that the U.S. ethanol boom has been at the expense of marginal land, and may actually be increasing greenhouse gas.

Black swans usually appear out of nowhere, but this one may already be visible on the horizon.

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