Transitional Ethanol

Cindy Zimmerman

On Saturday in Indiana, Presidential candidate Barack Obama echoed what a Nobel laureate in physics said Wednesday in Nebraska – corn-based ethanol is a transitional technology.

Obama IndianaDuring a campaign stop in corn country over the weekend, the Terre Haute News reports that Senator Obama was asked what he thought about corn-based ethanol.

Obama answered, “We spend a billion dollars a day sending money to foreign nations because of our addiction to foreign oil. Oil prices are at the highest level in history, and they’re not going down anytime soon.

“China and India need fuel for growth — there are a million Chinese who don’t have a car who want a car,” he said.

After saying that alternative fuels and energy sources will be the necessary next step for breaking America’s dependence on foreign oil, Obama said, “Corn-based ethanol is not optimal. I’ve been a big supporter of corn-based ethanol. I come from a corn state — Illinois — and it’s a good transitional technology, but the truth is, it is not as efficient as what the Brazilians are doing with sugar cane.”

Obama continued, saying that more money needs to be devoted to researching and developing additional forms of alternative energy.

ChuDr. Steven Chu, director of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California, said much the same at the 25x’25 Renewable Energy Summit last week in Omaha, according to Truth About Trade & Technology.

“Corn is not the right crop for biofuels,” said Chu, who won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1997 and is co-chairman of a study on sustainable energy by an international scientific council.

Chu and his California team of researchers are trying to develop new fuels that will be dramatically more efficient to make than either corn-based ethanol or soybean-based biodiesel.

Currently, corn is the least costly feedstock for making ethanol. The ethanol demand has more than doubled corn prices in the last two years, raising concerns about its effects on food prices.

But within five to 10 years, Chu said, scientific discoveries and refining processes could improve enough to move grasses, woody substances and waste to the head of the line for making fuels. Some grasses could provide five times the amount of fuel from an acre as corn.

Unlike corn, many of the feedstocks can be grown on marginal land not normally used for food crops.

“We should look at corn as a transitional crop,” Chu said.

That’s what supporters of ethanol have been trying to tell the critics all along, that corn is a stepping stone to newer, more efficient biofuels. It’s nice to hear someone else say it.

corn, Ethanol, Government, News