Corn Ethanol: Growing Food, Feed, Fiber ... and Fuel?

Corn ethanol is being used more and more as a fuel, but important debates over feed crops, food prices and the fuel efficiency of various biofuels may limit its future use.

| May 3, 2012

Every five to seven years, Congress passes a little understood legislation called the Farm Bill. To a large extent, the Farm Bill writes the rules and sets the playing field for America’s contemporary food system, determining what we eat, how much it costs, and where it is grown. You may not be happy with what you learn. In this excerpt from Daniel Imhoff’s Food Fight (Watershed Media, 2012), read about why corn ethanol — once a beacon of hope for Americans concerned about peak oil — may not be the cure for our fuel-dependency woes. The following excerpt is taken from Chapter 17, “Ethanol: Growing Food, Feed, Fiber, and Fuel?” Stop by our online store’s promotional page to purchase Food Fight at a 25-percent discount until the end of 2012. 

Most analysts agree that we are rapidly approaching “peak oil,” the point when the volume of global oil production begins to decline. In response, Farm Bill programs have promoted a shift to liquid “biofuels” and “biomass” energy derived from farms. The Renewable Fuels Standard of the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, for instance, boosted the country’s ethanol production by mandating that up to 36 billion gallons be blended into gasoline by 2022. But taxpayers have been investing in this industry for decades via corn subsidies, import tariffs, tax credits for every gallon of ethanol blended with gasoline, loan guarantees, construction cost-shares, and gas pump upgrades. For politicians and lobbyists, ethanol became a sacred cow, untouchable, because of the belief that these public investments would 1) support farmers, 2) reduce dependence on foreign oil (currently about 60 percent of U.S. oil consumption), 3) cut greenhouse gas emissions, and 4) strengthen national defense.

The high costs of these policies—$17 billion between 2005 and 2009 alone—are now being viewed in a more critical light. Voters and politicians can no longer ignore facts such as:

  • In 2010, 36 percent of the U.S. corn crop was turned into ethanol, but that only constituted 8 percent of the nation’s gasoline.
  • A 1.1 mpg increase in passenger vehicle fuel efficiency would save as many gallons of oil as all the ethanol produced today. (See more ways to boost the U.S. fuel economy in the Image Gallery.)

Feed Crop Versus Cellulosic Ethanol

Ethanol can be made from feed crops such as corn, or cellulosic sources such as grasses, leftover corn stalks, and other woody materials with no food value. Today, most corn ethanol is produced in dry grind factories, which consume less energy than earlier generation wet mill plants. The corn is dried, milled, and then fermented and later distilled into ethanol. The leftover co-products, called dried distiller grains and solubles (DDGS), are fed to livestock. After a major expansion of dry-grind facilities over the course of the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills, the United States has become the world’s largest ethanol producer, even selling its surplus to Brazil, whose once prolific sugar-based biofuel industry has declined in recent years.

Making ethanol from stalks and grass is a bit more challenging. It takes an extra step to separate the plant’s lignin from the cellulose. Extra energy is also required during distilling. On the plus side, the lignin can be used instead of fossil fuels as an energy source for distillation.

The notion of a sustainable ethanol industry is predicated on a massive shift from annual crops like corn, sorghum, and soybeans to perennial native plants such as switchgrass, forest “thinnings,” or high-biomass perennial crops like Chinese myscanthus—cellulose sources that theoretically won’t require excessive plowing or chemicals to pump up yields. It’s a compelling notion. But it may be more hype than reality. Despite years of government mandates, no cellulosic ethanol plants are close to operating commercially, even as we continue to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the effort. And in reality, cellulosic crops don’t have to be made into ethanol to displace fossil fuels. A more efficient alternative might be to convert them directly into electricity, a process that is much more efficient, can be achieved with existing technology, and could displace coal and natural gas. Reports show, for example, that an electric car can go twice as far on the energy from a given quantity of wood or switchgrass as an equivalent vehicle powered by ethanol.

6/7/2012 12:31:57 AM

Letting the market be free and work itself out! What a novel idea in today's world!! We can only hope it comes to pass!!! Thanks Gerald. :)

6/7/2012 12:30:03 AM

Important to note, octane is just one additive to gasoline. It is used to reduce detonation and it not the main ingredient. The math you are using is interesting, but not an accurate method of determining changes in mileage of blended gasoline. When alcohol is added to gasoline, it depends on the engine as to how much change in mileage you actually have because of the alcohol. Granted it is never to the plus side, but it is far from a simple calculation!

6/6/2012 10:51:03 PM

Reasonable article, shows one of the many reasons to not use corn based alcohol as fuel. We are no where near "Peak Oil" at this time, since this concept was erroneously introduced, we have discovered in just North America alone, 1.5 trillion barrels of oil that can be harvested.

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