Corn Ethanol Disaster

My current position is strongly pro-biofuel for two reasons:

1) Biofuels are the only path to carbon neutral jet fuel. I think if we give up international travel we will lose far more than we gain. Nothing fuels xenophobia more than not having a clear idea of who the foreigners actually are.

2) Biofuels plus CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) is, as far as I can tell, the only plausible path to near term reduction in atmospheric CO2. I hear a lot of talk about 350 and that’s interesting, but most people with “350” hats don’t seem to have a plan to move the number down from the 450 we have already bought.

But things aren’t easy, and despite the fact that global warming looms over everything, we can’t be indifferent to other problems, especially other global problems.

I have heard no sensible defenses of corn-based ethanol, even though politicians from the “aah” states (including President Obama) continue to champion it. But here is a side of it that is terrifying. Via Minnesota Public Radio via Big Biofuels Blog (h/t David Benson):

Mark von Keitz with the University of Minnesota’s Biotechnology Institute said in ethanol production, the main enemy is a bacterial bug that makes lactic acid.

“What these organisms do is they also compete with the yeast for the sugar,” said von Keitz. “But instead of making alcohol, they make primarily lactic acid.”

“What people operating these plants are trying to do is to keep these lactic acid bacteria in check,” said von Keitz. “And one way of doing that is with the help of antibiotics.”

Ethanol producers use penicillin and a popular antibiotic called virginiamycin to kill bacteria. And that raises two potential concerns.

One is that these treatments might promote the growth of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The development of these “superbugs” is a major concern in health care because they reduce the effectiveness of medicines.

Mark von Keitz found some bacteria that were, in fact, resistant when he sampled bacteria at four Midwest ethanol plants several years ago.

The second concern is that the antibiotics could find their way to humans through the food chain.

Distillers grain is a major source of low-cost livestock feed. Any restrictions on its sale and use as feed will hurt the profit-scarce ethanol industry and the livestock farmers who rely on it.

Charlie Staff, executive director of the Distillers Grain Technology Council, said distillers grain is one of the few dependable moneymakers left for the ethanol industry.

“If they didn’t have distillers grain as a revenue, many more of them wouldn’t be able to operate,” said Staff.

Emphasis added.

Yikes! An object lesson that everything is connected. Plus another argument against agribusiness-produced meat.

Knit your own woolen corncob from a pattern at

Avant Garde Biofuels

An aggie fellow (that is, from Texas A&M, our rivals), Robert Avant is apparently a big player in biofuels. He came and gave a talk today at the Pickle campus on the outlook for biofuels.

He’s the kind of authentic, down-to-earth Texan that I like but it tends not to be mutual. (Think Boone Pickens.) Thick Texas drawl, refering to the “aah” states (meaning Illinois, Indiana, and “Aahwah”, you know, the corn belt states whose names all happen to start with the letter “aah”) when talking about corn ethanol, which he didn’t talk about much. He was wearing beige pants, a pale blue button down shirt, and a loud, wide tie featuring bluebonnets (the state flower) and a huge,lone star flag image, but no jacket. He’s a professional engineer and exudes competence if not exactly sartorial elegance. He said he had recently given a talk in Belgium; I was amused to imagine a roomful of Euros trying to decode his accent.

Avant’s outline slide mentioned carbon benefits but he pretty much avoided the question. His motivation was all “energy security”. When asked about long term climate change he shrugged and said he sure hoped Austin wouldn’t end up lookin’ like El Paso while he was still around to see it, but he made no claim that his efforts might have anything to do with it.

Probably the most interesting thing he said was “I’m an engineer. If you want America to be energy independent I believe we can do it, but you might not like how it would work out.” He referred to ubiquitous windmills and solar installations, nuclear plants, and energy restrictions.

Of course, carbon independent is even harder. Yup. This is not going to be easy.

Avant sees a modestly significant role for biofuels but not a dominant one; perhaps replacing 15% of the oil supply in the US. (He very much has a national focus. The only other country mentioned was Brasil, in admiration of their sugarcane program.)

He was pretty clear that biofuels can’t replace gasoline. He says that nobody will tolerate a new demand on irrigation water, so crops have to grow mostly where there is abundant moisture and sun. His focus then was on east Texas and points east.

He also stressed the enormous scale of the operation. If all the shipments travel by truck, even the 15% replacement would require a fleet of over 100,000 18-wheelers running full time. He seemd to think that was impractical. I wonder how big the truck fleet is now. If I read this right, about 1.5 million tractor-trailer type truck engines, so we’re talking maybe a 10% increase in truck traffic. much of it on remote rural roads. I don;t know if the road quality is a problem. Much as I’d like to see a new freight infrastructure this seems doable.

Avant points out a daunting problem: switchgrass miles (or miles from energy sorghum, pictured, note also pale blue button down shirt with sleeves rolled up) matter a lot. You can’t put so much energy into moving the plants to a processor as to wipe out your energy return. This means in practice that the first stage of processing must be close to the farm, some tens of miles. This is good news and bad news; moving jobs out to rural areas tends to be favored by most sectors, but it means infrasturcture commitment is very localized and thus vulnerable to weather issues and climate shifts not to mention other local issues. This makes for a riskier venture than might otherwise be the case, making financing difficult.

Another interesting business point is that various subsidies now go to landowners who grow food and feed crops. This puts energy crops at a systematic disadvantage. However, this needs to be reconciled with the fact that many people don’t want food crops replaced by energy crops.

No biofuel source is currently price competitive.

As a speculative note, perhaps the most promising thing on the horizon is the prospect for salt-tolerant energy crops. If these can be bioengineered, they can use ground water that other water consumers will not compete for. Of course, in the end this is another nonrenewable energy source, but at least it is a carbon neutral one.

Another exciting prospect is energy from algae farming. There is considerable movement on this front in Texas, since sunlight, a major input, is something we have in ample supply. Many of us will find the world much more appealing if there is carbon neutral jet fuel, which they can now produce in small quantities at outrageous prices. Their production cost needs to fall by a factor of ten to be competitive at foreseeable market conditions. Avant referred to eight technical efforts, five in energy engineering and three in genetic engineering.

All biofuel production is water intensive, on the order of 1400 gallons of water per gallon of gasoline.

On the whole, in short, things are possible but not easy.

Let me make clear that my final thought is not Avant’s, nor probably anyone’s who would wear a Texas flag tie without a hint of irony: many things seem much easier to me if we simply give up eating beef. Most of the “aah” states are covered in cattle feed, you know, not in actual food. If we just eat the soy directly 90% of the time we’d ordinarily have beef, a lot of land would be cleared for biofuels. I understand that it takes 10 calories of cattle feed to produce 1 calorie of beef.

the algae farm from an export promotion site of the Israeli government, though I’m willing to bet the site shown is near El Paso, TX