The Magazine

Synfuels II

The ethanol numbers don't add up.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By DAVE JUDAY
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In other words, the best proven scenario so far is that cellulosic biomass yields about three-quarters as much fuel as does corn, at about two and one-half to three times the cost. But even that is not a fair comparison of the real gap between corn and cellulose. There is such a huge practical gap between the two in terms of commercial infrastructure that, even if the fermentation technology for cellulose were perfected tomorrow, the United States would be decades away from relying on cellulosic ethanol in the amounts now being proposed.

Consider: Corn has been traded since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock and the Indians met them, ears of maize in hand. Seed research and technology have been intensively developed since at least 1862, when Abraham Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture to do just that--improve seeds. Planting and harvesting technology have steadily improved since 1837, when a blacksmith named John Deere built better plows. And so forth, and so on. In short, the modern agricultural economy provides a highly complex commercial infrastructure to bioengineer, plant, harvest, transport, process, and sell corn.

A bushel of corn can produce 2.8 gallons of ethanol, or it can produce edible oil, livestock feed, high fructose sweetener, and other marketable by-products. Whatever the fluctuations in demand for these end products, it remains a valuable commodity. Furthermore, the financial infrastructure surrounding corn is sophisticated enough that venture capitalists and pension funds invest in corn futures contracts. Same with crude oil. Biomass--or as the New York Times puts it, "native grasses" and "the waste components of farming and forestry"--is, to say the least, a long way from having the infrastructure capable of turning it into a reliable source of motor fuel sufficient to power the family automobile, round trip, one of every four times the ignition is turned.

Let's look at harvest figures. This year, more than 11 billion bushels--about 308 million tons--of corn will be picked in a matter of a few weeks from between 75-80 million acres. Compare that with forestry biomass. According to a detailed analysis by the Departments of Energy and Agriculture, forest land in the United States could produce 368 million tons of renewable biomass annually by 2030, albeit over a land mass about 10 times larger than the farmland planted in corn.

But the comparison gets worse when one starts to read the footnotes. The forestry industry is already using 142 million tons, and fireplaces and wood stoves and utilities consume another 35 million tons. Of the remainder, 36 million tons is assumed to come from such unlikely sources as discarded wooden furniture, urban tree trimmings, and leftover lumber from new construction--all mind-bogglingly inefficient to harvest in large quantities. Another 89 million tons is merely projected growth in forestry products.

So the actual amount of biomass feedstock might be 66 million tons--with no existing process to harvest, store, or transport it to ethanol plants in the Midwest, and no ethanol plants near most of the forest land. And that assumes away the political problems that have already led to a lawsuit against the president's 2003 Healthy Forests Initiative--an initiative designed to make it easier to harvest dead wood and forest underbrush. Does anyone believe environmentalists would be less opposed to such gleaning if it were being done to produce more auto fuel?

What about the crop resi due that is touted as a feedstock for eth anol? Well, first, one must come to grips with the logical disconnect of the proposition that the lower energy parts of a plant left over after the high energy parts are harvested would, in fact, be an efficient ethanol feedstock. One must also consider the important economic--and environmental--role that crop resi due plays in modern agriculture.

Thanks to biotechnology, precision application of pesticides, and modified planting techniques, crop residue can be left to rot in the fields, which increases the nutrient quality of the soil and no longer needs to be plowed under before the next planting. This reduces the costs of production; no plowing means eliminating one time the tractor has to be driven across the field, saving fuel and equipment wear and tear. Greater nutrient quality means lower fertilizer costs. Moreover, the development of conservation tillage has virtually stopped soil erosion, thereby helping protect and improve water quality. Removing crop residue for use as biomass would reverse all these conservation achievements.