Breaking down walls


Fuel ethanol in the US is most widely used as an E10 gasoline blend (10% ethanol) and the supply chain from existing corn ethanol plants, currently outstrips demand.  This “blend wall” is a disincentive to research and investment in ethanol production.

The State of Iowa gives cause for optimism, following the reported retail triumph of corn-based E85 (85%) blend. Iowa’s Renewable Fuels Association report that in the first quarter of 2011, despite a reduction in retail tax credit for E85, higher oil prices have helped sales to exceed 2.6 million gallons (a 27% increase on the previous year).

It seems that in the US, corn ethanol production is capable of overcoming the blend wall. Meanwhile, Finland have pioneered a more sustainable solution, with plants producing E85 from side streams of food industry waste.  At less cost to the environment, industrial production of ethanol from lignocellulosic biomass remains out of reach to short-term profiteers. The past month’s publications in Biotechnology for Biofuels  include diverse studies that crack open the practical barriers presented by the plant cell wall, including treatments of corn stover, wheat straw and willow coppice to increase the yield of fermentable sugars. 

Helen Whitaker

Journal Development Manager at BioMed Central
Helen is part of the Biological Sciences publishing team at BioMed Central. She obtained her PhD in molecular ecology from the University of Glasgow, UK. Her post-doctoral studies in aquaculture genetics took her from Scotland to South Africa, before joining BMC in 2008.

View the latest posts on the On Biology homepage

One Comment

Marlene Schooler

Just read a really plausible novel called The Prophesy Gene. The main characters uncover a number of unintended genetic mutations as a result of the 1980s Aral Sea environmental disaster in Central Asia and the accidental release of a genetically modified strain of anthrax.  The author makes a pretty scary claim that mankind is stifling its own evolution by premeditated and accidental genetic engineering and mutations because we can’t possibly understand all of the consequences to ecosystems and dormant genetic sites and the food chain when we monkey with this stuff.  For example, some people eat oxen that have grazed on mutated vegetation and those people’s digestive systems irreparably stop working.  Or some dangerous fungus that humans eradicate because it causes disease but they don’t realize that it also sequesters carbon dioxide and could reverse global warming.  But I think the best one is that if it wasn’t for scientist’s genetic meddling, humans might one day evolve senses that bats and sharks have like hunting by their internal sonar or the ability that butterflies and some birds have to navigate by the earth’s magnetic field.  The book is by Stuart Schooler.  His website is and there’s a link to a blog and a Youtube video (

Comments are closed.