Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Some ethanol moves in the news

Ford Drops Focus on Hybrids, Shifts to Biofuels: Ford is reneging on a commitment to build hybrid vehicles and will instead shift to producing flexfuel vehicles.

U.S. Automakers to Double Production of Flexible-Fuel Vehicles: The big three automakers write Congress pleading the case of Ethanol. They say if all American vehicles were running E85 Ethanol, that would displace 3.5 billion gallons of gasoline per year, enough to cover all usage in a state like Missouri or Tennessee.

Roadmap for Development of Cellulosic Ethanol Production: the U.S. DOE has released their roadmap for cellulosic ethanol production. Breaking the Biological Barriers to Cellulosic Ethanol: A Joint Research Agenda The article has several useful links as well.

On the one hand I applaud this. It represents a serious effort to move from fossil fuels to a fuel source that is renewable. Ethanol and other biofuels are renewable in that they're derived from plants or other biological matter, which we can just grow.

However I suspect what we're seeing here is the effect of the corn lobby. In the U.S. the plant of choice for making ethanol is Corn. That's despite the high energy requirement to grow and process corn. Other countries, like Brazil, can grow sugar cane more readily than the U.S. can and therefore can more efficiently produce ethanol.

I suppose one thing that might result is American ethanol producers will be priced out of the Ethanol market by producers in the tropics who have better growing conditions.

The roadmap article has an interesting chart reproduced from the DOE. It shows the requirements for corn sourced ethanol production to displace 30% of 2004 U.S. gasoline usage. Since ethanol has a lower energy value than gasoline, it requires 60 billion gallons of ethanol to replace the 42 billion gallons that is 30% of U.S. gasoline usage in 2004. Producing 60 billion gallons of ethanol from corn requires 750 million tons of plant matter, which will require 70 million acres of land to grow, and 600 processing plants to produce.

Clearly this is a very steep requirement. Especially in the amount of land required.

Hence, I think it's important there be scientific research to develop biological systems that more efficiently produce ethanol or other biofuels. Such research is happening, but I suppose if the corn lobby were to have its say the government would focus on corn and ignore any other potential solutions.