The age of oil is ending. Even if we could afford to borrow more than $1 billion per day indefinitely to import oil, we just can't afford the cost of our oil addiction in terms of national security dangers, environmental damage, and economic losses. Biofuels are among a small handful of petroleum alternatives that can simultaneously provide enhanced national security, environmental improvements, and opportunities for broad-based economic growth.

Unfortunately, many myths and misconceptions exist about biofuels. I will deal with some of the myths about ethanol, by far the dominant current biofuel.

Ethanol Production Background

All fuel (and sippin') ethanol is the same. It is made by fermentation of sugars. The sugars can come from sugar cane (Brazil) or from corn grain (U.S.).

"Second-generation" (cellulosic) ethanol will be produced from the sugars in plant cell walls. It can be made from virtually anything derived from a plant, including wood chips, urban waste, straw, crop wastes, hay and yard trimmings, etc.  We can even grow "energy crops," such as trees (willow and poplar are promising species) and highly productive grasses such as switch grass and Miscanthus, for energy content and ethanol conversion.

Maybe a more picturesque and accurate name for cellulosic ethanol is "grassoline." Got the image in your mind? Your lawn clippings turned into fuel for your car? Yes, that's right.

Now let's deal with the four myths.

Myth #1: People are Going to Go Hungry

The idea of turning corn into ethanol conjures up visions of cars taking grain out of hungry people's mouths. Actually, well over 70 percent of the grain we grow is used to feed animals, not people. We really don't "grow food." We grow animal feed instead, and then we eat the meat, milk, eggs, cheese, etc. the animals produce.

We have about 800 million acres of cropland and animal pasture in this country, about 500 million of which produce animal feed, not food consumed directly by human beings. If you want to increase grain supplies (and decrease grain prices, thereby putting a lot of poor Third World farmers out of business), then become a strict vegetarian.

This issue of "food versus fuel" requires facts and logic, not emotionalism. A $3 box of corn flakes has about 5 cents worth of corn. Increased corn prices affect the cost of a few things at the store, but the cost of fuel to move all those groceries around affects the price of literally everything. Converting some surplus grain into ethanol will help hold down food prices. Actually, the use of corn to make ethanol is self-limiting. Increased demand for corn will cause prices to rise to the point where it will no longer be economical to produce ethanol from corn.

Increased ethanol production and the accompanying increase in corn prices from about $2.20 per bushel a few years ago to around $3.50 or so per bushel in 2008 was good. First, many of our rural communities near ethanol plants enjoyed a prosperity they had not seen in a long time. Second, many poor farmers around the world were able to get more money for their products, and thus provide better for their families.

Cheap, tax-subsidized U.S. grain has long been a key factor undermining agricultural societies around the world. The U.S. taxpayer has also benefited. Most of the tax subsidies paid to corn farmers have disappeared with rising corn prices, saving the U.S. treasury over $7 billion a year.


Myth #2: There Isn't Enough Land to Make Lots of Ethanol

We can probably make about 15 billion gallons per year of ethanol from corn, which is about 10 percent of our annual gasoline consumption, before we reach its limits. The Brazilians can probably make a similar amount from sugar cane. While that doesn't fundamentally change our dependence on imported oil, it is still a lot of fuel that we are not paying other nations, many of them hostile, to produce for us.

Jim Woosley, former director of the CIA, has pointed out that the twin pillars of international terrorism are the illegal drug and oil trades. Woosley also correctly stated the war on terror is the only war we have paid for both sides - taxes on our side and our oil imports on theirs.

Nonetheless, it is simply true that there is not enough corn or sugar in the world to replace more than a small fraction of our total oil needs. But the situation is much different for grassoline.

The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy issued a 2008 report indicating our country can sustainably produce about 1.3 billion tons of cellulosic materials (wood, grass, straw, etc.) per year - enough to make well over 100 billion gallons of ethanol. The energy content of this much cellulosic material is about equal to the energy content of 3.5 billion barrels of oil - the maximum amount of oil the U.S. ever produced before our domestic oil production peaked and began declining in the early 1970s.

Other highly qualified sources are even more positive about the potential of grassoline. Ceres, a leading plant biotechnology company, believes the average yields of energy grasses such as switch grass can increase three-fold to about 15 tons per acre per year in a relatively short time. The giant grass Miscanthus sinenis may even be more productive, with over 20 tons per acre per year. Given that corn yields have increased by over five-fold in the past 30 years or so, the increased grass yields envisioned by Ceres and others appear to be well within reach.

If we devote 100 million of our 800 million acres of land to grow grasses yielding 15 tons per acre, we can produce about 150 billion gallons of ethanol per year - roughly the same volume as our total gasoline consumption. Animal feeds will probably be co-produced with grassoline, further reducing the amount of land required. Reasonable scenarios have been proposed that envision no new land devoted to agriculture and that still replace all oil imports with domestically produced grassoline.

Grassoline, therefore, has the potential to be a very, very large business and land availability is simply not a limit to the growth of the industry.

[PAGEBREAK]Myth #3: It Takes More Energy to Make Ethanol than You Get Out of It

In some ways, this is the most irrelevant of all the myths surrounding ethanol. The "net energy" idea has been promoted by David Pimentel of Cornell University and his coworkers for over 25 years. He criticizes corn ethanol (and more recently cellulosic ethanol) as requiring more fossil energy to produce than these biofuels release when burned. Pimentel defines "net energy" as the fuel's heating value minus the sum of all the fossil energy (coal, natural gas, and petroleum) inputs required to produce the fuel.

Net energy is an irrelevant, almost silly concept because it lumps all forms of fossil energy together as if they were identical. Net energy treats a megajoule (MJ, a measure of energy content) of coal as equivalent to a MJ of petroleum or natural gas. This is obviously wrong; otherwise, we would not pay over five times as much for a MJ of petroleum as we do for a MJ of coal.

The silliness of the net energy idea is shown by a simple illustration. Grind up some coal and put it in your gas tank, then try driving. There is energy in the coal, but that energy is essentially useless to power your car. Still think all forms of energy are equally valuable? They are not, and thus "net energy" is fundamentally in error.

This error is compounded by Pimentel's failure to compare ethanol's net energy with the net energy of gasoline. The comparison is easily done. Science, one of the most prestigious of scientific journals, in 2007 published a graph comparing the amount of fossil energy (and other inputs) required to make 1 MJ of gasoline and 1 MJ of ethanol (from corn or cellulosics). From the Science analysis, ethanol's net energy is its energy value minus the sum of all the fossil energy inputs required to make ethanol. Based on 1 MJ of ethanol produced, net energy is calculated as 1.0 - (0.04 + 0.28 + 0.41) equals +27 percent. By comparison, gasoline's net energy is 1.0 - (1.1 + 0.03 + 0.05) equals -18 percent.

Gasoline's "net energy" is worse than ethanol's. Net energy is an irrelevant concept, but the comparison between ethanol and gasoline is very valuable.

We could have been saved much confusion and trouble if Pimentel had ever compared ethanol's net energy with the net energy of gasoline. Comparisons between our realistic alternatives are absolutely essential for good decision-making.

Science's data allow us to make another very important comparison: the amount of oil used to make gasoline versus the amount of oil required to make ethanol. Generating 1 MJ of gasoline requires 1.1 MJ of petroleum while only 0.04 MJ of petroleum is required to generate 1 MJ of ethanol from corn (according to Science magazine's analysis). The reduction in petroleum required per unit of fuel energy delivered to the customer is therefore (0.04-1.1)/1.0, which equals 106 percent.

For corn ethanol, this is like improving vehicle mileage per unit of petroleum consumed by or nearly 27-fold, effectively a 2,700-percent increase in vehicle miles traveled per gallon. So if your new car gets 30 mpg, on ethanol you are effectively getting (30 x 27) or 810 miles per gallon of oil used. Not bad mileage! We have no other alternative liquid fuel that so greatly increase miles per barrel of oil.

[PAGEBREAK]Myth #4: Ethanol Will Always Cost More than Gas

When corn is about $3.20 per bushel, ethanol can be produced from it at the energy equivalent cost of gasoline when oil is $65 per barrel (a gallon of ethanol has about 70 percent of the energy content of a gallon of gasoline). The cost of ethanol made from corn is likely to decrease somewhat over the next five years or so as production costs decrease and corn prices stabilize.

The Brazilians have successfully reduced the cost of ethanol made from sugar cane by a factor of three over the past few decades. On an energy equivalent basis, ethanol from sugar cane is now cheaper than gasoline.

Do you want to take any bets on where gas prices are going to go from here? Hint: we aren't finding oil as fast as we are burning it.

For gasoline, the prospects are even better. For commodity products, only two costs matter in the final selling price:

  • The raw material cost.
  • The cost of processing required to convert the raw material to products.

Cellulosic raw materials are so cheap, very low-cost ethanol can be made from them as the conversion technology matures and processing costs increase. Careful economic analyses, including analyses done at Michigan State University (MSU), indicate grassoline can eventually be produced for about 60 cents per gallon, or less than $1 per gallon of gasoline (energy-equivalent basis) using mature technology. Now this is something to give the oil dictators a bad night's sleep!

Two things must be done to drive down processing costs. First, we need to build some large-scale plants and "learn by doing." There are many cost reductions that can only occur in large-scale commercial practice. In February 2008, the U.S. Dept. of Energy announced it would partially support six large-scale cellulosic ethanol plants using different raw materials and different processing technology combinations. In July 2008, Mascoma Corp., a leading cellulosic ethanol firm, announced it would build its flagship plant in Michigan, without any federal support at all. Mascoma is bankrolled by several highly successful venture capital firms - yet another sign that grassoline is increasingly regarded as a viable emerging industry.

Second, laboratory research aimed at the most cost-sensitive areas of the system can also reduce ethanol production costs. Hundreds of millions will be spent in this area over the coming years. Michigan got another leg up in this emerging industry last June when MSU and the University of Wisconsin won a five-year, $125 million research project to develop improved cellulosic ethanol technologies and other advanced biofuels. MSU has some of its own advanced technologies in this research mix. Michigan is in a great position to pioneer biofuels as it pioneered in the auto industry.

We can't afford our oil addiction any longer. Cellulosic ethanol is an attractive, potentially low-cost alternative to petroleum fuels. Myths about ethanol are just that: myths. Grassoline will be in your tank sooner than you may think. 

This article appeared in MSUAlumni magazine, published by Michigan State University (MSU), and is reprinted with permission.