The Magazine

Synfuels II

The ethanol numbers don't add up.

Nov 13, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 09 • By DAVE JUDAY
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

THE BUSH ADMINISTRATION is busily at work on a plan that would expand the use of ethanol and other so-called renewable fuels well beyond the 7.5 billion gallons by 2012 already mandated in the Energy Policy Act of 2005. President Bush himself is laying the ground work, touring ethanol plants, touting auto manufacturers who build "flex-fuel" cars, and leading energy policy pep rallies. A former Texas oilman, Bush has become an unlikely cheerleader for motor fuels distilled from Midwestern corn and other plants.

When President Bush highlighted ethanol in his 2006 State of the Union speech and described America as "addicted to oil," it was reminiscent of Jimmy Carter's call in the 1980 State of the Union for a "massive" investment in what were then called "synthetic fuels"--namely, some 500 million gallons of ethanol that would break the country's "excessive dependence on foreign oil." Bush, however, may be about to raise Carter's bid by two orders of magnitude, calling for the production of 50 billion gallons of ethanol, or 25 percent of the projected total motor fuel supply, by 2025.

That would be one heckuva corn crop. But according to administration sources, the president's forthcoming renewable fuel plan will not be based on expanding the corn supply. Rather it will be pinned on the hoped-for payback on federal investments made in producing ethanol from so-called cellulosic biomass. As congressional testimony from the Bush Department of Agriculture admits, since "the supply of corn is relatively small compared with U.S. gasoline demand, other domestic sources of renewable and alternative energy must be developed to replace petroleum-based fuels if the United States is to reduce its dependence on imported oil."

So while it is transparently clear that the supply of corn-based ethanol is limited by the ability to produce corn and the competing demand for corn as human food and livestock feed, ethanol advocates take refuge in the potential of producing fuel from cellulosic biomass and are ready to expand not only incentives, but also quotas and mandates to increase its use. This is a dangerous wager. Cellulose is a complex sugar, found in wood, grass, and straw. It is difficult to dissolve, and the sugars it yields are very difficult and costly to ferment. Scientists and researchers are still trying to identify or develop an enzyme that will more readily ferment cellulosic sugars, which, as it turns out, is a much taller order than the already commercialized process of fermenting corn and sugarcane into alcohol.

Nonetheless, ethanol made from other plants--particularly switchgrass, a native prairie grass--is fashionable among the opinion elite. In fact, Bush's advocacy of cellulosic ethanol has cast him with some unlikely allies. For example, though he remains the bête noire of the New York Times editorial page, the president and the Times are simpatico on cellulose.

Consider a New York Times editorial from May 1 of this year: "Until recently, the only ethanol anyone had heard about was corn-based ethanol, a regional curiosity that accounts for about three percent of the nation's fuel and suffers from its association with the agribusiness lobby and with presidential candidates hustling support in the Iowa primaries. What the experts are talking about now, however, is cellulosic ethanol, derived from a range of crops, native grasses like switchgrass and even the waste components of farming and forestry--in short, anything rich in cellulose."

If corn ethanol is, as the Times calls it, a "regional curiosity," then cellulosic ethanol remains but a laboratory novelty--indeed, it can be produced in the lab, just not in an economically viable way. According to the Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the cost of producing ethanol from cellulosic biomass averages $2.57 per gallon. The cost of producing ethanol from corn--depending on the price of corn and natural gas--fluctuates between $0.85 and $1.05 per gallon.

Moreover, in the country's more than 100 ethanol mills, one metric ton of corn produces on average about 110 gallons of ethanol. Meanwhile, Iogen Corporation, a Canadian firm that is the only company to produce cellulosic biomass on any scale, says their demonstration plant "is designed to process about 30 tonnes per day of feedstock, and to produce approximately 2.5 million litres of cellulose ethanol per year." That's a ratio of about 60 gallons of ethanol from one metric ton of cellulosic feedstock.