Honda Hits the Gas on Cellulosic Ethanol R&D

Honda Motor Co. (s HMC) has been toiling away at ethanol research since before hybrids moved in from the fringe of autoshows and well before deriving the stuff from corn ignited a heated debate over food vs. fuel. Today the company said it will build a large-scale plant to test the viability of its cellulosic ethanol production technology in “practical applications” — something it’s had in the works for more than two years.

In September of 2006, the automaker touted a major breakthrough in its ethanol production and said it aimed to build a pilot biorefinery in 2008, at the earliest. As MSNBC reported at the time, Honda said it had developed (in partnership with Japan’s RITE, a public-private research institution) “a way to use discarded plant material to make abundant quantities of the fuel.” Honda said it plans to start building the project announced today (possibly the one envisioned back in 2006) in April and begin operations by November of this year.


This comes less than three weeks after some of Japan’s biggest firms, among them Nippon Oil, Toyota (s TM) and Mitsubishi, revealed plans for a research body to develop low-cost cellulosic biofuels. The group hopes to produce 1.6 million barrels of bioethanol per year by March 2014, and drive costs down to about $70 a barrel by 2015, Reuters reports.

Honda’s ethanol expansion doesn’t necessarily signal a major shift to ethanol or flex-fuel cars in the automaker’s lineup. Just a month before the big breakthrough announcement a few years ago, Honda’s U.S. sales chief spoke with the LA Times about plans for flex-fuel vehicles that can use 85 percent ethanol blends. “We’re not against it,” he said. “In the list of priorities right now, we haven’t moved it up the list. It is less efficient from a fuel-economy standpoint.”

What Honda’s continued work on ethanol does show is the ability of government to encourage a market for alternative fuels: Japan’s government wants biofuels to replace 0.6 percent of the crude oil it uses for gasoline by next year, as Greentech Media noted recently.

It also the reflects appeal of flex-fuel vehicles as an alternative to electrification of automakers fleets. Developing a full line of electric cars and retooling factories to produce them represents a more technologically daunting and capital-intensive challenge than making cars that can handle ethanol fuel blends. Flex fuel vehicles are very similar to gasoline-powered models, with only a few engine and fuel system modifications.

General Motors (s GM) and Ford (s F) both got into ethanol in 2006. GM backed Chicago-based Coskata (read details on the deal here), and Ford partnered with now-bankrupt corn ethanol maker Verasun (s VSE) to deploy infrastructure for flex-fuel vehicles.

Photo credit Honda Worldwide