DuPont Recruits 500 Farmers for Non-Food Biofuel Project
Next year DuPont plans to complete one of the first and biggest commercial-scale cellulosic biorefineries in the world, which will make biofuel from corn stalks and leaves at this Nevada, Iowa construction site. (Source: DuPont)
Ann, don't get me wrong, but I still have to wonder about the economics of this. After one of your previous articles I was down on a farm here in Illinois. I asked the fatmer about it. He had significant corn stubble left in his fields. He was aware of the opportunity, but pointed out that he would have to bundle the stalks for them to be used. The indication was that it was not worth the cost. Costs include fuel, equipment wear and farmer time (and wear).
Getting the most from a raw material is very attractive from a social and environmental point of view. The problem comes in the economics. There was a recent article I saw about ethanol producers trying to get more out of the corn by developing secondary products. One was a protien that could be used to make plastics. So, even using the "leftovers" from a process, it turns out that it is cheaper to petroleum based products for the same purpose. These are the kind of engineering trade studies I have seen in a myriad of businesses.
It may take tax and environmental policies to tip the scales.
I am sure your cost argument is valid but I wonder how much of that argument comes from a culture that is entrenched in how things have always been done and doesn't want to branch out and make the effort to do something new with the waste. I suppose it will take efforts like DuPont's (which I applaud, by the way) to see how this can be both environmentally and financially sound for all parties involved. Maybe you're right and it's policy that will change things and support this so it benefits the farmers as well.
Lou, the feedback--granted, given by DuPont and participating farmers--is that it costs them to have the stover hauled away. Presumably, they'd have to bundle it for that, too, so having DuPont pay them for it was worth the cost. There's also the cost of diseases and pests the un-removed stover harbors to be factored in. Perhaps whether it's financially worth it depends on the size of the farm, and of the crop. The farmers are being recruited from those in a radius of 30 miles, though, and 500 in that area sounds like a lot to me.
I think Elizabeth's point is well taken. The examples Lou gives are of failures, not successes. And there have been successes. In addition, I learned growing up next to Silicon Valley that, if you've got enough time, money and innovation you can solve almost any technical problem and make it financially worthwhile to do so. But you have to be motivated, and innovative enough to figure out the best way to make it work. From what I can see, DuPont has all of those going for it.
As usual, well put, Ann. Motivation is probably one of the biggest factors, here. If someone wants to do something enough, they will find a way to do it cost-effectively, excuses be damned. I do hope this effort has legs.
I grew up on a farm in IL. My father raised quite a bit of corn. We never disposed of corn stalks. Cattle will eat some of them and the rest can easily be mulched and used to fortify the soil as well as protect it from erosion. I don't understand where the issue of disposing of corn residue is coming from. If there is enough profit from harvesting corn stalks as a product to cover the production costs and additional cost for fertilizer to replace the removed stalks, then DePont's biofuel project may be viable. I seriously doubt it, though. The cost for fuel and fertilizer are significant.
The push to produce ethanol from non-food crops may very well be a waste of time. If the US is serious about producing ethanol as a renewable fuel, then we will use farm land to grow fuel crops. Using corn as a fuel crop makes sense. Not only can it be used to make fuel, it can be used for food. Wherever the demand is highest. Plus, the fermented corn mash waste can be used as a food component for pigs. We should not be concerned about corn being used for producing fuel. We should be concerned about using food producing land to grow fuel-only crops. Using food-crop residue makes sense, but only if it's cost effective. The push to stop using food-crops to make ethanol is a reaction to higher corn prices, which are the result of higher demand for corn. Plain and simple. As corn prices increase, so will corn production to the point where the price drops. We have thousands of acres of farm land enrolled in the Federal Feed-Grain program, which pays farmers to NOT produce grain on that land. If food production ever becomes an issue, that farm land can be put back into production. The reason farmers opt-in for the Feed-Grain program is because it makes economic sense. The Feed-Grain program was created to reduce grain production and support higher grain prices. If grain prices are getting too high, then that program is no longer needed.
NiteOwl, many different people and countries completely disagree with growing food crops for making ethanol, or with growing non-food crops to make biofuel on land that could be used for growing food, whether that's here in the US or elsewhere. The economy is now global, and much of the rest of the world is simply not as well off as the US, so what may make economic "sense" here for a small minority does not make that sense for the rest, or even when considering that small minority in context. The literature is vast and the regulations are many. We have covered the subject briefly here: http://www.designnews.com/author.asp?section_id=1392&doc_id=253371
There is a fundamental problem with using corn (grain) to make alcohol fuel. The total fossil fuel energy required to produce the corn and make it into ehtnaol is greater that the calorific value of the alcohol. Thus it is both an environmental and a thermodynamic loser. See "Thermodynamics of the Corn Ethanol Cycle" from U. of Calif. Cellulose as a feedstock at least theoretically overcomes this problem.
Also, since photosynthesis converts <1% of solar energy into plant-based enthalpy, it compares very poorly with photovoltaic efficiencies which run about 15%. Thus if you have a field and want to use it as an energy source, PV is a much better choice. Of course the product will be electricity, rather than a liquid fuel.
Please note that I have no objection to corn alcohol as a fuel, so long as I burn it in the Krebs cycle rather than the Otto cycle. (just kidding)
The economy is global, yes, but I believe your post was concerning ethanol production in the US using crop waste. I doubt the US will ever be able to compete as an exporter of ethanol, so any ethanol we produce will likely be used domestically. Whether other countries agree or disagree with food-crop based bio fuels produced and consumed in the US is largely irrelevant. In regards to the post you referenced, the EC wants a "magic" fuel that costs little to produce, doesn't impact food production and doesn't emit significant greenhouse gases. The only thing that comes close is hydrogen. All bio fuels will emit greenhouse gases when used. Alcohols contain less stored energy than gasoline or diesel, so when compared on a gallon to gallon basis, we will consume significantly more ethanol than the fossil fuels it replaces and it is likely that switching from gasoline to ethanol will result in a higher production of greenhouse gases. Bio fuels are not the answer to the question of how to reduce greenhouse gases. They are just renewable alternatives to fossil fuels. The EC's efforts to encourage the development of bio fuels that significantly reduce greenhouse gases is a waste of time. Development of hydrogen as a fuel source is the best we can do for now.
Not as "well off" as the US?!! Considering our monumental and ever growing national debt? Nobody is worse off than we are. We're just kidding ourselves if we think otherwise.
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