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This Week in Energy: Project Liberty: Corn Waste for Freedom Fuel

This week in energy we’re looking at the grand opening in Iowa of the first facility to commercially produce ethanol from corn waste products as proof that we don’t need to divert corn from the food supply or livestock feed.

Under the umbrella of the government-backed “Project Liberty”, the Iowa plant is the first ever to produce cellulosic ethanol specifically from corn waste, and the second in the US to commercially produce cellulosic ethanol from agricultural waste.

The Emmetsburg, Iowa plant is owned by a joint venture between American-owned POET and Dutch-owned Royal DSM. The plant owners are calling the project the “first step in transforming our economy, our environment and our national security.”

It’s been a long road for cellulosic ethanol, and it hasn’t helped that the oil industry has lobbied fiercely to repeal the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) ethanol mandate, with a little help from the food industry and its fears that the mandate will keep corn prices too high. The food industry, at least, will have less fodder if corn-waste ethanol takes off in the market.

American Petroleum Institute spokesman Carlton Carroll told Scientific American: "API supports the use of advanced biofuels, including cellulosic biofuels, once they are commercially viable and in demand by consumers. But EPA must end mandates for these fuels that don't even exist."

So a lot has been riding on cellulosic ethanol, and even the EPA agrees that the stakes are high and has reduced its cellulosic targets significantly since 2007. Today the project output of three new cellulosic plants is 17 million gallons. In 2007, the projection was that we would hit 1 billion gallons by this year.

At the same time, the EPA is now saying that overall renewable fuel quotes might be higher than proposed last year because gasoline consumption is increasing. What those quotes will be is anyone’s guess, and we’ve already been waiting for months for them to be released. For now, all we have is predictions.

Speaking to Bloomberg, research analyst Tim Cheung predicts that the EPA will require 13.6 billion gallons of ethanol to be blended into gasoline. That would be 600 million gallons more than last year’s proposal

What do consumers think about the blend? Not much, as it turns out. In the Midwest, the new trend is to look for gas stations advertising ethanol-free gasoline. There is even a website that lists all ethanol-free gas stations in the US and Canada.

Why are many consumers not sold on ethanol? They are concerned about the consequences, at least for older cars, and they don’t like the fact that they get fewer miles for the gallon. And overall, they’re just not buying the idea that ethanol-blended gasoline might be good for the environment. So far, it has diverted corn from food supplies and livestock feed. The sentiment is that it has also led to the conversion of wildlife habitats into corn fields for biofuel production.

Corn-waste ethanol could solve at least part of these problems, but what will consumers think now that commercial production has been launched?

This week in energy, Oilprice.com also looks at Europe’s energy dilemma as winter approaches, what’s holding back China’s shale development, and much more.

By. James Stafford of Oilprice.com

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  • Oliver Chadwick on September 06 2014 said:
    There is another issue with production of corn waste ethanol. In traditional agriculture practice corn waste should have been left on the field to add organic matter into the soil. Each year a significant amount of soil organic matter is decomposed by bacteria in the soil. In a well functioning agroecosystem organic matter would be returned to the soil to replace that which is lost. By diverting corn residue into ethanol soil is deprived of its inputs. The results of organic matter decline are easily seen in many parts of the world; they include loss of water infiltration, loss of nutrient holding and supplying capacity, and lack of aeration. The mid-western US soils are some of the best in the world and can sustain a lot of abuse, however loss of organic matter will inevitably result in declining yields. One can substitute chemically derived nutrients for those lost but one cannot make up for the loss of tilth associated with loss of soil organic matter.

    In sum, there are far better ways to deal with our energy problems than to lean on agroecosystems.
  • litesong on September 07 2014 said:
    From the article:
    Why are many consumers not sold on ethanol?
    Ethanol only efficiently burns in high compression ratio(16:1) ethanol engines. Not only does ethanol have less energy than gasoline, ethanol loses even more efficiency because low compression ratio(9:1 to 12:1) gasoline engines can't extract ethanol energy properly. Remember: diesel engines properly burn diesel fuel, ethanol engines properly burn ethanol & gasoline engines properly burn 100% gasoline.
  • erichnorman@hotmail.com on September 07 2014 said:
    Ethanol is BTU negative. It takes more conventional energy to convert corn into ethanol than energy it can produce.

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