"Ethanol is a horrible fuel," my dad said. We were sitting in my former bedroom, at my parents' house. A few hours before, we had finished our Thanksgiving dinner.
"Why? I've heard arguments for making it from switchgrass instead of corn but..." I asked.
"Switchgrass won't work," he said.
What? What does my dad know about this stuff anyway? I mean, he's a liberal. He votes Democrat. He drives a Prius, and stays up on the news. He laughed his ass off when the Ted Haggert scandal came out. But he's never shown more than a mild interest in environmentalism before.
Then he said: "I've been studying biofuels since the 70's." Ohhhhh, that makes much more sense. Dad's a chemical engineer. Over the course of his 30-year career, he's often worked with plastics (insert The Graduate joke here), but he's also worked with biofuels.
I only remember Dad's biofuels work vaguely. Years ago he had to take a few work-related field trips to a landfill, and Mom teased him by calling him a "garbage-ologist." He worked at Amoco for 20-some years, then left after the merger with B.P. in early 1999. During his time there, he worked off and on with developing a viable biofuel.
How does this relate to food? Let's back up for a minute.
Now that the Dems are taking over, Nancy Pelosi has committed to raising the minimum wage in the first hundred hours that Congress is in session. However, this won't help farmers. To a farmer, a price is like a wage. For commodities like corn, there used to be a price floor, which was essentially a 'minimum wage.' Some farmers I've talked to would like to see this reinstated.
Sugar is still price-supported in the U.S. The world price of sugar is below the price here. When Brazil began using sugarcane for ethanol production, the world price of sugar rose substantially. A number I've heard mentioned anecdotally is that it went from $.07 to $.18 per pound (Rep. Collin Peterson said that on The Al Franken Show).
Instead of giving farmers a de facto minimum wage with a price floor, the U.S. government sets a "fair" price and makes a promise to farmers: However low the actual price of corn goes, we will make up the difference so that you get a "fair" price. As to how fair this price is - consider how fair the current minimum wage is. Just like a minimum wage worker might need to hold three jobs to support him or herself, farmers try to maximize their production in order to squeak by. The net result? An assload of corn at a rock bottom price.
Right now, the cheap corn goes into animal feed, high fructose corn syrup, and some ethanol. If the U.S. were to suddenly increase its demand for ethanol, they would increase the demand for corn and hopefully increase the price of corn too. Essentially, use of ethanol in fuel would serve as a subsidy for farmers. Most likely, farmers wouldn't be the biggest beneficiaries of such a situation - companies like Archer Daniels Midland that make ethanol from corn would make a killing.
What I'd personally like to see is a disincentive to food processors to make so much cheap junk food. Right now, fast food chains, movie theatres, etc, make a killing on soft drinks. The syrup is cheap, the paper cup is cheap, and the rest of the price they charge is profit. No wonder they encourage you to buy a bigger size for only a few cents more.
Even better than using corn for fuel would be finding a crop that uses less petroleum-based inputs. Enter switchgrass. It's a perennial, so you only have to plant it once, and it requires much less fertilizer than corn. Sounds like a great idea, right?
I've heard many people tout this idea, starting with Chimpy McFlightsuit in his last State of the Union address. I've also heard more credible people bring it up, like a farmer from Kansas who currently uses biofuels from local sources and saves a bunch of money every year from it, and Rep. Collin Peterson, the new chair of the House ag committee.
Not being a chemical engineer myself, I'm totally sold on the idea. If you want more info, check out this site. Looks to me like a way to help farmers and help the environment all at once. Sign me up!
Now, back to my Dad. Here's what he said:
Ethanol is a poor choice for fuel because its molecules only have 2 carbons. The more carbons a molecule has, the better gas mileage you're going to get. For example, diesel has more carbons per molecule than gasoline. Both diesel and gasoline actually have a mix of different molecules in them, but he said gas has something like 6 to 10 carbons per molecule.
He also said that ethanol is cleaner than gas. The more carbons in the molecules, the more CO2 you release into the atmosphere. In that case, ethanol trumps gas. It doesn't sound like a clear winner to me though - if your car requires so many carbons to go so many miles, then won't you produce the same amount of CO2 no matter what? Looks like the only difference is how many gallons you have to buy at the pump.
Way back when, in the 70's, my dad started trying to create a viable sort of biomass energy. He said he's watched the progression over time. At first, people said that when oil reaches $20/barrel, biomass will be economically viable. When oil got to $20/barrel, the production costs of ethanol had increased too, and now people said it would be viable when oil got to $30/barrel. And so on, and so on... now we're at $70/barrel and ethanol is still prohibitively expensive.
As for corn vs. switchgrass, Dad's tried a number of raw materials to see what would work. Please forgive me for sparing you the chemistry lesson I got the other night, as my brain did not absorb most of it and I'm sure it would come out somewhat garbled.
When looking for the best raw material to use (economically speaking), one must consider the distance from the plant you can get it. If it takes so much oil to truck in the raw materials that you end up using more oil from producing the biofuel than you are saving by running a car on biofuels instead of oil, then it won't work. Dad said biofuels are only economical if you can get the raw materials from within a 50 mile radius.
The next consideration is plant size. Very often, making a small plant twice as big is cheaper than building two small plants. For that reason, it's preferable to build enormous plants instead of a bunch of little ones. If you can only bring in raw materials from a 50-mile radius, then you are also limited in the size of plants you can build. Anything larger than what can handle the raw materials within 50 miles is a waste. This increases the cost of starting up an ethanol operation as you must build many small plants instead of a few large ones.
Also, consider how much raw material you can bring in from the 50 miles surrounding your plant. If your plant is in rural Illinois, it might sit in the center of a 50 mile circle of cornfields. If your plant is in Manhattan, it won't have very much corn around it at all.
Last, think about how many months a year you can run your plant. The best case scenario is that you have a constant, year-round supply of raw materials. In the case of most crops, you'll have a few months a year during the harvest season where you can get raw materials. You can also store raw materials, but Dad said most things deteriorate with time as you store them, making them more difficult to convert into fuel. It's too expensive to make a plant that you can only use for a few months a year.
Given all that, Dad tried everything from corn to switchgrass to waste paper. Waste paper can be obtained year-round, and its price is limited by the price of new paper. Unfortunately, it didn't work. This is where Dad got into chemistry-talk that I didn't really get. The long and short of it was that waste paper didn't convert very well into ethanol. One problem he mentioned was long fermentation time. He worked on speeding up the fermentation time, but he wasn't always successful.
The only answer he could find was that corn husks would work - IF you attach your ethanol plant to another plant that makes high fructose corn syrup. The husks are already available to you as a waste product from the HFCS production, and then you can turn them into ethanol for a cost that you can recoup when you sell the ethanol for fuel. (Perhaps this is what ADM does for the ethanol portion of their business.)
He said we can overcome these hurdles via government funding. Oil companies require a lot of capital but much of it's already paid for. In order for biofuels producers to create a product they can sell below the cost of oil while they still profit, they need funding. Otherwise, the cost of building their plants will always be a roadblock and no matter how high the price of oil gets, they won't overcome it.
As Dad left my room, he said, "Do you know the last president who had a good policy on energy? Jimmy Carter."