The Folly of Making Ethanol from Food Crops
The article looks at the failure of corn ethanol to become a petroleum substitute. Low energy yields of corn ethanol have resulted in huge demands for grains. A combination of high world market prices for petroleum and US subsidies for ethanol has spawned a worldwide food crisis. Instead of ethanol and corn, we must find biomass with exceptionally high energy content and must develop new techniques to grow high energy biomass in arid areas.
Why is it that stupid ideas find so many followers? European Governments, the US Federal Government, and an increasing number of US State Governments have issued legislation that requires the use of ethanol in cars.
Making ethanol from corn was promoted by the US agricultural lobby as the best approach for producing biofuels. None of the decision makers listened to the advice of scientists, who pointed out correctly, that the benefits of ethanol were minute. Ethanol is incapable of reducing consumption of petroleum-derived fuels and of reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Almost all of the food producing acreage in the US must be converted to growing corn before a sizeable reduction in foreign petroleum imports can be expected.
For the agricultural lobby the financial rewards of the ethanol craze have been spectacular. When future prices of corn began to escalate, more and more farmers decided to plant corn in favor of other crops like soybean and wheat. Predictably, food prices started soaring.
Now we must deal with the sorry political mess that the ethanol subsidy of the US Federal Government has left behind. Poor countries have been hit hard with escalating prices for grains and other basic food staples. Protests are growing across the globe demanding price reductions or price controls. Demonstrations are stoking social unrest in many countries. Demands are growing to prohibit the production of biofuels altogether.
What originally began as an effort to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and an attempt to reduce consumption of fossil fuels and petroleum, may instead be perceived as a worldwide failure of renewable biofuels. Such result would be unfortunate and ultimately disastrous.
We know for sure that petroleum reserves are getting scarce and will be depleted soon. We know for sure that global warming is caused by greenhouse gases produced by fossil fuel combustion. We know for sure that economies will begin to fail, when liquid motor fuels become scarce and unaffordable.
We must replace fossil petroleum sources with an alternate source for liquid fuels or world economies are doomed to fail and contract. Only biomass meets the requirements for such a new energy source. However, virtually all the biomass crops, which are being used, have one common shortcoming. Instead of using plants with exceptionally high energy yields, we are converting low-energy food crops into ethanol, a low-energy fuel.
Only high-energy crops can become the savior of our huge transportation sector. The wellbeing of this sector is absolutely vital for the continuing functioning of world economies. Famines will result if we convert instead low-energy food crops into liquid fuels. There are not enough arable lands on this Earth to provide food for an additional three billion people during the next fifty years and grow simultaneously sufficient amounts of low-energy biomass for replacing petroleum as source for liquid motor fuels.
Substitution of petroleum with motor fuels derived from coal or oil shale is not sensible, either. These synthetic fuels will increase greenhouse gas emissions and will accelerate global warming. Therefore, there remains only one single choice for securing the supply of affordable transportation fuels; we must learn to convert high-energy biomass into standard motor fuels.
This will involve the development of new approaches and new technologies for finding, breeding, and growing high-energy crops on fallow and arid lands. We must protect tropical and primal forests and we must assure that arable lands are sustained properly. Arable lands will become scarce and must be protected from exploitation.
The world has huge areas of deserts and arid lands with exceptionally high solar irradiation. We must learn to grow biomass with high-energy yields on these ignored and neglected lands. We must develop new irrigation and cultivating technologies for arid areas and we must learn how to achieve high-energy biomass harvests without excessive water use and without the wasteful and expensive fertilizer runoff.
High-energy plants need plenty of sunshine. We must breed new high-energy plant hybrids and we must develop new agricultural techniques that are effective under these adverse conditions. We must prevent exploitation of forests across the world and we must find ways to protect and preserve tropical and primal forests.
It is mandatory that we bring the recent inflationary wave of food prices under control soon. It is important that we prevent any speculative manipulation of grain prices and that we avoid any irrational reactions to this artificial food crisis.
Above all, we must not blame the concept of renewable biofuels for the artificially created food crisis. Liquid fuels from biomass are our only hope for simultaneously controlling global overheating and preventing hyperinflation of liquid fuel prices.
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Hemsath recently published the book CLIMATE CHANGE - GOLD RUSH OR DISASTER? For 50 years he has worked as scientist, process engineer, Director of R&D, Corporate Vice President of R&D, Company President, Chief Executive Officer, and Inventor. He holds more than 60 US Patents. Visit his site at http://www.thermalexpert.com He is now working on a second book, THE SOLUTION TO GLOBAL WARMING AND CLIMATE CHANGE.