Ethanol has limitations now, but prospects exciting

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With crude oil prices at record levels and global temperatures inching upward, the world continues its hunt for a sustainable, clean and cheap alternative to petroleum. Ethanol has been heralded as the fuel of the future, but its current condition is far from promising – or green.

Ethanol diverts starch-based plants from food production to fuel production. The UN’s World Food Programme estimates 25,000 people around the world die of hunger and related illnesses each day – more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.

Corn ethanol burns 22 percent cleaner than gasoline, but the energy burned growing, producing and transporting the fuel might release just as much carbon emission as oil.

The United States cannot grow enough corn to feed us, our animals, our trading partners and our automobile engines. A U.S. Department of Agriculture study projected that even if the entire U.S. corn crop was converted to ethanol, it would replace only 12 percent of our annual gasoline consumption.

The calculus for corn ethanol does not add up. Few can argue our choice of inputs and our production methods leave room for improvement. The forecast for ethanol’s future, however, is bright.

Corn kernels are not the only way to manufacture ethyl alcohol. Research on alternative pathways to ethanol production is encouraging; one of the most exciting areas is the development of cellulose.

The cell walls of plants are composed of cellulose – tough chains of sugar molecules that give plants strength and enable them to stand up. Scientists are racing to find ways to break up those molecules and ferment the sugar. The resulting ethanol could be created from almost any plant by-product on the globe: corn stalks and other agricultural residues, forestry wastes like sawdust or wood chips, household garbage, algae and native grasses like switchgrass or buffalo grass.

The process is harder than it sounds. Unlike the sugar in corn kernels, which is broken down relatively easily, cellulose is more complex. When the secret to unlocking cellulose from plant by-products is found – a discovery that would end the competition between food and fuel – a revolutionary new age in energy and agriculture could begin.

The millions of bushels of corn directed toward ethanol production would be returned to the food supply; today’s agricultural leftovers (husks, stalks or by-products of common crops) would be harvested as tomorrow’s energy source. Farmers of the United States and the world would benefit from two uses of their crops: food and fuel.

Cellulosic ethanol also could be created from prairie grasses native to Kansas. The National Resources Conservation Service says there are 10 million acres of tallgrass prairie remaining in Kansas, which is one-fifth of the state’s total area. If the science behind converting cellulose to ethanol is perfected, the economic windfall to Kansas farmers and ranchers would be staggering. If there is one certainty in all the guesswork surrounding ethanol, it is that biofuels are changing the face of agriculture forever.

“If I take a look at the major paradigm shifts of agriculture through history, the first one was the domestication of animals and plants,” said Fred Cholick, dean of the College of Agriculture. “The second shift was switching from animal power to mechanical power – the tractor. The third shift is this relationship between our food, our feed, our fuel and our environment. It’ll have as much influence on agriculture as the last two.”

It is easy to be discouraged by ethanol’s current shortcomings; the immediate limitations of the fuel do not make it economically feasible to replace oil as our fuel of choice. The biofuel technologies coming down the pipeline, however, are reason enough to give us hope.

Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to opinion@spub.ksu.edu.

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