Will science prevail over politics?


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.

Comments

WNC could play a part in this, right?

Although, I'm not sure about this:

The use of native prairie grasses is meant to avoid some of the other risks associated with biofuels such as reduced diversity of local animal life and displacing food crops with fuel crops. "This is an energy crop that can be grown on marginal land," Vogel argues, such as the more than 35 million acres (14.2 million hectares) of marginal land that farmers are currently paid not to plant under the terms of USDA's Conservation Reserve Program.

One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it. - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

Big Corn

Great post, Robert. There's still time to stop the corn juggernaut from becoming the next environmental disaster . . . but it's going to take more backbone than most people on Congress apparently have.

CORN ETHANOL IS PART OF THE PROBLEM.

corn ethanol and corn syrup.

I would love to have my wife, an MPH/RD student at UNC-CH blog about the health effects of corn syrup. But, you can find out yourself. Go to whole foods or somewhere similar and get a soda made with cane syrup. Tonight, drink a Coke when you are feeling like you want one. Then, the next night drink the cane syrup drink.

Come back and talk about the difference.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

I'd love it if coaches and trainers would

tell Gatorade to stop using corn syrup in their product, or if someone would make a sports drink with cane sugar instead of HFCS.

"They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people a dollar 'n a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

I bring you OUR sports drink.


available at Weaver Street in Carrboro, Southern Village, and who knows where else.

One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it. - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

Thanks! I'll get a few bottles to try.

For the last several years my daughter (soccer player) has hydrated with nothing but water but in the last month she started drinking Gatorade. I thought it was fine and she swears it HAS improved her ability to perform late in the game. But she's suddenly developed pain and swelling in her wrists and pain in her hips. (Her ankles and knees are continuously bruised and sore during the season, so she doesn't even complain about those anymore.)

Then ... this past weekend I took a look at the Gatorade label while putting bottles in the recycle cart. ACK!!! Corn syrup!! Who knew??? I'm afraid she's gonna have to give up the Gatorade, but maybe it won't be so bad if she has something to replace it with like this stuff. Thanks for the tip!

"They took all the trees and put them in a tree museum Then they charged the people a dollar 'n a half just to see 'em. Don't it always seem to go that you don't know what you've got till it's gone? They paved paradise and put up a parking lot."

Solution

Try the Gatorade powder mix. Little less flavor but no corn syrup.

Great item Robert.

I support biofuels development generally as a part of our alternative energy plans, but I'm careful to emphasize that we should be targeting biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol for expansion. They bring much better bang for both the financial and environmental buck, compared to corn-based ethanol. And, of course, it has to come as an adjunct to the drive for more efficient vehicles AND a more efficient transportation system overall.

In North Carolina as well as other states, development of smart biofuels production can be a part of our rural/agricultural economic development efforts as well. Farmers looking for alternative crops, and rural counties looking for small manufacturing facilities, are potential beneficiaries.

Dan Besse
Democrat for Lieutenant Governor
www.danbesse2008.org

Dan Besse

Imagine tobacco-farmers all over North Carolina

Imagine after they have had the cigarette industry decrease the amount of tobacco in every cigarette and pay less and less for tobacco, imagine them finding out they could plant grass and harvest grass to make a living. And, that it would be good for the planet and for people - instead of killing people? You would have to be a pretty die-hard tobacco farmer not to switch if the money was there.

One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it. - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

BTW, energy efficient vehicles are easy.

All it takes is the government to force the car manufacturers. As proof, I offer you the 50-mpg cars of my teenage years.
The Honda CRX, which got 49/52 mpg.

And, the Chevy Sprint ER, which got 47/53 mpg.

Are they tiny, sure. But, who said every car has to be a behemoth. Granted, if you add in all the newly required equipment and AC and etc etc etc you will probably drop down to 37/43 mpg. BUT, that is with 1970s technology. It isn't hard to build a fleet that averages 40 mpg, if you are forced. Smaller, lighter, slower.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

Terrific writeup, Robert!

I'm always interested in these developments, and it sounds like a real winner. I know we all think of affecting engine driven vehicles, but it might be easier to get the electrical generation changed over. We would probably be talking of diesels and turbines in stationary localities, and that would go a long way in getting away from these nuke and coal plants. I know they already have 18 wheelers running on biodiesel, so the technology is there now, but information is hard to find. These utility companies might be more open to a cheaper source of fuels, such as this looks to be. I know one big opponent of this development would be Monsanto, which has been heavily invested in corn, and controlling that market with it's genetic brands.

BUT.

I would imagine their technology would be applicable to switch grass and everything else, and I would find it hard to believe that they don't have those rights locked up as well.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

Maybe all of this will be outdated in 18 months or so

A geneticist is working on "4th Generation Fuel" project where he is bio-engineering simple organisms that will feed on CO2 and excrete octane-based fuels. Craig Venter, geneticist said, "We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy," Venter told an audience that included global warming fighter Al Gore and Google co-founder Larry Page.

"We think we will have fourth-generation fuels in about 18 months, with CO2 as the fuel stock

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.

Progressive Discussions

If this is for real......

I would think that scientist might want to change his routes to work every day! The Bush gang will be sending 'Blackwater' after them!

There was a report awhile back about bioreactors

Perhaps it is the same thing. I'll have to dig later tonight....or tomorrow.

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

I heard about this on Science Friday

It is so cool. If it works, it could change everything. And I'll put on my tinfoil hat with denno. He'd better be careful.

Be the change you wish to see in the world. --Gandhi

I read an article in

one of the major news magazines recently about ethanol and the different crops we could use to make it.

The article did a good job detailing the dangers of a corn-heavy approach (most of which I already knew), but I was depressed when the article exposed how the working conditions of (most of) the Central and South American cane workers are atrocious.

But they also explored an avenue I hadn't paid much attention to, that being algae. You can grow it damned near anywhere (using grey water, no less), it has a much higher yield value for ethanol per, whatever, cubic yard I guess. And it also yields considerably more "per acre" than any of the others.

But here's the thing that really tricked my trigger, and it's (supposedly) already been tested: bags of algae can be hung/installed in coal plants to capture CO2, and they apparently do a pretty good job of it. When they've "expired" (I don't know how that's determined), the algae can still be refined for ethanol purposes.

If I can find some good info on this, I'll blog it.

I Googled Craig Venter

and he's real, here are some articles you can read about him. The second article down also refers to his work with artificial life that may eventually become the source of the fuel.

No matter that patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots.

Progressive Discussions

Craig Venter is beyond real.

He's the reason the human genome got sequenced so quickly.

One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it. - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

Speaking of corn

If you're interested in meta-agricultural issues, you have to read Botany of Desire. Absolutely required reading.

Or, you can put it on your bookshelf......

via Coturnix.

Rather, the books on your shelves are there to convey the type of person you would like to be. I am the type of person who would read long biographies of Lyndon Johnson, despite not being the type of person who has read any long biographies of Lyndon Johnson

One of the pitfalls of childhood is that one doesn't have to understand something to feel it. - Carlos Ruiz Zafon

Jesus Swept ticked me off. Too short. I loved the characters and then POOF it was over.
-me

Will be on my list, James...

I read his(Michael Pollan) earlier best seller, 'Omnivore's Dilemma', and really believe "Whole Foods" supermarket received their biggest boost from that. A real eye opener about our 'food' system. I also grow a lot of my own veggies and herbs, but started years ago for the reason of growing my own varieties. But now it's to control my 'chemical' intake.

Good Job

Great post Robert. Glad to see someone in government is using common sense to make decisions regarding environmental matters. Typically, the government comes to the crossroads of an efficient environmental decision and the a decision inundated with red tape, and seems to prefer the latter. When the candidates were campaigning in Iowa and kept referring to corn-based ethanol's bright future I would cringe.