What do you know about Iowa? Caucus and corn - right? Corn-based ethanol is the "future" of Iowa, except that corn makes really lousy ethanol. So, someone, somewhere has started to do something about it. From Scientific American:
Farmers in Nebraska and the Dakotas brought the U.S. closer to becoming a biofuel economy, planting huge tracts of land for the first time with switchgrass—a native North American perennial grass (Panicum virgatum) that often grows on the borders of cropland naturally—and proving that it can deliver more than five times more energy than it takes to grow it.
But yields from a grass that only needs to be planted once would deliver an average of 13.1 megajoules of energy as ethanol for every megajoule of petroleum consumed—in the form of nitrogen fertilizers or diesel for tractors—growing them. "It's a prediction because right now there are no biorefineries built that handle cellulosic material" like that which switchgrass provides, Vogel notes. "We're pretty confident the ethanol yield is pretty close." This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.
Let's see 540% vs. 125%, is that correct? Hmmm....which technology should we fund, which one, which one, which one....Well, believe it or not, the joke is - the switch grass. That's right!!! The science actually appears to be winning over the politics.
"Cost competitive, energy responsible cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass or from forestry waste like sawdust and wood chips requires a more complex refining process but it's worth the investment," Energy Secretary Samuel Bodman said at the Range Fuels facility groundbreaking in November. "Cellulosic ethanol contains more net energy and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases than ethanol made from corn."
In fact, Vogel and his team report this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA that switchgrass will store enough carbon in its relatively permanent root system to offset 94 percent of the greenhouse gases emitted both to cultivate it and from the derived ethanol burned by vehicles. Of course, this estimate also relies on using the leftover parts of the grass itself as fuel for the biorefinery. "The lignin in the plant cell walls can be burned," Vogel says.
Cogeneration, the lignin is separated from the cellulose - the cellulose is made into ethanol and the lignin is burned to create energy for the ethanol production. This is what alternative energy should look like or could look like, you plant grass once, harvest it each year, process it and use the "waste" to energize the whole thing.
Yes, there is nitrogen fertilizer required to start this process, but the 540% includes that fertilizer input as compared to the 125% for corn production. Also, I think it is important to remember that this is one piece of the alternative-energy pie.