Fill 'er up: Will that be ethanol or switchgrass, sir?

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March 29, 2008

Gasoline. Diesel. Bio-diesel. Ethanol. E10. E85. Compressed air. Hydrogen fuel cell. Switchgrass. Miscanthus. Reclaimed cooking oil. Plug-in electricity. Lithium-ion batteries. Which of the above will not be the preferred source of fueling our RVs in a decade? If you said gasoline, you are right. At least in its present, unadulterated form.

corn fuel pumpAlready some states (CA, MN, and others) require ethanol to be mixed with gasoline to reduce both the emission of greenhouse gasses (GHG) into the atmosphere and also to reduce our demand for foreign oil from unstable countries. As the price of oil rises, the urgency to develop (read: venture capital) alternate sources of energy heats up.

The first step was the development of the ethanol additive, derived from corn, mixed with gasoline. This is a step, but not the ultimate answer. The advantages are: reduction in oil usage, cleaner burning, and less pollutants. Why it isn’t the answer: reduced miles-per-gallon, using a food crop for fuel drives up the price of food, subsidies paid by the government to corn growers should be going to growers of better feedstocks (the source crop) such as switchgrass and miscanthus, and besides, we can’t grow enough corn in this country to meet our fuel requirements.

But why switchgrass? And what is it? Switchgrass is a native prairie grass that can grow to twice human height, and unlike using just the ears of corn, the entire plant can be used to produce fuel. SwitchgrassThis type of feedstock is called celulosic, where instead the woody part of the plant is used to make ethanol, and includes corn stalks (stover) and rice husks among others. Switchgrass can be grown on marginal land, requires little if any fertilizer or pesticides, less water, requires only mowing to harvest, the energy output is far greater than food feedstocks, and the resultant fuel produces far less pollutants and GHG. And it would be a boon to small family farmers.

Misanthus is another celulosic feedstock, native to Europe, though sterile plants have been produced reducing the threat of rampant alien plants. Misanthus produces a sizeable increase over switchgrass.

To use these new ethanol blends, however, requires a flex fuel car if you are to use anything over E10 (10% ethanol). Many flex fuel cars are now being produced, but fueling stations offering blends over E10 and up to E85 or better need to proliferate first before these blends will catch on.

Next Saturday: More on fuels

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  1. Norman – Great comment. I will keep alert to corn cob ethanol production progress, and to POET’s. I continue to feel that the transition to alternate fuels, such as the various feedstocks being tested to produce ethanol, will put a dent into the importation of foreign oil even faster than predicted–providing processing plants can be built quickly and with enough capacity. The flip side of the coin is having these ethanol blends available at the retail level with enough flex fuel vehicles to turn a profit for the retailers. A tricky balance.
    Thanks for the benefit of your experience as well as your input.

  2. Bob, the use use of corn stover is not a good idea as the value of the corn stover as a source of nutrients is $48 per acre. However removing only the corn cob for use as a cellulosic feed stock is positive. The corn cob actually removes carbon based nutrients from the soil. And the corn cob is much sloer than the stover to breakdown.

    Visit and go to the “cellulosic energy” link to see a review of Project Liberty which is using corn cobs to produce cellulosic ethanol. Corn cob when used in conjunction with corn increases by about 27% the gallons of ethanol per acre of corn and also reduce the amount of fossil fuel consumed to produce a gallon of ethanol.

    The produciton of ethanol from corn cob at the POET plant in Emmetsburg,IA will require 300,000 tons of corn cob per year. There is approximately one half to one ton of cob per acre of corn dependent upon yields

    My company is a large grain trader , most recently become an ethanol producer and also is a processor of corn cobs in to many consumer and industrial uses. We are publicly traded on NASDAQ. I have spent the past 21 years in the corn cob marketing and new product develpment. I am not trying to brag, but only lend credibility to my comments.

    Keep your great information coming. I really appreciate the info your blogs present.

  3. Harold

    I’m having a problem with connecting running lights to my newly purchased 2005 Acura MDX. I install a diode in line with the brake light and attach the wire from the connector. I turn on the tail lights push the brake peddle and the tail light goes out and no brake light. I’ve checked the diode and I have power coming out of the diode, but the brake light will not come on.
    Does anyone have a suggestion. Thanks in advance.
    Harold, “from on the road”