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Sugarcane, corn no longer only options for ethanol production; trees, switchgrass also providerscomment (0)

January 10, 2008

By Manda Gibson

Drive through Alabama and you’re sure to see plenty of trees — shade trees dotting neighborhoods, old oaks beautifying parks, commercial forests lining highways.

Soon those forests may have a new use: producing ethanol to power cars.

Ethanol is an alcohol fuel made from various plants. In the United States, ethanol most commonly is extracted from corn. Yeast is used to ferment corn’s sugars and starch, resulting in a kind of alcohol called ethanol. Ethanol, in turn, is mixed with gasoline to create the fuel that runs cars and other machinery.

A new process is being developed, however, to break down the cellulose in wood fibers so trees, and even grasses and plant waste, could be used to produce ethanol. Unlike corn, which requires replanting every year, one planting of grass can last for many years — even yielding two crops in a year. And trees can grow on their own without frequent tending. With hybrid varieties developed by scientists, some trees can be harvested less than 10 years after planting.

As promising as this new ethanol process is, many people wonder why so much time and money should be invested in ethanol research. Why focus on this particular alternative to gasoline?

Ethanol supporters point to several reasons. First, gasoline causes air pollution; in fuel containing ethanol, this pollution is dramatically less.

Furthermore gasoline isn’t a renewable resource. When the oil used to produce gasoline is gone, there’s no replacing it. Ethanol, though, is made from renewable resources. When one crop of corn, trees or another plant is harvested, another can be planted.

Additionally oil used to produce gasoline is found in a limited number of areas. It then has to be shipped where it’s needed. Ethanol, on the other hand, can be produced locally — helping to grow economies and reduce energy used to ship oil across countries, or even across oceans.

Ethanol has its drawbacks, however. In the United States, for example, the extra demand for corn has led to higher prices both for corn and for products derived from corn.

Tom Slunecka, former executive director of the Ethanol Promotion and Information Council, said the price increase for corn isn’t significant. In fact, corn prices are lower than they were at points in the 1970s and 1980s, he said.

While the demand for corn is increasing, driving prices higher, new farming practices are leading to larger crops — and that is keeping corn prices from skyrocketing.

“Corn yields on a per acre basis have gone up dramatically,” Slunecka noted. “This growth curve isn’t expected to stall out but actually to increase. We estimate that rather than gaining about 2.5 bushels [yielded per acre] per year, we’re actually going to start gaining at about seven bushels per year. Just that growth in itself will handle all the increased ethanol production that’s coming online without us having to cultivate any extra acres.”

In addition, the process to produce ethanol from corn is becoming more efficient — with less energy and water needed to create ethanol. A few years ago, 2.3 gallons of ethanol were produced from every bushel of corn; now each bushel of corn yields around three gallons of ethanol, Slunecka said.

The federal government also has expressed a commitment to increasing ethanol use in the United States. In his 2006 State of the Union address, President George Bush said: “We’ll also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks, or [switchgrass]. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.”

Today the federal government subsidizes the production of ethanol through a tax credit for those who blend ethanol into gasoline. The credit is 51 cents for every gallon of pure ethanol blended into gasoline.

Close to half of fuel/gasoline in the United States includes some ethanol. Slunecka and other ethanol supporters would like to see all U.S. gasoline include at least 10 percent ethanol. “In cities that have mandated that, their air is cleaner,” Slunecka said. “Ethanol is really the only viable product to do that.”

All vehicles made since 1980 can burn E-10 fuel — a blend that uses 10 percent ethanol.

Slunecka also would like to see more cars running on E85 fuel — a blend that uses 85 percent ethanol. Such blends are 65 percent cleaner for the environment than pure gasoline and often 30 percent to 40 percent less on a per gallon basis, he explained. Because E85 fuel burns more quickly, however, that doesn’t translate into savings as high as 30 to 40 percent.

More than 6 million vehicles in the United States can burn E85. And around 1,200 gas stations offer E85 fuel; that’s just less than 1 percent of U.S. gas stations. To see an increase in the number of cars burning E85 fuel and the number of gas stations offering it, consumers just need to ask for it, Slunecka said.

“Consumers will get what they ask for,” he said. “If we start to see an increase in consumers asking for this product, we’ll start to see an increase in stores offering it.” The same is true for increasing ethanol production, use and availability. “It ... lies in the hands of the consumer.”

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