September 3, 2006

IOWA: Ethanol, today and tomorrow

I think it is time to remind ourselves that we are at the bleeding edge of the renewable liquid energy paradigm shift. Chapter one is gasoline blended with ethanol from sugar fermentation. Chapter two will be gasoline blended with cellulosic ethanol. Chapter three will be the global deployment of cellulosic ethanol conversion technologies using a incredibly wide variety of feedstocks.

We don't need to replace oil - we just need to knock down our dependence on it - the principal and the interest. Our independence cannot happen alone. Because of the rapidly rising global demand for oil, we need other countries to reduce their dependence on oil as well. The new paradigm must include decentralized proliferation of renewable fuel production.

As pointed out by Cindy Zimmerman of the Domestic Fuel blog, the Des Moines Register recently ran a story and an opinion piece about the grand arc of ethanol evolution that Iowa is likely to see over the next few decades.

Ethanol is Just the Beginning
Next generation of ethanol, other fuels pose dazzling possibilities.

Can America realistically look to its forests and farms to provide the fuels of the future? Can Iowa become to biofuels what Texas is to petroleum?

The answers are not entirely clear, but Iowans need to think about the questions. Iowa is the national leader in ethanol now, but the state won't be the leader in whatever comes after grain-based ethanol unless we're open to other possibilities.

Indeed, there are reasonable doubts about ethanol's long-term future.

The rap on ethanol used to be that it was a net-energy loser. That objection has been overcome. The new worry about ethanol is that there simply isn't enough corn to make enough ethanol to significantly reduce the nation's reliance on petroleum.

That appears to be true. If 100 percent of the corn crop were devoted to ethanol production, it would displace only about 13 percent of gasoline consumption, and there would be no corn left to feed hogs and poultry. That's not likely to happen, of course.

An upper limit on ethanol production from corn will be reached somewhere short of using the entire crop but not even remotely close to ending reliance on petroleum.

Longer term, the expectation is that the feedstock for ethanol will expand far beyond corn.

Cellulosic ethanol made from perennial crops such as switchgrass, from trees and wood chips, from crop residue including corn stover, will have a better net-energy balance than today's ethanol and will be more plentiful.

Plus, there is the potential for constructing biorefineries that, like petroleum refineries, would be capable of producing a wide range of products, such as plastics, adhesives, solvents, packaging materials and lubricants in addition to motor fuels. The implications for Iowa's economy are dazzling.

In a related opinion piece, Professor Robert C. Brown of Iowa State University placed the growth of ethanol in a rosier light...

The 1.3 billion tons of biomass identified in the DOE-USDA study could displace as much as 66 percent of our current gasoline demand.

There is room for additional optimism: Retooling our spark-ignition engines to take advantage of the high octane number of ethanol could move us very close to substituting ethanol for all of our current gasoline demand. Alternatively (or additionally), we could demand higher corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards for our automobiles, which could close the remaining gap. Of course, we need to quickly perfect ways to turn plant fibers into fuels if this vision is to be met for the next generation.

technorati , , , ,

No comments: