IMAGE: RICE STRAW USED TO MAKE ETHANOL
Honda
Discarded rice straw was among the biomass tested in the new process developed by Honda and a Japanese research center.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/14/2006 12:28:21 PM ET 2006-09-14T16:28:21

Honda on Thursday announced a major breakthrough in ethanol production, saying it and a research institute had developed a practical way to use discarded plant material to make abundant quantities of the fuel.

The process, it said in a statement, “holds enormous potential as a major step forward toward the realization of an energy sustainability society.”

Ethanol is a major source of motor fuel in Brazil and is gaining popularity in the United States, but the renewable fuel is produced mainly from sugar cane and corn, raising the issue of balancing supply against the use of the crops as food.

Honda and the Research Institute of Innovative Technology for the Earth, a nonprofit entity set up by the Japanese government and private enterprises, said the new method allows large volumes of ethanol to be produced from widely available waste wood, rice straw, leaves and other so-called soft biomass that is currently discarded.

The resulting fuel has been called cellulosic ethanol, as opposed to ethanol from sugar cane and corn.

Honda and RITE said they had overcome a major obstacle that limited how much ethanol could be made from cellulosic biomass. A microorganism developed by RITE helps reduce  interference in the fermentation process, allowing for far more efficient ethanol production, the partners said.

“This achievement solves the last remaining fundamental hurdle to ethanol production from soft biomass,” RITE researcher Hideaki Yukawa told a news conference in Tokyo.

2008 pilot plant?
Honda said it aimed to set up a pilot "biorefinery" in 2008 at the earliest to test the technology for practical application. Commercial application has not been discussed yet, a senior managing director at Honda R&D said.

Ethanol, or ethyl alcohol, is on its way to becoming a mainstream world commodity as high prices for crude oil and gasoline push consumers to use alternative fuels produced from renewable resources.

Ethanol production is also attracting the attention of investors. Producing ethanol from corn yields profit margins of over 20 percent, Yukawa said, citing U.S. government data -- much higher than selling the crop as food.

Ethanol is also carbon-neutral since carbon dioxide released by the combustion of the fuel is offset by the CO2 captured by plants through photosynthesis. That's a benefit given the concerns of many scientists that carbon emissions are driving global warming.

Japan hopes to replace about 3 million barrels of transportation fuels with ethanol a year by 2010.

In the United States, the Bush administration has called for improving ethanol technologies in order to reduce U.S. oil imports from the Middle East by three-quarters by 2025.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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