Northern Valley Beacon

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Wednesday, February 01, 2006


Ethanol, Ethanol, you fickle bitch

Ten or fifteen years ago, South Dakota became part of the corn belt. Blame the plant scientists. It used to be part of the wheat belt, but the nation can grow far more wheat that it can eat or sell to other nations. A couple decades ago, South Dakota went through changes in its characteristic farm crops, from wheat and flax and hay to sun flowers, soybeans, and corn.

When farmers in the state got good at gowing corn--actually the plant breeders got good at it by creating varieties that do well in this northern climate--they hit that old competitive market. American farmers grew more corn than they could sell. So, they needed to enlarge the market. As demand for U.S.-produced renewable energy appeared on the horizon, ethanol seemed like an excellent market for corn. It has helped immensely. And many farmers are growing corn to make ethanol and soy beans for biodiesel.

Ethanol had a tough row crop to hoe. Initially, it took as much energy to create a gallon of ethanol as it could produce in whatever engine it would eventually drive. The technology has improved and, consequently, so has the ratio of energy put in to energy put out. That has been good news to corn farmers.

But there is a new technological development on the horizon. President Bush mentioned it in his State of the Union speech:

"We must also change how we power our automobiles. We will increase our research in better batteries for hybrid and electric cars and in pollution-free cars that run on hydrogen. We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years."

The new development is in the phrase "cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass." That "cutting-edge technology" is called cellulosic ethanol. It is ethanol made from plant waste, not the expensive fruit of the plants. It would reduce the cost of ethanol considerably, make it more abundant, and make its renewability more efficient. And it would push corn-based ethanol right off the market. There would not be much point in buying corn to make ethanol when much cheaper vegetation products will do just as well.

So, what seemed like a boon to corn farmers now seems to signal another change in what kind of crops are grown. If farmers want to produce for the ethanol market, they may have to switch to exceptionally high-yield crops that produce cellulose if they are to make any money in that market.

The thing that energy people do not talk much about is on-farm and wind farm hydrogen production. This is a multiple system of energy-producing components, such as wind power and solar power that drive electrolysis machines that convert water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is used in fuel cell engines that drive automobiles, farm machines, and electric generators.

A few trial stations are in operation. Many engineers say it is the cleanest, most reliable, and potentially abundant source of energy. But energy corporations and, therefore, politicians don't give it much promotion.

For those who are curious, you might click on this U.S. Dept. of Energy website.

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