- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 25, 2008

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The increasing global consumption of crop-based biofuels for transportation is rapidly displacing the amount of petroleum required to fuel transportation infrastructures. At the same time, increasing production of crop-based biofuels raises economic and sometimes ethical questions regarding long-term sustainability of crop production land; transportation costs; the use of food stocks as a transportation fuel; and the increased consumer costs associated with diverting corn away from meat and dairy production. It is therefore imperative that the second generation of biofuels address these concerns as America researches, develops and consumes gasoline alternatives.

Fortunately, alternatives exist to crop-based biofuels that produce cheaper, more sustainable gasoline alternatives without the consumer and societal costs inherent in corn ethanol.

One promising alternative that may become the second-generation biofuel is cellulosic ethanol. It is produced by breaking down the cellular material in plants into sugars, and then converting the sugars into fuel. Cellulose, the world’s most widely available bio-based material, is also present in potential raw materials ranging from wood chips to municipal solid waste. Further, the amount of ethanol that can be produced from one acre of corn is nearly 400 gallons.

The raw materials needed to produce cellulosic fuel, collectively known as biomass, can produce more than 100 gallons of fuel per ton of biomass, and its process uses one-third the amount of water required to produce corn ethanol. In fact, there is more than 1 billion tons of biomass in the U.S. alone that could serve as raw material for cellulosic fuel.

General Motors Corp. announced last month that it has formed a unique partnership with cellulosic fuel producer Coskata Inc. The partnership enables the upstart fuel company to produce economically viable fuels free from the societal and consumer costs associated with corn ethanol, while accelerating GM’s production of flex-fuel vehicles needed to meet federal mandates.

Since cellulosic fuel does not require building production plants near cornfields to reduce costs, the Coskata technology can be utilized nearly anywhere in the world that cellulose or carbon-based feedstocks are available. Due to its sizable input cost savings, Coskata predicts that it can produce cellulosic fuel for less than $1 per gallon. GM and Coskata plan to bring an operational cellulosic fuel plant online by 2011 capable of producing 50 million to100 million gallons of fuel per year. At full production, the retail price at the pump for Cosktata’s fuel should be up to $1 less than gasoline.

Studies at the University of Minnesota show that we would offset just 12 percent of gasoline consumption devoted to transportation fuel by converting every acre of current corn acreage to ethanol production. That scenario would obviously wreak great havoc on the U.S. and global economies. It is clear that corn alone does not possess the potential to produce enough biofuels to meet our future needs.

The current generation of biofuels consumed around the globe is almost entirely produced from corn and soybeans. Yet rising demand for these biofuels — most notably corn-based ethanol — is diverting production acres away from other crops and even leading some producers to clear-cut forest lands.

According to the Agriculture Department, American farmers planted 82 million acres of corn in 2005, which yielded 11.1 billion bushels. More than 1 billion bushels, or 12 percent, were used in ethanol production. In 2006, corn grew on 78.3 million acres, yielding 10.5 billion bushels. More than 1 billion bushels, or 17 percent, of corn that year were diverted to ethanol.

The number of acres devoted to corn production and the number of bushels dedicated to ethanol will continue to rise as requirements mandated by federal law force fuel producers to blend at least 15 billion gallons of biofuel by 2015. The additional 8 billion gallons of corn ethanol needed to meet this mandate would require an incredible 20 million additional acres of corn production.

Furthermore, the current gasoline transportation infrastructure cannot accommodate the growing glut of corn-based ethanol, because ethanol becomes contaminated by particles gasoline leaves behind. Instead, ethanol must be shipped by costlier methods such as trucks and barges.

Clearly, the demand for corn-based ethanol will clash with our ability to supply the product. We can’t simply plow the Midwest states under and turn a third of our nation into a cornfield! It will be innovation achieved through available cutting-edge technologies, coupled with strategic partnerships such as GM-Coskata, that will help develop viable second-generation biofuels to meet the world’s 21st century energy demands.

Phil Kent, former president of the Southeastern Legal Foundation, is president of Phil Kent Consulting Inc.

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