E85 Made From Garbage Could Cost Less Than $2 a Gallon

Rather than putting your garbage at the curb, you may soon be putting it in your gas tank.

General Motors has purchased an equity stake in Coskata Inc. of Warrenville, Ill., which has come up with a process that uses bacteria to produce E85 ethanol fuel out of garbage, scrap tires, wood chips, and even recycled foam, rubber and plastic in today’s junked cars.

While E85 is currently made from food-based sources, GM says non-food-based ethanol can be produced for about $1 a gallon, or about half of what it costs using corn today — meaning E85 could be priced under $2 a gallon at the pump.

E85 contains less energy than gas and gets 25-30% lower mileage than regular lead-free gasoline. But at $2 a gallon, the price wipes out the mileage disadvantage while also providing a use for garbage and scrap tires— they could produce fuel to get us to work and back rather then get buried in unsightly landfills. 

In fact, GM says, a facility could be set up at the landfill that would both produce the fuel and eliminate the typical garbage-depot eyesore. Or the fuel could be produced from tree scraps at lumber mills in the forest, or using lumber taken from homes destroyed by tornados, hurricanes or floods.

Unlike corn-based ethanol, which requires between three and seven gallons of water to produce one gallon of fuel, Coskata says it only takes one gallon of water to produce one gallon of non-food-based ethanol — and the water can be recycled to produce more. 

The first pilot plant will begin producing the fuel in the fourth quarter of this year for use in testing vehicles at GM’s Proving Grounds in Michigan, and a plant producing up to 100 million gallons of the fuel for retail sale will be operational in 2011.

GM, which announced the deal with Coskata at today’s Detroit auto show media days, is holding talks with oil companies to determine which ones will offer the fuel.