Food as Fuel: Beyond Corn Kernels

Organic Popcorn Kernels 5KG

Ethanol is controversial. Critics believe that using corn kernels for conversion into ethanol takes agricultural land away from growing much needed food. And, the price of all food, especially corn has gone up this year due to astronomical increases in the price of gasoline. Yet, we NEED an alternative fuel to decrease our addiction to petroleum, with its attendant politics and existing delivery system.

Several scientists have taken on the challenge to provide alternatives.

Many researchers are trying to develop ways to turn other substances into ethanol.

Switch grass, grown without the pesticides and fertilizers needed to grow corn, is one prominent solution. Researchers have found two types of bacteria which break down different components of the switch grass, and are working to hybridize the bacteria so that the grass can be converted in one step, rather than the two which make it so far cost prohibitive.

The world’s largest ethanol producer, POET Energy received a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop a process for turning corn cobs into ethanol. (www.POET.com) They are in the process of converting a biorefinery located in Emmetsburg, Iowa into a facility to process the corn cobs. Using cobs is expected to produce 27% more ethanol per acre of corn than using corn kernels. This also frees up the kernels for sale as food for animals or people. Their goal is to produce 25 million gallons of ethanol per year. This would require cobs from about 275,000 acres of corn. (Good thing it’s located in Iowa!) Operation is expected to begin in 2011.

Grand Meadow Energy in Stratford, Wisconsin, owned by Joe Van Groll is currently producing 26,000 gallons of ethanol per year from cheese whey. Whey permeate, a product of cheese making (you know, curds and whey) is fermented into ethanol to be blended with regular gasoline. While this is only enough to power 52 American cars for a year, it is commercially available now. Cost to produce one gallon of whey ethanol is currently $.80 to $1.00 per gallon. Cost to produce one gallon of ethanol from corn is $1.50 to $2.00 per gallon. Hopefully this reduced cost alone will be enough to spur growth of this alternative.

Food waste is another candidate for conversion into fuels. Animal fat and vegetable oils can be converted into diesel fuel, including jet diesel fuel. There are no vehicle modifications required to use the diesel fuel to be produced by Dynamic Fuels, a partnership between Tyson Fuels and Syntroleum Corporation. (www.dynamicfuels.com) The first plant will begin to operate in 2010 near Baton Rouge, Louisiana. It is expected to produce 75 million gallons of fuel per year, enough, they estimate, to power a 757 jet for 10,000 round trips between New York and Los Angeles. There are plans for more factories as well.

Several people have developed ways to retrofit diesel cars to burn used oils. (www.greasecars.com) (www.cartalk.com). The Permaculture Institute of Northern California offers courses in converting your car (must be diesel) to run on vegetable oils, either from a kit or from scratch. They also offer courses on making small scale biofuel batches that people can use in unconverted diesel vehicles. (biopaceticautosite.com)

Investors are needed for commercial development of converting eggshells into hydrogen fuel. Liang-Shih Fan, Ph.D., distinguished university professor of chemical and bioengineering at Ohio State University has patented technology to produce emission-free hydrogen fuel. The US produces 450,000 tons of eggshells yearly. Seems like a natural investment for ConAgra Foods, maker of EggBeaters.

This is a look into the future of vehicle fuels. There is hope that we can break our oil dependence.