Ethanol Is a Disaster, But What About Other Biofuels?

In the midst of corn ethanol's failing, researchers may have found a new hope for biofuel -- just in time.

A recent television ad features an animated corn stalk saying in a nasally, child-like voice: "Ethanol decreases carbon emission by a lot -- that's good for the environment and the air we breathe. Hey, if those Indy race cars are usin' it, there must be somethin' to it! Ethanol: good for your car, the environment and America!" The ethanol industry seems to have a lot to brag about these days: Corn, one of the U.S.' largest commodities, is a staple food for many countries and has been a hope for many wishing to relieve America's dependence on foreign oil with "green" biofuel.

The National Corn Growers Association calls corn-based ethanol the "greatest success story in modern agriculture." And why would they not be likely to make such a claim? With all the hype that corn ethanol is receiving from the media and politicians, ethanol seems to promise a panacea for many of the important issues our nation (and world) is facing. Ethanol enthusiasts boast that farming corn will provide thousands of jobs, will allow America to gain energy independence and decrease carbon emissions.

But recently critics have argued that corn ethanol's "green" image is only a façade and the conviction that it can alleviate our energy problem is a false hope, blown out of proportion by the media and America's eager desire for a cure-all. The idea that a single resource -- and moreover, one we have a surplus of -- could single-handedly fix the economy, our dependence on foreign oil and global warming itself is an alluring, but elusive, promise.

The problem is finding a more accessible, economical and sustainable solution to corn. The potential for cellulosic biofuel has been acknowledged for years, but there hasn't been enough funding available to develop it because too much energy has been directed at promoting the corn craze. Cellulosic (nonfood) forms of ethanol such as perennial grasses and woodchips emit two to three times less carbon than corn ethanol. Now we just need to redirect or focus. 

It might lessen our environmental guilt to say we're using "green" biofuel (life fuel!). But the reality is the end product of corn ethanol releases only slightly less carbon than gasoline (less than two percent) and consequences such as soil erosion and increased food price are drastic. But at least our intention is good: America has -- finally -- reached a consensus that we are in an energy and environmental crisis, which is undoubtedly a giant step in the right direction after years of denial.

Unfortunately, we're discovering that dramatic inflation of corn production is having numerous negative effects on the environment. The monoculture corn is cultivated in requires immense amounts of herbicides, fungicides, pesticides and petrochemicals. And the fertilizers used contain high levels of nitrogen, contributing to mass soil erosion and "dead zones," such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico. Here, the Mississippi River dumps so much agricultural waste into The Gulf that the concentration of nitrogen restricts oxygen levels in the water so nothing can live there. This particular dead zone is expanding beyond the size of New Jersey and more are popping up where there's excessive agricultural runoff.

Aside from the destruction nitrogen causes soil, many experts are concerned that using corn for ethanol instead of food will perpetuate our world's hunger problem. Using farmable land to feed our energy-hungry nation rather than hungry people is not in anyone's interest. Vic Smith, a biologist at the Naturalist Center of the California Academy of Sciences and environmental science instructor at College of Marin in Northern California, says, "It is a legitimate concern to worry about the possibility of increased food shortages, higher food prices and increased world hunger if the world's focus is to concentrate on creating energy from edible biomass [food]."

The U.S. supplies approximately 70 percent of the world's corn, so in 2005 when America began using most of its corn crops for ethanol production, other countries experienced dramatic price increases for an essential staple food. We saw a sobering example of this in Mexico in late 2006: Mexico receives 80 percent of its corn imports from the U.S., so when corn prices went from $2.80 to $4.20 a bushel because more U.S. corn was being used for ethanol, the price of the tortilla doubled. The increase drastically affected the 53 million people living in poverty in Mexico. In a dramatic response, riots broke out and President Felipe Calderon put a cap on corn prices. Though this is likely to be the most dramatic example we've seen of increased corn prices affecting the food market, it's probably not the last: The International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) has projected that global corn prices could rise 20 percent by 2010 and 41 percent by 2020.

Although the extent of corn ethanol's affect on the global food market is still being debated, one thing is known for sure: The price of fuel directly affects the cost of ethanol. Because producing corn ethanol requires fuel (mainly gas and coal), the costs are linked so when the price of gas increases, so does the cost of producing ethanol. This doesn't make for an economically sustainable fuel alternative.

Since corn ethanol cannot yet be transported via tubing systems like gasoline can (because it's less dense than gasoline), it requires trucks, railroads or barges for distribution -- using yet more fuel and emitting more greenhouse gases. All things considered, the net energy balance of harvesting, transporting and converting corn into ethanol is less than two percent -- barely making it more "environmentally friendly."

Fuel, no matter the kind, requires consumption of resources and energy in order to be produced. The costs of harvesting and transporting any kind of material and converting it into a viable product will inevitably affect some parts of ecology, society and the economy.

The problem now is finding the most accessible, economical and sustainable solution we have -- and it's not corn. The U.S. Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030, carbon emissions per capita will decrease by five percent due to the increased use of biofuel. However, despite our using 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol, energy-related carbon emissions in the U.S. will still increase by 16 percent. This is mainly because they're factoring in the U.S.'s plans to increase the use of coal by 49 percent, making us the world's largest coal emitters second to China. It simply does not make sense to use a resource that possesses the highest carbon content (coal) to produce a so-called "green" biofuel. This is why some researchers are looking at the possibilities of cellulosic ethanol -- biofuel derived solely from nonfood plants like perennial grasses and algae.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently estimated that 1.3 billion tons of cellulosic ethanol has the potential to replace over half of the transportation fuel burned each year -- emitting 40 percent less greenhouse gases than corn ethanol when used in a flexible fuel vehicle.

Cellulosic biofuel is something that has held this sort of promise for a long time, but has only been actualized in a handful of small operations around the U.S. However, Cornell University is in the final stages of developing its new Cellulosic Biofuels Program. The laboratory was initiated by a $10 million grant from the Empire State Development Corporation and is set to open in January 2009.

Tucked in the hills of Ithaca, N.Y., next to the Cornell dairy barn, is the site of the 11,500-square-foot biofuel facility. Larry Walker, a professor of biological and environmental engineering, directs the Biofuels Research Laboratory. With $6 million of brand new state-of-the-art equipment, Walker and his multidisciplinary team are preparing to research the development of converting cellulosic materials (mainly perennial grasses and woody biomass in this case) into biofuel that is more economically feasible and environmentally friendly than corn ethanol.

"We're not hung up on [only] cellulosic material," Walker explained. But you do get a "better carbon footprint with perennial grasses than with corn. Nitrogen usage is less and water usage is less." He pointed out that, "when you work with cellulosic materials you get two sugars instead of one," making the biofuel more efficient. Cellulosic ethanol emits 82 to 85 percent fewer greenhouse gases than gasoline (compared to 12 percent fewer with corn ethanol). It also doesn't harm the soil or interfere with the food market as much as corn does.

One of the main challenges in maintaining a successful program, Walker said, is going to be finding ways to develop biofuel in an economic and sustainable way and also to find additional funding. Another barrier he points out is, "being able to produce this material, handle it, store it -- to make it available throughout the year. . . [and] cellusloic material is not very dense, which makes it harder [than corn ethanol] to transport."

According to Walker, "What we tend to do is distill the challenges down into a few sound bites, when we really need to look at the complete system ... It's not enough to look at the individual components. Bioenergy systems are complex enterprises." This is why monoculture systems (such as he current corn production system) are shortsighted: Monoculture takes one material that is considered economical and sustainable and hyper-focuses on cultivating that one resource, leaving all other potentials out of the picture. This is why it's important to expand our vision to encompass a more diverse system for our fuel problem. By diversifying production inputs for biofuel, we can expand production of alternative fuels while diffusing detrimental effects on the environment and the economy.

Walker recognizes that Cornell's new program alone cannot solve the problem of finding accessible and sustainable biofuel: "I can make ethanol out of newspapers, apples -- a lot of different things. But the bottom line is: Is it economically and environmentally sustainable?" Developing biofuels and making it a successful reality is going to take more than just one system. Walker believes that, "science, engineering and good policy is going to allow us to develop renewable energy systems broadly that will help us sustain human development." When weighing out the many options we have to use for biofuel, maybe we'll finally see that the grass really is "greener."