Production of Fuel Ethanol from Cellulosic Peat for Future Transportation Systems

Principal Investigators

  • Dr. Mark Benvenuto
    University of Detroit Mercy

Co-Principal Investigators

  • Dr. Charles W. Winter
    Wayne State University
  • Dr. John Shewchun
    Wayne State University

Project Dates:

11/22/2006 to 05/31/2008

Project year: Year 1

MIOH-UTC Project Identifier: AF 3; Projects 1 and 2

Focus Area:

  • Research: Alternative Fuels


The production of bioethanol from peat is proposed.  A search of the available literature yields no prior information on the use of peat as a carbon source for bioethanol.  This project addresses production in the most cost-effective manner possible, utilizing special enzymes, and using materials native to Michigan.  The bioethanol resulting will either be utilized as fuel or in fuel blends.

Ethanol is considered to be a high performance fuel in internal combustion engines.  It is a liquid, which is advantageous in terms of storage, delivery and infrastructural compatibility.  It is readily contrasted to hydrogen, the energy carrier of what has been termed the hydrogen economy.    The associated problems with building a fuel cell as the engine of a hydrogen powered vehicle appear somewhat challenging at present.  The ethanol option is thus attractive, yet it is also not without problems that question its competitiveness as a substitute for gasoline.

Ethanol is made by fermenting sugar into grain alcohol.  It can be made from nearly any type of plant, with varying degrees of difficulty.  It is a perfectly acceptable fuel for automobiles – there are already 6 million vehicles on the road that can run on E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.  

Ethanol burns relatively cleanly.  Its evaporative and toxic air emissions are considerably lower than for gasoline.  

At the moment, nearly all of the 4 billion gallons of ethanol produced in this country is made from corn.  This has been assisted by 30 years of federal and state subsidies designed to give corn growers a further market for their product.  However, ethanol from corn does not make economic sense.  Corn requires a considerable amount of energy to produce.  This does not auger well for future energy independence in automotive transport.

In addition, there is a potential logistical problem at the harvest: getting biomass to the refinery cheaply.  Large refiners would digest roughly  20,000 tons per day.  The material is not dense.  The use of numerous trucks and trains for transport from field to refinery would mean more fuel use and more cost.

On the other hand, Brazil has been highly successful in creating an ethanol economy.  In part, this is because Brazil’s energy balance is far more favorable.  Sugarcane does not need as much fertilizer as corn.  It is a naturally growing biomass.  Brazil is close to the equator and so much more solar energy is absorbed for the production of sugarcane.  Although Brazil claims to have achieved energy independence with ethanol, it has taken 30 years to build the necessary infrastructure and the cost per gallon of ethanol is still not competitive with gasoline.

Government mandates, such as the replacement of MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether) as an additive to gasoline, are creating a huge demand for ethanol.  Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), arguably the world’s largest ethanol producer, can’t meet the current demand.  The resulting shortage has caused a doubling of this price in the past year.  At today’s price, ethanol is equivalent (given its lower energy content) to gasoline costing $4.50 per gallon.  This is before taxes and subsidies are taken into account.  The process for corn ethanol has been well developed so that cost reductions through technology improvements do not appear possible.

Thus, attention has been focused on the substitution of easier-to-grow crops.  These are the so-called cellulosic biomass materials.  The concept is appealing in that Michigan native plants like switchgrass and agricultural leftovers such as wheat straw and corn stover could be turned into ethanol.  Such substitutes would be far cheaper than ears of corn because they require less attention, water, fertilizer and pesticides.  However, turning cellulose into ethanol on an industrial scale is difficult and expensive.

In relation to this, Wayne State University has a close working relationship with Tech Town, and the ability to transfer to it the results of any of this research.  The University of Detroit Mercy has a long-standing interest in automotive technology, including research into the production of possible alternate fuels.  Dr. Mark Benvenuto of UDM, Dr. Charles Winter of WSU and Dr. John Shewchun of WSU have already commenced laboratory-scale production of peat derived ethanol.

Progress Reports:

Final Report:


Total Budget: $74,967 for year one