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After Oil — Fuel from the Farms?

Posted on June 16, 2000

By Walter Truett Anderson, Pacific News Service

Although the world’s petroleum supplies have turned out to be far greater than some pessimists believed a few decades ago, sooner or later oil will inevitably be either hard to get or outrageously expensive — or both.

The prospect of hundreds of thousands of new automobiles in developing countries such as China and India makes this all the more likely.

As the age of petroleum draws to its close, a whole range of new fuels and energy technologies are waiting in the wings. One is ethanol — good old familiar grain alcohol, but now produced, with the help of genetically-engineered bacteria, from a wide range of organic wastes, everything from cornfield leftovers to wood chips to grass.

A bunch of germs stewing in a vat full of compost material may not seem a particularly glamorous example of 21st-century high technology, yet some observers believe it could be one of the major breakthroughs of our time.

No less a technology-watcher, former CIA director James Woolsey wrote in a Wall Street Journal article a few years ago, “The production of ethyl alcohol from biomass may turn out to be as revolutionary as the production of integrated circuits from silicon, vastly affecting the world’s distribution of wealth and the fundamentals of international security.”

First, a simple comparison of energy content reveals that a dry ton of biomass crops — $40 is a reasonable current average cost — is comparable to oil at $10–13 a barrel.
— From Richard G Lugar and R James Woolsey Foreign Affairs article “The New Petroleum.”

Since then others have come to the same conclusion, and ethanol technology is currently being pushed strongly by scientists, agricultural organizations and the federal government.

This enthusiasm is partly based on the fact that there is a lot of biomass in the world, and a great deal of it is lignocellulose — straw, cornstalks, grass, wood — material that human beings can’t eat. Not a particularly efficient fuel in its natural state, and until recently could not be converted into alcohol.

The alcohol we use now is mainly produced from edible (and expensive) grains such as corn. Cornfields of the future might continue to produce corn for food, while some of the material called “stover” — stalks, cobs, husks — is returned to the field, and the rest of it is sent to a nearby “biorefinery” to be processed for fuel.

This has important implications, both global and domestic.

Global strategists such as Woolsey like to consider the political possibilities. He sees the United States becoming less concerned about offending the sensibilities of oil-producing states, the agricultural Ukraine becoming less dependent on oil from Russia, China feeling less pressure to dominate the oil-rich South China Sea, subsistence farmers in Africa and Latin America being paid to grow crops for fuel.

Agricultural economists are more interested in the potential for improving the lot of American farmers and farm regions. They see farmers producing new cash crops, perhaps becoming part owners of cooperative refineries, while rural communities are reinvigorated by new income and job opportunities. Biomass refineries will likely produce not only ethanol but probably a variety of chemicals for industrial use, and feedstocks for making textiles and plastics.

Unlike some other new alternative fuels and technologies being discussed and developed, ethanol can be phased in without enormous changes in cars or driving habits. Most cars are already able to burn “gasohol” — a gasoline-alcohol mix — containing up to ten percent ethanol, and newer flexible fuel vehicles can use up to 85 percent ethanol. Even pure ethanol-burners are a distinct possibility — millions already are rolling on the road in Brazil.

From an environmental point of view, ethanol is a mixed blessing.

Ethanol-powered vehicles are extremely clean-burning and put out less than one percent of the carbon dioxide emitted by gasoline-powered vehicles. They compare equally well to battery-powered vehicles which ultimately depend on electricity produced by burning fossil fuels.

Nevertheless, environmental activists can be expected to take a hard and skeptical look at anything involving a new application of biotechnology.

Considering the current momentum, it seems likely that ethanol will play a significantly larger role in the US economy in this decade, and a much larger one beyond that — depending on the speed of technological progress, governmental support and public acceptance, and the vagaries of the global oil market.

The transition will likely be not-too-noticeable for consumers, a big shift for US agriculture, and potentially an enormous change for the world in general. We may have ended the Cold War, but we are still mired in 20th-century petroleum politics. A competitive alternative to petroleum could, as an article in Foreign Affairs suggested not long ago, “democratize the world’s fuel market.”

Copyright © 2000, Pacific News Service. All rights reserved.