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08/22/2002

Corn to Fuel Your Car?

I''m surprised to hear that the movie "Signs" is generating so
much interest given that those crop circles are strictly manmade,
as we discussed a few weeks ago in this column. I pity the poor
farmers who will be waking up to find their crops flattened by a
new wave of crop circle pranksters spawned by this movie. Then
there are farmers like the one I saw mentioned on the news last
night. This farmer has manipulated his cornfield so that an aerial
view reveals a likeness of Babe Ruth! Last week, we spoke of
corn''s intrusion into various aspects of our lives, notably into our
food chain. Now it seems to be primed for expansion as an
artistic medium for portraying portraits of sports heroes.

Let''s explore further corn''s role in the production of alcoholic
libations. In addition to providing the raw material for Canadian
whiskey, corn may also be used in making beer. If, instead of
drinking the beer, you distill it and remove the water, you end up
with ethanol, the alcohol that gives all our alcoholic libations
their kick. Ethanol has many other uses in the chemical industry
and a substantial amount of the ethanol for drinking and
industrial uses comes from corn. Having gone to all the trouble
to get pure ethanol from beer, we don''t want anyone drinking it
so we sometimes "denature" it by adding compounds to make it
undrinkable. One additive might be methanol, also known as
wood alcohol (it used to be made primarily from wood or wood
products).

Methanol differs from ethanol by having one less carbon and two
less hydrogen atoms. That slight difference makes methanol a
compound not to be messed with. According to the EPA Web
site, a couple teaspoonfuls and you''re blind - a few tablespoons
and you''re dead! During Prohibition, moonshiners sometimes
made wood alcohol instead of ethanol. Those who imbibed the
methanol were not too smart or were certainly ill informed!

With the cost and availability of gasoline waxing and waning
over the past 30 years, there have been intermittent peaks of
interest in alternate fuels. One suggestion has been to stretch out
the use of gasoline by diluting it with ethanol or methanol. Some
would have gasoline replaced totally by one of these two
alcohols. In California, which is typically in the forefront of
environmental issues, there are thousands of passenger cars and a
few hundred buses fueled with methanol. When you''re watching
the Indy 500, those racecars are running on pure methanol.

According to the Methanol Institute''s Web site, methanol today
is typically made from natural gas. Worldwide, there are over 90
methanol plants capable of producing more than 11 billion
gallons of the stuff a year. The process typically involves
reacting the methane in the natural gas with steam in the
presence of a catalyst to form a mix of carbon monoxide, carbon
dioxide and hydrogen. This mixture is then reacted further to
give methanol and some water and hydrogen. Bottom line - the
cost of methanol is comparable to the cost of gasoline.

Well, with the huge automotive fuel market thirsting for new fuels,
you know that corn wouldn''t stand idly by. So, corn has gotten its
enthusiasts to propose that ethanol is the way to go, again either
as an additive to gasoline or in a mixture with methanol or standing
alone. With a surplus of corn, it seems an ideal situation. Farmers
just grow more corn and we can forget about the Mideast.

I might have taken this at face value if I hadn''t happened upon
the Cornell University Web site and an article in that institution''s
Chronicles. The article, by Roger Segelken, cites the work of
David Pimentel, a professor in Cornell''s College of Agriculture
and Life Sciences. Pimentel served as chairman of a Department
of Energy panel on the various aspects of ethanol production and
has conducted a thorough analysis of ethanol''s possible role as an
automotive fuel. Pimentel’s analysis says that corn''s future in
the fuel arena is not bright.

When we make ethanol made from corn, we have to invest more
energy than you would get back if you burn the ethanol in your
abominable SUV or in my little VW Jetta. Pimentel concludes
that an acre''s worth of corn, ready for processing into ethanol,
will have required something like 140 gallons of fossil fuel to
make the necessary fertilizer, power the machinery to harvest,
etc. After processing, the acre of corn will have yielded about
328 gallons of ethanol.

Pimentel calculates we’ve already spent $1.05 a gallon just to get
the corn grown and harvested. We haven’t begun to crush it up,
ferment it to make our beer and then take the water out of the
beer. To do this, we may have to distill the beer three times and
then go through some purification steps to get ethanol pure
enough to power our vehicle. Adding up all the costs, Pimentel
concludes it will have cost us $1.74 to produce our gallon of
ethanol versus about 95 cents to produce a gallon of gasoline.

With such economics, it’s clear that ethanol won’t replace fossil
fuels any time soon, especially since we’ve used fossil fuel to
grow and harvest the corn in the first place! But Pimentel isn''t
finished. He thinks that the environmental consequences of
growing corn should be considered and wants to add another 23
cents to the cost. Corn is a greedy crop, eroding the soil much
faster than it can be reformed and consuming water faster than
the ground water can be replaced. All this bodes ill for corn’s
plan to infiltrate our fuel system.

However, there’s a wild card here. Remember those government
subsidies to the farmers for growing corn. If the government
decides to subsidize the production of ethanol sufficiently, real
costs could go by the board. Let''s now consider the worst case
scenario and see what happens if corn-based ethanol becomes the
only fuel used by American drivers. Pimentel calculates that, for
a driver driving 10,000 miles a year, 11 acres of corn would be
required. These 11 acres would have fed seven of us Americans.
If we all used ethanol from corn to power our vehicles, corn will
have taken over so much land that in the U.S. we would only
have 3 percent of our country left for our own use! In other
words, 97 percent of our land would be devoted to corn!

I have the feeling that well before this happens, the populace will
have revolted and crop circles in corn fields would be appearing
all over the country. Corn flakes and corn on the cob will have
disappeared from our menus. Sometimes calculations that reveal
absurdities are quite useful in pointing out the danger of
projecting various trends into the future. Most of us have
suffered from the fact that ridiculous projections of the prices of
stocks led to the bubble that has burst, leaving our portfolios in
shambles. I plead guilty to ignoring the absurdity of stock prices
in that bubble, listening to my wife when she said no to selling
our Lucent stock when it was hovering around 80!

There are other cases where analyses such as Pimentel''s corn
study might prove very illuminating. For example, along with
the interest in alternate fuels came renewed interest in the
battery-powered Electric Vehicle. The idea of battery-powered
cars is certainly laudable in that pollution in cities would be
markedly reduced. But where does all that electricity used to
charge the batteries come from? And what are the real costs
involved? What fuels are used to generate the electricity? If
coal or natural gas, what are the pollution consequences? What
are the costs of controlling the pollution? Is the pollution just
shifted from the cities to the rural areas? Is the pollution truly
localized? We know now that pollutants from various processes
are being spread all over the world by circulation patterns in our
atmosphere.

Ok, I promise to get off my soapbox and next week you won''t
see a word about corn. All this talk about it makes me realize I
haven''t had a good corn fritter in years.

Allen F. Bortrum



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-08/22/2002-      
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Dr. Bortrum

08/22/2002

Corn to Fuel Your Car?

I''m surprised to hear that the movie "Signs" is generating so
much interest given that those crop circles are strictly manmade,
as we discussed a few weeks ago in this column. I pity the poor
farmers who will be waking up to find their crops flattened by a
new wave of crop circle pranksters spawned by this movie. Then
there are farmers like the one I saw mentioned on the news last
night. This farmer has manipulated his cornfield so that an aerial
view reveals a likeness of Babe Ruth! Last week, we spoke of
corn''s intrusion into various aspects of our lives, notably into our
food chain. Now it seems to be primed for expansion as an
artistic medium for portraying portraits of sports heroes.

Let''s explore further corn''s role in the production of alcoholic
libations. In addition to providing the raw material for Canadian
whiskey, corn may also be used in making beer. If, instead of
drinking the beer, you distill it and remove the water, you end up
with ethanol, the alcohol that gives all our alcoholic libations
their kick. Ethanol has many other uses in the chemical industry
and a substantial amount of the ethanol for drinking and
industrial uses comes from corn. Having gone to all the trouble
to get pure ethanol from beer, we don''t want anyone drinking it
so we sometimes "denature" it by adding compounds to make it
undrinkable. One additive might be methanol, also known as
wood alcohol (it used to be made primarily from wood or wood
products).

Methanol differs from ethanol by having one less carbon and two
less hydrogen atoms. That slight difference makes methanol a
compound not to be messed with. According to the EPA Web
site, a couple teaspoonfuls and you''re blind - a few tablespoons
and you''re dead! During Prohibition, moonshiners sometimes
made wood alcohol instead of ethanol. Those who imbibed the
methanol were not too smart or were certainly ill informed!

With the cost and availability of gasoline waxing and waning
over the past 30 years, there have been intermittent peaks of
interest in alternate fuels. One suggestion has been to stretch out
the use of gasoline by diluting it with ethanol or methanol. Some
would have gasoline replaced totally by one of these two
alcohols. In California, which is typically in the forefront of
environmental issues, there are thousands of passenger cars and a
few hundred buses fueled with methanol. When you''re watching
the Indy 500, those racecars are running on pure methanol.

According to the Methanol Institute''s Web site, methanol today
is typically made from natural gas. Worldwide, there are over 90
methanol plants capable of producing more than 11 billion
gallons of the stuff a year. The process typically involves
reacting the methane in the natural gas with steam in the
presence of a catalyst to form a mix of carbon monoxide, carbon
dioxide and hydrogen. This mixture is then reacted further to
give methanol and some water and hydrogen. Bottom line - the
cost of methanol is comparable to the cost of gasoline.

Well, with the huge automotive fuel market thirsting for new fuels,
you know that corn wouldn''t stand idly by. So, corn has gotten its
enthusiasts to propose that ethanol is the way to go, again either
as an additive to gasoline or in a mixture with methanol or standing
alone. With a surplus of corn, it seems an ideal situation. Farmers
just grow more corn and we can forget about the Mideast.

I might have taken this at face value if I hadn''t happened upon
the Cornell University Web site and an article in that institution''s
Chronicles. The article, by Roger Segelken, cites the work of
David Pimentel, a professor in Cornell''s College of Agriculture
and Life Sciences. Pimentel served as chairman of a Department
of Energy panel on the various aspects of ethanol production and
has conducted a thorough analysis of ethanol''s possible role as an
automotive fuel. Pimentel’s analysis says that corn''s future in
the fuel arena is not bright.

When we make ethanol made from corn, we have to invest more
energy than you would get back if you burn the ethanol in your
abominable SUV or in my little VW Jetta. Pimentel concludes
that an acre''s worth of corn, ready for processing into ethanol,
will have required something like 140 gallons of fossil fuel to
make the necessary fertilizer, power the machinery to harvest,
etc. After processing, the acre of corn will have yielded about
328 gallons of ethanol.

Pimentel calculates we’ve already spent $1.05 a gallon just to get
the corn grown and harvested. We haven’t begun to crush it up,
ferment it to make our beer and then take the water out of the
beer. To do this, we may have to distill the beer three times and
then go through some purification steps to get ethanol pure
enough to power our vehicle. Adding up all the costs, Pimentel
concludes it will have cost us $1.74 to produce our gallon of
ethanol versus about 95 cents to produce a gallon of gasoline.

With such economics, it’s clear that ethanol won’t replace fossil
fuels any time soon, especially since we’ve used fossil fuel to
grow and harvest the corn in the first place! But Pimentel isn''t
finished. He thinks that the environmental consequences of
growing corn should be considered and wants to add another 23
cents to the cost. Corn is a greedy crop, eroding the soil much
faster than it can be reformed and consuming water faster than
the ground water can be replaced. All this bodes ill for corn’s
plan to infiltrate our fuel system.

However, there’s a wild card here. Remember those government
subsidies to the farmers for growing corn. If the government
decides to subsidize the production of ethanol sufficiently, real
costs could go by the board. Let''s now consider the worst case
scenario and see what happens if corn-based ethanol becomes the
only fuel used by American drivers. Pimentel calculates that, for
a driver driving 10,000 miles a year, 11 acres of corn would be
required. These 11 acres would have fed seven of us Americans.
If we all used ethanol from corn to power our vehicles, corn will
have taken over so much land that in the U.S. we would only
have 3 percent of our country left for our own use! In other
words, 97 percent of our land would be devoted to corn!

I have the feeling that well before this happens, the populace will
have revolted and crop circles in corn fields would be appearing
all over the country. Corn flakes and corn on the cob will have
disappeared from our menus. Sometimes calculations that reveal
absurdities are quite useful in pointing out the danger of
projecting various trends into the future. Most of us have
suffered from the fact that ridiculous projections of the prices of
stocks led to the bubble that has burst, leaving our portfolios in
shambles. I plead guilty to ignoring the absurdity of stock prices
in that bubble, listening to my wife when she said no to selling
our Lucent stock when it was hovering around 80!

There are other cases where analyses such as Pimentel''s corn
study might prove very illuminating. For example, along with
the interest in alternate fuels came renewed interest in the
battery-powered Electric Vehicle. The idea of battery-powered
cars is certainly laudable in that pollution in cities would be
markedly reduced. But where does all that electricity used to
charge the batteries come from? And what are the real costs
involved? What fuels are used to generate the electricity? If
coal or natural gas, what are the pollution consequences? What
are the costs of controlling the pollution? Is the pollution just
shifted from the cities to the rural areas? Is the pollution truly
localized? We know now that pollutants from various processes
are being spread all over the world by circulation patterns in our
atmosphere.

Ok, I promise to get off my soapbox and next week you won''t
see a word about corn. All this talk about it makes me realize I
haven''t had a good corn fritter in years.

Allen F. Bortrum