Gas Ain't Forever


It's clear from the parking lots around the state capitol that the legislative session is a busy time for the building. During the session, those parking lots, empty for most of the year, suddenly fill with a wide assortment of vehicles from all across the state, be it a sleek BMW from an upscale suburb or a beat down 1980s Pontiac that the visiting legislator just hasn't got the heart to junk.

A curious addition to the vehicles in the parking this year included a black and yellow 2007 Chevy Avalanche, looking very much like an awkward grasshopper. This is the GM flex-fuel vehicle, otherwise known as "the corn truck," a product of the national Governors' Ethanol Coalition, begun in 1991.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman formed the coalition with the altruistic goals of increasing the use of ethanol-based fuels, decreasing the nation's dependence on imported energy resources, improving the environment and stimulating the national economy. Thirty-six states and several countries have signed onto the initiative, and Gov. Haley Barbour joined the coalition in 2006. One result of signing onto the initiative was a new set of ethanol-burning wheels that the Mississippi Technology Alliance Strategic Biomass Initiative (SBI) gets to drive around for a year. The truck is not the end result of the deal—but it is a hopeful glimpse of what could come.

SBI is an independent non-profit that invests in ethanol and other alternative fuel development in five state universities, including Jackson State University, Mississippi State University and Delta State. SBI plans to invest about $3 million this year. SBI Director Sumesh Arora said the investment is long overdue, with the future of the nation eventually hinging on whether or not we find a viable alternative to petroleum-based fuels.

"The energy supply in the country needs to be diversified," Arora said. "We may not necessarily be running out of oil tomorrow, though Saudi Arabia oil probably is on a decline… but the urgency is to diversify. You don't begin investing in your retirement fund at the age of 65."

Ethanol production is a young technology in terms of mass production, and poses some serious cost challenges if the process is to eventually supplant or even just mitigate the use of gasoline. The most common source of ethanol in America is corn, and at the moment it costs more to plant, fertilize and process corn into ethanol than it currently costs to pull a gallon of black flammable goop up out of the ground. Today this holds true even if gasoline skips up past the $4 price tag.

Production of energy requires energy. It takes fuel to get the corn trucks to the factory, fuel to run the machinery, even fuel to grow the corn. If it costs more than a liter of fuel to produce your own liter of gas, then the Energy Return on Investment is less than one—and what you've produced is nothing more than an energy sink.

The Natural Resources Defense Council and Climate Solutions 2006 report, "Ethanol: Energy Well Spent," suggests that the energy return on investment for corn ethanol was slightly higher than what it took to produce it, a rate hovering between 1.29 to 1.65 per every liter required to produce it. The same report reveals that the renewable returns in the production process of cellulosic ethanol (ethanol made from wood, switchgrass or biomass sources rather than just seeds) is potentially higher, with the payoff ranging between 4.4 to 6.61 liters per liter of fuel required to produce it.

The problem with those numbers, however, is that they haven't been realized. The process of using acids or enzymes to break down plant and animal matter into sugar will need plenty more investment and technology refinement before we can get to those enviable figures.

Mascoma Corp., a new fuels technology developer in Cambridge, Mass., recently won a $20 million contract from the state of New York to build a cellulosic-ethanol demonstration facility, but even Mascoma can't brag about the payoff of ethanol production this early. Peter Rothstein, Mascoma public relations consultant, points out that the "cost per BTU equivalent to oil at about $14/barrel," boasted about on the company's Web site is only a piece of the story.

"That number specifically is talking about the cost of the source of energy," Rothstein said. "That sentence is just a comparison to how inexpensive the biomass is compared to corn, not the cost to produce the ethanol from the biomass, and that's really what the challenge is all about."

Still, Arora believes that if ethanol is ever to truly take off, it will most likely involve the problematic process of cellulosic ethanol, if only because the nation's fuel needs far outstretch any amount of corn the nation can grow.

"Cellulosic ethanol has great potential, but we need a capital outlet," Arora said. If you think of any new technology that comes onto the scene, it's very expensive. CD players were once $1,000. We've come a long way to where you can buy one now for $20, but if we don't get the investment to get these new technologies really started, we'll never reach the cost reductions that we hope to."

Previous Comments


Didn't I just read that ethanol produces far more smog and toxic air than gas? I'll have to try to find the study. Didn't look promising for ethanol.



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