"Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors."

-Jonas Salk

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Corn Ethanol Disaster

My current position is strongly pro-biofuel for two reasons:

1) Biofuels are the only path to carbon neutral jet fuel. I think if we give up international travel we will lose far more than we gain. Nothing fuels xenophobia more than not having a clear idea of who the foreigners actually are.

2) Biofuels plus CCS (carbon capture and sequestration) is, as far as I can tell, the only plausible path to near term reduction in atmospheric CO2. I hear a lot of talk about 350 and that's interesting, but most people with "350" hats don't seem to have a plan to move the number down from the 450 we have already bought.

But things aren't easy, and despite the fact that global warming looms over everything, we can't be indifferent to other problems, especially other global problems.

I have heard no sensible defenses of corn-based ethanol, even though politicians from the "aah" states (including President Obama) continue to champion it. But here is a side of it that is terrifying. Via Minnesota Public Radio via Big Biofuels Blog (h/t David Benson):

Mark von Keitz with the University of Minnesota's Biotechnology Institute said in ethanol production, the main enemy is a bacterial bug that makes lactic acid.

"What these organisms do is they also compete with the yeast for the sugar," said von Keitz. "But instead of making alcohol, they make primarily lactic acid."


"What people operating these plants are trying to do is to keep these lactic acid bacteria in check," said von Keitz. "And one way of doing that is with the help of antibiotics."

Ethanol producers use penicillin and a popular antibiotic called virginiamycin to kill bacteria. And that raises two potential concerns.

One is that these treatments might promote the growth of bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics. The development of these "superbugs" is a major concern in health care because they reduce the effectiveness of medicines.

Mark von Keitz found some bacteria that were, in fact, resistant when he sampled bacteria at four Midwest ethanol plants several years ago.

The second concern is that the antibiotics could find their way to humans through the food chain.


Distillers grain is a major source of low-cost livestock feed. Any restrictions on its sale and use as feed will hurt the profit-scarce ethanol industry and the livestock farmers who rely on it.

Charlie Staff, executive director of the Distillers Grain Technology Council, said distillers grain is one of the few dependable moneymakers left for the ethanol industry.

"If they didn't have distillers grain as a revenue, many more of them wouldn't be able to operate," said Staff.

Emphasis added.

Yikes! An object lesson that everything is connected. Plus another argument against agribusiness-produced meat.

Knit your own woolen corncob from a pattern at kimberlychapman.com


William M. Connolley said...

Not a patch on Cthulu: http://pw201.livejournal.com/104831.html Mind you corn ethanol is a devouring monster of its own.

More seriously, why should biofuels be the answer? Once you have surplus power, you can make fuel out of anything, so just go for more nukes, or solar farms, or something.

SteamGeek said...

What are your thoughts of Laurie David's attempts to indoctrinate the children on the benefits of corn based ethanol?

Michael Tobis said...

I don't tend to spend my time thinking about Laurie David. Take it up with someone who does.

Michael Tobis said...

William, suppose we had a massive supply of non-carbon-releasing fuel.

We still need to solve the two problems of sequestering carbon and creating jet fuel.

In the former case we need to collect up CO2 somehow. I understand there are proposals to mop it up by ground up minerals that are not at a minimum energy state; a sort of supercharged weathering process. That might also work. But there is an energy cost there.

In the latter case we need a carbon neutral source of kerosene, which has to be made of carbon; hence plants. The process does not need to be energetically closed; we can lose energy in the process, but it will be related to the biofuel process anyway.

In the former case it just seems more plausible to me. In the case of actually manufacturing kerosene, some sort of cellulose-for-its-own-sake plantation is necessary.