The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 calls for the production of 250 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol in 2011. We will struggle to produce 4 million gallons, as there is no effective production process for ethanol from stalks, leaves and corn cobs.
Undaunted, two new cellulose-to-ethanol plants from POET LLC and a DuPont subsidiary have been announced for Iowa, both with substantial taxpayer support. They will use corn stover, the leftover stalks, leaves and cobs from the harvest.
There is an eerie similarity between those program announcements and the 2007 dedication of Range Fuel’s cellulose-to-ethanol plant in Soperton, Ga. The Soperton project went through $350 million from investors and the government before its closing without product early in 2011. The Range Fuel 2007 dedication included Georgia’s then-governor, Sonny Perdue, flanked by dignitaries such as then-Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman.
“Range Fuels represents a new future for our country,” proclaimed Perdue. Bodman followed with, “By relying on American ingenuity and on American farmers for fuel, we will enhance our nation’s energy and economic security,” as he handed $156 million in grants and guaranteed loans to the project.
There are several fundamental reasons for the problems with biofuels, especially for those not made from the fruit of the plant, where the fruit makes the sugars more accessible.
Trying to replicate nature – only quickly
First, we are trying to replicate nature by doing what nature had the time and resources to do best. Oil comes from the very gradual cooking of biomass (ocean algae) into hydrocarbon fuel. A University of Utah study showed that nature needed more than 90 tons of algae to make just 1 gallon of oil. But nature had millions of years’ worth of prolific algae to produce those trillions of barrels of oil beneath the ocean bottom. So trying to use just this year’s corn crop, or its residue, to make a sufficient quantity of a gasoline substitute doesn’t work very well. It takes a whole lot of biomass to make a little bit of transportation fuel, especially when it’s the cellulose part. Second, even if you use the leftover corn stover, it takes a lot of fossil fuel to collect and transport heavy, low-energy-density matter to the processing plant.
Third, that stover is not useless. It slowly decays. Each ton of decaying corn stover offers 10 pounds of nitrogen, 2 pounds of phosphorous, and 45 pounds of potassium to the soil. The stover also provides essential protection for the soil from erosion by wind and water. This point is so important that the Departments of Energy and Agriculture are funding Iowa State University to study possible cover crops to replace the function now supplied by corn stover.
Lead researcher Professor Ken Moore notes that corn stover has traditionally been left in the fields after harvest as a way to slow wind and water erosion and to resupply the soil with organic material. The issue he says, “is how do you harvest corn stover in a way that sustains the productivity of the environment for producing future corn?” The Iowa State Agronomy Department chair, Ken Lamkey, notes that “corn doesn’t like competition. If you plant a ground cover crop, it reduces the corn yield.”
A long history since 1819 discovery
Finally, cellulosic ethanol has a long history. In 1819, Henri Braconnot, a French chemist, first discovered how to unlock the sugars from cellulose by treating biomass with sulfuric acid, a process used today. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, both Germany and the United States had small plants producing alcohol from waste wood. In recent years several large cellulose-to-ethanol projects have started, all with taxpayer support. None has succeeded in reaching production quantities, and the EISA mandate for 100 million gallons in 2010 fell short by 94 million. For 2011 we may produce 4 million cellulose gallons against the federal mandate for 250 million.
There are some tough, but practical, choices that would help us deal with our oil import and cost problem. Those include high gasoline taxes, large investments in energy-efficient public transport, and mandates for smaller cars.
But we and our legislators continue to hope that technology will save us, thus avoiding choices unpopular with voters. Continuing research on fuels from nonfood sources is important, but don’t bet too much on premature production plants.
Rolf Westgard is a professional member of the Geological Society of America. He is a guest faculty member for the University of Minnesota College of Continuing Education. His fall-quarter classis is “Peak Oil or Peak Water; which one sinks us first?”