Wired has a very comprehensive overview article on cellulosic ethanol that will equip the novice with a very good background on the subject. A few quotes follow:
On a blackboard, it looks so simple: Take a plant and extract the cellulose. Add some enzymes and convert the cellulose molecules into sugars. Ferment the sugar into alcohol. Then distill the alcohol into fuel. One, two, three, four — and we're powering our cars with lawn cuttings, wood chips, and prairie grasses instead of Middle East oil. . . .
While researchers work to bring down the costs of alternative energy sources, in the past two years policymakers have finally reached consensus that it's time to move past oil. . . .
But how? Hydrogen is too far-out, and it's no easy task to power our cars with wind- or solar-generated electricity. The answer, then, is ethanol. . . .
Cellulosic ethanol, in theory, is a much better bet. Most of the plant species suitable for producing this kind of ethanol — like switchgrass, a fast- growing plant found throughout the Great Plains, and farmed poplar trees — aren't food crops. . . .
Companies featured are Lee Lynds Mascoma, Novozymes, and Verenium.
And even ardent proponents concede that cellulosic ethanol won't solve our fuel problems — or do much to stop global warming — without parallel efforts to improve vehicle efficiency.
Thanks to tip from the R-Squared Energy Blog.