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Experts debate best ethanol source
The Oklahoman


November 07, 2006

Record gasoline prices experienced over the past year have helped drive interest in alternative fuels. But it is still unclear as to which option is best for the country.

Despite some concerns of relative energy inefficiency, ethanol is the early leading alternative. Much of ethanol's popularity is because the fuel is commercially available, requires - at most - only moderate adjustments to existing engines and can be blended with traditional gasoline. But the debate continues as to whether the more popular corn-based ethanol is the best option.




President Bush in his "addicted to oil" speech earlier this year touted switchgrass and other so-called "cellulosic" plants as one of the key components of the country's effort to reduce its dependence on foreign oil.

If ethanol is to become a major transportation fuel nationwide, the country eventually must move beyond the corn-based product, Oklahoma Energy Secretary David Fleischaker said.

"If we took every stick of corn that we grow and turn it into fuel and eat none of it, we're talking about producing about 12 percent of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline that we burn annually," he said. "And we're not going to turn every stick of corn into fuel. So to make a dent, we have to go beyond corn. We have to go to cellulosic."

Experts from throughout the country recently met at the University of Oklahoma to discuss biofuels technologies and the implications on the economy during the Oklahoma Governor's Conference on Biofuels.

Creating grain-based ethanol is a relatively simple process that has been well understood for thousands of years. The process is very similar to making alcohol, although research continues to improve the details of the process, such as how much ethanol is produced from certain amounts and kinds of grain.

Cellulosic-based ethanol, however, requires a more complex process, either of chemically converting the plant substance into ethanol or burning the plant and converting the gasses.

Besides switchgrass, cellulosic materials include wood chips and numerous plants. One problem with cellulosic plants, however, is that they contain large amounts of lignin - the tough, sticky substance that allows the plants to rise as much as 10 feet above the ground.

"We think the future is bright," said Joe Bouton, director of the Noble Foundation's Forage Improvement Division, "But we're going to have to base the industry on research and experience."

Switchgrass proponents say the plant has several benefits over corn and other more traditional grain-based energy crops. Switchgrass is perennial, meaning farmers would not have to spend the time and energy planting every year. Also, cellulosic plants tend to grow on less hospitable lands, using less fertilizer. Switchgrass also is a native grass in Oklahoma, so local farmers are at least somewhat familiar with it.

One of the biggest problems, however, is that switchgrass production varies widely with the amount of rainfall it receives. In Alabama and other areas with larger amounts of rain, test crops average as much as 15 to 20 tons of usable yield per acre. In drier Oklahoma, most crops are averaging 5 or 6 tons per acre.

The Noble Foundation and other groups are working to improve that yield.

"We think future switchgrass varieties are going to have yields of 12 to 15 tons in Oklahoma," Bouton said. "We think this is very doable."

The Noble Foundation is focusing on cross breeding and using other traditional efforts to develop crops that have stronger yields and are drought resistant.

The group also is partnering with California-based Ceres to develop genetically modified switchgrass that has higher yields, better characteristics and other improvements, such as more digestible lignin and other changes.

While research continues on switchgrass, grain-based ethanol proponents are continuing their own studies.

The ethanol plant Oklahoma Sustainable Energy has proposed for Enid is designed to accept either corn or milo, which is used as animal feed, not for human consumption. Ethanol production uses the grains, but not the protein. A waste product is highly enriched, processed grain product that can still be used for animal feed.

Grain-based ethanol also has advantages over switchgrass in that it can use the country's existing grain infrastructure, including transportation and storage facilities, said Terry Detrick, vice president of the Oklahoma Farmers Union and president of Oklahoma Sustainable Energy. Grain ethanol has an advantage in that it is operational and is not as theoretical as some switchgrass processes, he said.

"With grain ethanol, it's here, it's now," Detrick said. "It's not rocket science. It's high-tech moonshine."

Ultimately, both grain ethanol and cellulosic ethanol will play an important role in the country's energy future along with numerous other alternative technologies, Detrick said.

"It's not necessarily an either-or in the future," he said. "Many of the speakers at the Governor's Conference said not to pick a favorite. There are different opportunities for different parts of the country."


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