Robert Soleta: A Proponent of Gasohol Production

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Robert Soleta is a farmer as well as a firm proponent of gasohol alcohol, a form of energy created from soybeans, corn, wheat, milo and more.

The following interview with Robert Soleta — a farmer as well as a firm proponent of gasohol-alcohol — is reprinted, with permission, from the March 1979 issue of ACRES, U.S.A.. . . which, as we’ve said before, is one of the hardest hitting real farm publicationsaround. 

Mr. Soleta, exactly what is the National Gasohol Commission? How is it funded?

Well, over the past few years a lot of people have become interested in gasohol, and — since Nebraska both originated and has become the Mecca of the farmer’s alcohol idea — these folks kept descending on Nebraska. And the state agency there was really not able to cope with all the incoming requests for information. People who were interested in gasohol began to realize that there had to be a central clearing house for the whole nation . . . one that all states could support and benefit from. The consequence was that in June of last year a non-profit corporation, the National Gasohol Commission, was created and put on record. In November of 1978, the Board of Directors asked me to become the Commission’s National Director. 

How were they led to you?

I first came down representing Minnesota, albeit as a private citizen. I met some of the folks involved, and — as a result — became one of three contact people in Minnesota.

How does the Commission get its funding?

We hope each state that participates will donate $5,000 to a basic fund.

Do you receive any contributions at all from either individuals or organizations?

Yes. The Corn Growers Association, the Sorghum Growers, and other groups representing starch crops have come in with donations of $500 or $1,500 or $3,000 or $5,000 or whatever they can. I also became aware that-because we had so many individual contacts — we really needed a private citizens’ membership policy. As a result, we’ve created a special program under which individuals can become members for $25 a year. Anyone who joins the organization will receive a packet of information as well as a newsletter communication.

How did you become interested in farmer’s alcohol?

Even before I took on an agricultural consulting job with Minnesota, I had made arrangements to hear a presentation on gasohol. I believed alcohol could provide a viable market for farm production. As you know, I had been complaining loud and long that we were not doing enough in Minnesota to build on agriculture, our largest economic base. I thought there was more that could be done. The Commissioner of the Department of Economics offered me a contract to go and search out any Minnesota-originated raw materials that could be processed to a higher value before we shipped them out of state. This would mean employing our own raw materials, our own people, and our own money to add to the value of our farm products.

In other words, you wanted to improve the conduit of farm raw materials into the industrial complex?

Right. In working the consulting contract, we reached the conclusion that agriculture was producing more of the products known as food and feed than sales and distribution could absorb. The set-aside acres program, the old soil bank, diverted land … all those programs indicated that we had this excess capacity, and the judgment has always been made to reduce our output somehow.

Let’s get back to the alcohol question. We have a considerable number of professors, running all over the country . . . and they’re condemning farmer’s alcohol. Are the objections they’re making legitimate?

No, I don’t believe their objections are legitimate. I think what they’re doing is operating from a base of information that is in itself obsolete. The alcohol detractors simply haven’t done their basic homework.

Has the question ever beer posed in a very forceful way: Look, are we short or are we not short of fossil fuels? If we are running out, why are we trying to kick a dead horse any further? On the other hand, if there isn’t really a scarcity, why are we lying?

As long as the fuel comes out of the pipeline, or the coal comes down the track, the person who’s receiving it says, I’m not short. There’s no problem! He or she doesn’t believe we’re going to run out of fossil fuels. But if you use just a little basic common sense, you’ll realize this planet is like a bowl of orange juice . . . if you suck all the nonrenewable energy out of it, it’s going to be empty. And therefore, if we’re going to recognize this as a basic principle — that fossil fuels are a finite resource — then we should be educating ourselves and developing the renewable energy system that we must go to … sooner or later.

Surely you’ve heard the argument that it will take 280,000 Btu’s of coal heat to get only 220,000 Btu’s of corn based alcohol fuel? That’ sounds like a loss all the way around. And — using such figures — many “experts” say it would be better to get the heat out of corn by grinding up the plants and burning them whole.

Well, you can’t stuff corn in the carburetor, so there’s got to be another way. Our agricultural products all have Btu values. The most energy-efficient of the bunch, of course, is the soybean … because of the oil in it. Wheat is the next highest in Btu’s, followed by corn, milo, barley, and so forth. In other words, these are all energy products. But what do we do with all the excess energy products known as food? We run those “extra” crops through livestock as feed grains. The animals become the converters … they transform the corn and barley and milo and wheat and so forth into other forms of food and energy — for human consumption. So, in effect, anything that the farmer produces becomes food for human consumption, and we’re still looking for another market.

As for those conversion figures, they’re based on data from the distilling industry. As you know, such firms double-distill, and they are not so concerned with the energy exchange equation. We’ve had engineers dispute the figures and completely contradict them.

Without going into the matter of feed grains displaced by red meat importation, just what are this country’s corn and milo inventory data right now?

Of the 6.8 billion bushels of corn that we produced last year, only 5 percent will go for direct human consumption via commerce and industry. All the rest of the grain will be used as livestock feed. So in terms of livestock production — we have a substantial inventory of corn . . . and you know we also have quite a surplus of wheat and barley and milo and the whole works, rice included.

You’re suggesting, then, that agriculture should be given access to the industrial complex, and not function solely as a producer of food and fiber?

Yes. Agriculture is actually more than a food production system. It’s an energy production system: As a starter, it produces energy known as food. It also manufactures fuel known as feed … that’s run through livestock and converted into food. Agriculture can produce more than the market will bear, and public policy is constantly trying to shut it down. But our farmlands are actually energy acres, and ought to be employed producing other forms of energy.

What other forms of energy products can we get from agriculture?

There’s ethanol and methanol and methane. Ethanol is ethyl alcohol. This is the alcohol that’s used in gasohol, that we know how to produce most easily, and that we can produce the most of.

And is ethanol the fuel that’s most competitive with the product of the big oil companies?

Of course. And this is the reason we have people arguing about energy balance. You’ll hear some professors and so called scientists hacking away at gasohol. They’re getting their figures from the old processes of making grain alcohol … your drinking whiskey.

The “experts” work with the Btu inputs that are used for distilling beverage-grade alcohol. However, “drinking” alcohol requires two or three additional distillation processes …to take out the bad taste and improve the color, clarity, and so on. In whiskey making, the water that’s used once can’t be used again unless it’s been distilled out, or evaporated, and this takes a lot of energy.

The fact of the matter is, the professors are using old, historic information. They interpret this ancient data to prove that it takes more heat to process corn into ethanol than the heat you can get out of alcohol itself. Yet the engineering companies that made presentations at the National Gasohol Meeting in Chicago back in November said differently.

There were nine engineering firms there. Every one of them said they could convert a bushel of corn with about 80,000 Btu’s of heat . . . instead of 280,000, which is the usual calculation. They can cut out a couple of distillation columns, and they can recycle the water from the back end of the plant to the front end. That’s already warm water, so you don’t lose all the energy that’s been put into the liquid. They’re also using heat pumps, recapturing the heat from the water and from the meal that’s been dried out. So with the engineering companies being pushed to make power-grade, rather than beverage grade, alcohol — we’ve come up with a system with which agriculture can now actually get into other forms of energy production. This is where we’re headed.

We won’t have to have set-aside acres, soil banks, storage programs, and so on. There is no limit to the amount of energy that agriculture can produce for the modern private enterprise system.

Why gasohol? Why not simply alcohol as tractor and auto fuel?

You can burn 100 percent — or anhydrous — alcohol in your car, your tractor, and so forth, true. You could even use it as diesel fuel. In fact the diesel compression ratio on straight alcohol is up around 24:1. If you burn the alcohol in the form of 190 proof in your car, you increase the compression ratio up to 12.5:1, which is about four points higher than that of regular gasoline. But if you want to use straight alcohol as fuel, then you are going to need separate storage facilities as well as separate dispensing facilities at gas stations. Gasohol, of course, is much easier for us to store and pump.

For anyone who doesn’t already know about gasohol, it’s simply a 10 percent to 90 percent blend of alcohol and gasoline: one gallon of alcohol with every nine gallons of gasoline. This mixture has several immediate advantages. The distribution system is already established for dispensing and distributing gasoline, for instance .. . so we don’t have to set up a separate system. And you could blend the alcohol and gasoline in any one of four locations: You could mix it at the refinery, at the tank terminal at the end of the pipeline, at the service station or even right out on the farm.

I’ve actually mixed gasohol right in my own vehicle. If my car holds 20 gallons of gasoline, I pour in 2 gallons of alcohol and drop in 18 gallons of gasoline … that’s all there is to it. That’s how they did it at Olivia, Minnesota. They had a 2,000-gallon tank for one service pump. They dumped in 200 gallons of alcohol and added 1,800 gallons of gasoline . . . that’s gasohol. So there’s no secret about how to make gasohol. The secret is — and the problem is — getting the agriculture system into the production of the necessary alcohol.

When you blend alcohol with gasoline, what else occurs?

In our gasoline now, there are what we call antiknock compounds, or octane boosters. Each gallon of gasoline contains somewhere between 4 and 6 cents worth of octane boosters. This way, when the oil companies refine gasoline, they don’t have to use so much crude oil.The firms take the balance of the octane rating up with some form of booster, instead. When a firm makes leaded gasoline, it adds tetraethyl lead .. . which brings the fuel up to a certain standard: 87 octane, 91 octane, or whatever. But when you put alcohol into gasoline, you can take out the lead — and you can take out the other additives that they’re using now in unleaded gasoline — and still get that octane boost! One of the non-leaded gasoline additives that has, in the past, been used is called MMT. It’s a magnesium compound. On October 27 of 1978, this additive was outlawed by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). It was ruining catalytic converters that cost up to $300 to put on a car. The EPA was putting catalytic converters on your car to reduce emissions, and the magnesium compound in unleaded gas was ruining the catalytic converters . . . a washout. But if you put one gallon of alcohol in with the nine gallons of gasoline, you can eliminate the need for all of these additives in the full 10 gallons.

Isn’t there a tax incentive that also helps gasohol compete in the marketplace?

Yes . . . in order to motivate the alcohol industry and the farm industry to get into the production of these new forms of energy, gasohol was made exempt from the 4 cents-per-gallon federal gas tax on January 1 1978. This means that the service stations selling 70 cent gasohol will not have to pay the 4 cents to the federal government. The stations can take that additional 4 cents per gallon — on 10 gallons that’s 40 cents — and use the money to buy alcohol to make more gasohol.

Then gasohol is actually a farmer’s premium solar fuel?

Yes, alcohol actually is a solar fuel. Corn takes carbon dioxide and water out of the air. With the help of a few soil nutrients, this plant produces alcohol fuel that can be put in your automobiles or power equipment and burned.

What happens in the combustion process?

What happens? You go from carbon dioxide and water to alcohol, and let it burn. As the fuel combusts, it again becomes water and carbon dioxide. So you’re not putting any more carbon dioxide into the air than you took out. The interesting thing about the fossil fuel system is that when all the fossil fuels were put into storage down under the ground as coal, oil, or whatever, all these carbons were compressed and stored and put away. This apparently cleaned up our atmosphere and established the balance we had until recently.

So when we bring these fossil fuels out of the ground and burn them, we’re adding carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide to the air by the millions of tons. And there’s no way to put these gases back in the ground. But when you use the solar energy called ethanol, you take it out of the air as CO2 and water this year (as a crop) and put it back in the air as CO2 and water again the following year (when you burn it as a fuel). So you haven’t unbalanced the environment. This is something that the fossil fuel people cannot claim.

What about the food argument some folks make?

We have heard people ask, “How in the world can you talk about taking high-quality food products and making fuel out of them?” Well, I’d say that we have a historical precedent: From 1924 to 1940, soybean production in the United States went from virtually nothing to four million acres. And soybeans were primarily used as cattle feed and as a substitute for alfalfa . . . in other words, for protein. In the 1930’s, folks discovered that they could crush soybeans to produce oil and meal. We suddenly had three products to work with. The oil itself — the liquid portion — was available for food, for feed, and for commercial and industrial products. The livestock feeding industry has the meal to work with. When you increase livestock production, you also increase food energy supply. Therefore, when we learned how to crush soybeans and had three products to work with — the bean, the liquid portion, and the meal — the consequence was that soybean acreage increased from the 1940 level of four million acres to the 1978 level of 60 million acres.

We’re feeding millions more people because of that one simple act of crushing the soybean. We’re at the same juncture In terms of the starch and sugar industries. We all know that we have excess starch and excess sugar, so we’re going to do the same thing with starch and sugar that we did with soybeans. We are — in effect — going to smash the surplus grain, get the liquid portion, and end up with three materials to work with. This is going to give commerce and industry and the food-and-feed chain an opportunity to feed millions more people in the world, because we’ve learned how to take these products apart and make separate forms of energy out of them.

This line of thinking puts agriculture as an energy system in an excellent light!

When I testified in Washington on December 6, 1978 before the Alcohol Review Panel Committee, I said there that agriculture is actually the only energy production system we have in operation. And the people on the panel kind of sat back, and some of the guys started making notes. I stated that the fossil fuel people merely harvest deposits that were put into the ground millions of years ago. They harvest them … process them … and then they sell them to society. Agriculture, on the other hand, produces new energy . . . harvests, processes, and sells it to society. The farming industry is really the only energy production system that we have! Whenever you process a bushel of corn, wheat, rye, barley, or whatever . . . it converts into three separate products on about a 1:3 ratio. You’ve got a 56-pound bushel of corn, for instance: One-third becomes alcohol, one-third becomes CO2 , and one-third remains after taking out the carbohydrates (your starches and sugars). Almost everything that was in the original bushel of corn is still there in the last 18 pounds. You’ve got all the oils, enzymes, and minerals … all the goodies that we need for food and feed purposes.

What uses could a good farmer’s alcohol system make of the CO2?

That bothered me for sometime. When you convert a bushel of corn into energy products through the alcohol process, you lose the CO2 . You have so much of it — and it is so freely given off — that most of it is allowed to escape into the air. If you look at a bushel of corn and say it is worth $2.40, and you’re going to break it up into three values, you’d have 80 cents for each one. So when you lose the CO2 , that 80 cents which should have been “earned” by useful CO2 has to be picked up in the products that are sold as alcohol or meal. My challenge to the engineering companies is this: Find us a use for C02 in large quantities … so that we can recapture that lost 80 cents.

Have you gotten any answers yet?

There are some very interesting uses. The food industry extends the shelf life of peanuts, brown rice, and so forth by exhausting the air out of the bag and recharging it with C02 . Within 24 hours, that bag is puffed up a little bit, and, in another day, the bag sort of collapses because the CO2 is penetrating the seed.

Does CO2 hurt the food or the individual eating the food?

Every time you drink a bottle of soda pop or beer, you’re drinking CO2 . . . the bubbles. It’s in lots of products. CO2 will not hurt you at all unless you try breathing it exclusively.

Has the commission investigated optimum alcohol plant sizes?

Fully 60 percent of the cost of operating an alcohol plant is accounted for by the purchase and transportation of raw materials. So alcohol plants should be sized in accordance with — and located as near as possible to — the supply of such raw materials.

If you look at the grain-gathering, the sugar-gathering, or the starch-gathering systems, the smallest point of collection is on the farm itself: your own grain bin. If you’re going to have an alcohol plant related to that storage point, you should, of course, design a farm-sized alcohol plant.

The next largest size would serve the local elevator. If you’ve got an elevator that handles six million bushels of corn per year — or wheat — you’ll need an alcohol plant that can handle that much grain. It should be sized to match the availability of excess raw materials at the plant’s location. Then we have what we call sub terminal elevators — the ones that load the trains for export — and there you can have another alcohol plant . . . a bigger one, because there’s a larger quantity of raw materials passing the front door.

And, of course, your final plant size will be related to the national points of export. Maybe, when grain hits that port, we can find out whether the nations we trade with need alcohol energy or feed energy or food energy. . . and ship accordingly.

Let’s say we’re going to send three boatloads of corn to North Africa, but they don’t need the starch. In such a case, why not extract the starch first — as alcohol energy or as fuel energy — and send the North Africans one boatload of high-protein corn or meal. Send them what they want. Repackage their energy into a smaller bundle. A 56-pound bushel of corn becomes an 18-pound package of high-protein meal. You’ve cut out two-thirds of the shipping cost, energy cost, transfer fees, labor . . . everything all the way down the line. And the United States will become the most competitive — the most penetrating agricultural food producing and processing system on earth! Some hungry people throughout the world can’t get our food, because they can’t even pay the freight. If we can cut out two-thirds of the shipping cost, however, maybe we can afford to take nutrition to where people really need it.

Here at home, we have that renewable resource issue, and that 4 cent gasoline tax exemption. How does gasohol qualify for it?

In order to qualify for the 4 cents-a-gallon federal gas tax exemption, gasohol must be made using alcohol from renewable resources. So it has to come from agricultural or forestry products. It was really a heartening thing to see that 4 cents-a-gallon federal tax exemption go through, especially when the coal companies tried to get methanol qualified. Out in California — and in a lot of other places — gasohol will use methanol, but it has to come from forestry products or renewable resources. In effect, this tax exemption puts agriculture and the forestry people — the renewable energy people — into business. 

There is an article in the January/February 1979 issue of  MOTHER EARTH NEWS that is about a certain professor in Minnesota who says he can make five gallons of alcohol out of a bushel of corn, and he has high protein meal that still equals the price of his bushel of corn. He comes up with a 140-proof material that can burn directly in an engine. Can you comment?

He might be a little bit high on this five-gallon bit. At 140 proof, you’re talking 30 percent water. Now there’s nothing wrong with 30 percent water in the alcohol if you’re going to burn it in an engine or use it for heating a home. You can burn 140 proof alcohol in a vehicle as long as you don’t burn gasoline with it. You can burn 170 proof alcohol as an additive in the carburetor if you’re burning gasoline and if you have a method of injecting alcohol directly into the carburetor without going through the gasoline tank. You can put it in a power booster. Whenever you press down on the throttle, you bring in the extra power. But — to mix it with gasoline you’re supposed to add anhydrous alcohol: ethanol with no water in it. So if we furnish a high quality product, it will be anhydrous alcohol. The average farmer if he could produce it on his own farm would turn out alcohol at 185 to 195 proof. But that last 2 and a half to 5 percent of the water must be removed if we’re going to have a reliable product that is always quality guaranteed.

Have you done any work on the possibility of solar energy kicking in and reducing that exchange equation in the distillation process?

Three people are working on a process. They claim that there is great potential in this area . . . depending on the part of the country involved. I’m not going to swear to that, but on the farm this is one thing you’ve got to consider.

On the other hand, if the engineering companies are right, they’ve got heat requirements down to 80,000 Btu’s of input heat per bushel of product to be converted. When you harvest a bushel of corn, it weighs 70 pounds. After you shell it, the kernels weigh 56 pounds . . . which means you’ve got 14 pounds of waste. Those cobs contain 6,500 Btu’s per pound, so — if you use the “cores” to fire your alcohol plant — they’ll produce 91,000 Btu’s. Burning the cobs alone will produce enough energy to distill the alcohol from the grain that they once carried!

 Agriculture And Energy Are One And The Same

The United States needs an energy policy based on principle. As the world’s largest consumer of “power” and producer of agricultural energy products, we have the most to gain or lose by faulty fuel and agricultural policies. Benjamin Franklin has been quoted as saying, “Whenever government passes a law in violation of a basic principle, it must soon pass other laws to cover up the first mistake.”

The first principle of energy is to identify the two current energy supplies . . . our renewable and our non-renewable sources. The non-renewable or fossilized energies — such as coal, oil, and natural gas — should be considered the stored reserves and treated as the cash savings of family, industry, and country. Such reserves are to be used only to the extent that they help create productive renewable energy systems. The continually renewed energies of sun, wind, vegetative conversion, and so forth are to be used to protect our fossil reserves.

The second principle of energy policy is to give political and economic advantage to the renewable energy production systems. Our self-perpetuating energies should be priced below non-renewable sources . . . to encourage their use over that of the fossil fuels.

Any law passed in violation of the above energy principles would be equivalent to violation of constitutional energy law, since such a law would infringe upon the energy rights of all future generations on this planet.

Annual vegetative matter production is the business of the American farmers and foresters. The American agricultural system has been misidentified as a food production system. It is in fact an “energy production system”, producing food energy for human consumption . . . and that excess production capacity — which we try to shutdown with government programs — should be used as a renewable energy production system for commerce and industry. American agriculture can produce tremendous quantities of liquid fuels … ethanol and methanol. An agricultural policy of converting excess production to fuels and chemicals should be this nation’s first priority to comply with the basic energy law.

Instead of set-aside acres programs, we need 100 percent production of agricultural energy products which can then be converted to their highest and best use. Instead of going to the federal treasury and tax payers to pay farmers not to produce energy products, we should make an investment in the tools of conversion to expand the agricultural renewable energy system.

Alcohol plants — converting starch, sugar, and cellulose to chemicals or liquid fuels — are the final step of the process that gives agriculture the opportunity to fill the total energy needs of the people. Ethanol will provide the basis for an agricultural program that doesn’t drain the treasury but makes economic deposits to it. In addition, such a program will reduce the deficit in our balance of foreign payments for imported energy products.

To institute a farm program of this nature with the least amount of disruption in our production system or economy, we need to price the agricultural products at the national markets high enough to give the farmers parity for their crops. With this portion of the farmers’ economic problem stabilized, we would then be able to divert their excess production to the energy conversion program.

Under a 20 percent diversion program, a farmer delivers 80 percent of his corn to the local elevator and gets the full economic parity value per bushel. The 20 percent excess production would be diverted into the energy conversion plants.

To best serve the agricultural system, such plants should be farmer-owned. The equity created by loan repayment would be converted to shares of ownership prorated to each farmer according to the amount of product he has delivered to the system. Once these plants were paid for, they could be used as a throttle to control excess food for feed production. We could have our national “reserves” in the form of high-protein meals or grains for emergency overseas shipment … we could have control over our food supplies … we could eliminate depressed prices … and we would have our farm operations tuned to the national/international multipurpose energy needs.

It would be better if national growers’ associations could determine the amount of produce that is in excess of distribution for food needs. The producers’ association board would decide the percentage of excess produce in need of conversion, the current price per bushel, the needs of national export and/or the food reserve, and so forth. The farmers would hold the reserves for human and alternative energies distribution. When these products were diverted into the conversion program, the farmer would retain part or full ownership of his produce until it progressed completely through the conversion program. He would receive his final profit after the sale of the end products.

This type of program, again, would not have to be taxpayer supported. As in the past, some farmers may say, “I don’t want anything to do with a set aside, conversion, or diversion program.” Farmers who talk this way have the misconception that their independence is more important than their business survival. We, the older generation of farmers, must grow our replacements … the new, young, energetic, capable farmers to take over our agri-system. If we destroy this system, through our ignorance or that of our economic advisors and legislators . . . then we are the fools. We would be the ones forcing the next generation of farmers into the same system that has already caused us so many problems.

It is only by means of a strong agricultural base that we are going to be able to solve the distribution problems in the food, feed, and energy chains of the world. We cannot cure such ills by destroying the agricultural systems through economic cycles that destroy the producers.  — Bob Soleta.