Wednesday, April 2, 2008

Finally, some sensible alternatives to corn for fuel

Lately I have been becoming uneasy over the push to add Ethanol made from corn into our nations fuel supply. On the surface it sounds great, reduce our need for foreign oil by using a natural and renewable resource and one day we can kiss these foreign oil companies goodbye once and for all and bring our troops back home.

The trouble is, while corn is renewable, it is also edible and a key ingredient in almost every food item we purchase today either directly or indirectly. Have you noticed how food prices continue to rise lately? Well imagine what they will be like when the very same corn we grow for food (ok, it may be a different quality, but the land use is the same) for human consumption or to feed the animals we raise to eat as well as our pets (yep, take a look at the ingredients, it is usually one of the first in the list) is also a key ingredient used to run our cars. Not only will it mean higher food and fuel prices, but as our need for fuel increases along with our population, it will mean clearing more land for crops.

If you, like me, hate to see us destroy land for oil or coal then it should be just as bad to see it clear cut for the production of Ethanol.

Ok, enough of that. On to some of the new alternatives that are showing some real promise.

One item I ran across today uses bacteria to break down waste products that would otherwise go to the landfill. The University of Maryland research has found that the bacterium S. degradans has an enzyme that breaks the waste down into sugar that can then be turned into fuel.

Researchers say the process, known as the Zymetis process can produce as much as 75 billion gallons of gasoline a year once fully operational. The great thing is no food crops need to be used and waste products that are destined for the landfill can instead be diverted for use to fuel transportation which is a major backbone of our economy. A win win.

The next item is something I have been reading about off and on the past year or so, but there is a new twist that looks like this can come mainstream relatively soon now. Algae, the funky stuff we have all seen growing on ponds has been studied for many years because of the fact that up to 50% of its mass is made up of oil.

The main sticking point to making this a success has been the ability to grow large quantities of it. While algae itself grows very fast, it requires vast amounts of surface space to produce it in large quantities. Enter Glen Kertz, president and CEO of Valcent Products. His patented system named Vertigro, takes algae farming to a new level, literally.

Instead of growing algae on the surface of ponds, he filters it through clear, hanging plastic bags that create as much surface as he needs. They claim they can produce 100,000 gallons of oil per year per acre compared to the 30 gallons you can get from an acre of corn.

So, can anyone out there tell me why our gov't is throwing so much support behind corn Ethanol? The pessimist in me says coal and oil is behind it because eventually people will begin complaining about high food and fuel prices and call for and end to corn Ethanol. But I could be wrong.

The good thing is, there are some very smart people out there dedicated to solving some serious problems and advances such as these can only be held back so long.

Photography by Yvonne Stepanow

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