A call to farms: diversify the fuel supply.

Author:Henry, Mark Murphey

All the world is waiting for a substitute to gasoline. When that is gone, there will be no more gasoline, and long before that time, the price of gasoline will have risen to a point where it will be too expensive to burn as a motor fuel. The day is not far distant when, for every one of those barrels of gasoline, a barrel of alcohol must be substituted. (1)


    Using corn as the primary ingredient for biofuels has several unintended consequences on the agricultural industry as a whole, and the resulting shortage of corn for food and livestock purposes has negatively influenced market prices for both. The regional nature of corn ethanol production also serves to logistically and seasonally restrict a reliable and robust nationwide ethanol industry. These fact, necessitate a long-term plan to shift away from comas the exclusive crop for ethanol and move toward a broader base of raw materials for not merely ethanol production, but bioenergy production in general. Technology is the key to making the biofuel industry work for America, and ownership of such technology Will be a threshold issue. Indeed, the owners of pioneering technology Will dictate the way in which bioenergy ultimately develops over the next decade.

    The technological advancements required for biofuel diversification have three key components. First, there is the development or identification of new crops high in organic mass for energy production. Second, there is the creation of novel methods of processing crops and other biomass to efficiently refine an expansive may of biofuels including biodiesel and cellulosic ethanol. Third, there is the ability to reward plant researchers, process engineers, and chemists through the time-honored process of intellectual property protection, which could alleviate the high cost, of pioneering research and plot a course toward the eventual reduction in large federal subsidies to the biofuel industry. (2)

    This article Will begin by identifying economic and ecologic problems of using corn as the primary feedstock in ethanol production and Will argue that diversity in bioenergy production is essential to reduce the adverse market consequences of relying upon com as the primary biomass source. The article will next reveal that inventions of the past concern both the petroleum industry and com ethanol industry. Therefore, a fundamental technology shift must occur if America is to move away from a dependence upon petroleum or upon com as the dominant biofuel feedstock. The authors will then identify promising alternative biofuel sources such as cellulosic ethanol, currently under study, including the use of multiple-purpose crops that can be used to graze livestock, attract wildlife, and generate biofuel. The authors then provide an overview of the subsidies and tax incentives the government has used to encourage ethanol production as well as policies designed to encourage the growth of bioenergy at a local, regional, and national level.

    Next, the article discusses the relevance of intellectual property to this complex industry, where public and private entities vie against one another to discover new ways for solving the United States petroleum and foreign oil dependence. Furthermore, because public funding is a primary component of biofuel technology, the authors clarify public misconceptions about whether patents should protect inventions that are the fruit of taxpayer funding. Thereafter, the authors compare between federal, state, and local involvement in supporting biofuel research and funding over the last decade. Finally, to illustrate creative ways to find local support for biofuel, the article will introduce the reader to a small company's effort to vertically integrate its soybean seed breeding operation by increasing the demand for its soybean genetics and lowering the cost of biodiesel for local farmers.


    While com traditionally served primarily as a food source and export product, (3) the trend over the past thirty years has been to take advantage of overproduction by devoting more and more com to ethanol distillation. (4) As a result, corn is the dominant crop from which ethanol is produced in the United States. (5) Indeed, the existing infrastructure for farming and harvesting com for human and animal consumption has made high-energy com a suitable choice for alternative energy through use of ethanol distillation processes similar to those established for alcoholic beverages. The plans of using corn as a readily available alternative for fuel were well-intentioned and economically feasible during the early implementation of ethanol production. However, the recent spike in demand for com as an ethanol source has fundamentally altered the food versus fuel equation. The 2005 amendments to the Clean Air Act set a target of 7.5 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2012. (6) If such policy goals are to be met using our present infrastructure, approximately twenty-nine percent of current domestic corn production would have to be used to meet 2012 ethanol production target. (7) Moreover, President George W. Bush, in his 2007 State of the Union Address, set a national goal of producing thirty-five billion gallons of alternative fuels by 2017 nearly five times the currently mandated target. (8) By some estimates, however, this would require 108 percent of the current corn crop to be dedicated exclusively to fuel ethanol. (9) The unrealistic goals for ethanol production and the technological, political, and ecological consequences involved in using a primary food source for ethanol production suggest that better sources of biofuels are necessary. These sources, which are in high demand, are in some instances already available.


      Indigenous peoples in the Americas cultivated corn well before recorded history. (10) Explorers returning from the New World introduced corn to Europe as a staple commodity. (11) Since that time corn has grown into America's largest food crop. (12) For instance, the United States produced over eleven billion bushels of corn in 2005, which accounted for the majority of U.S. cereal production. (13) Since the 1930s, the United States has subsidized corn production in order to stabilize production and prices. (14) For many decades during the twentieth century, subsidies encouraged excess production that was justified as necessary for political reasons, such as "exporting Fairway to prosperity." (15) For example, the United States exported millions of bushels of corn to encourage trading with countries such as the former Soviet Union, Japan, South Korea, and Mexico. (16) Corn was also exported to developing countries for humanitarian reasons. (17)

      Regardless of the end consumer, corn was traditionally used for food or animal feed. As such, the retail price of staple foodstuffs, including cereals, milk, and tortillas, is directly related to the seasonal availability of corn. (18) The relation between availability and price of corn also extends indirectly to feedstock for animals such as beef, poultry, and pork, as well as to processed food products that include corn-based sweeteners. The reliance upon high fructose corn syrup as a staple sweetener in the United States has sharply escalated since 1970, when the average person consumed less than half a pound of high fructose corn syrup in one year. (19) In contrast, the average personal consumption had increased to more than fifty-nine pounds annually by 2005. (20) The availability and price of corn is inextricably linked to our nation's multidimensional food supply.


      Despite the historical fact that almost all corn was grown for consumption, corn ethanol has been used for centuries, albeit in a limited capacity. Two forces kept ethanol from becoming the dominant U.S. energy source in the early twentieth century. The first was economic: Large oil reserves were discovered in the United States, and gasoline production became cheaper than making ethanol according to inefficient, historical methods. (21) The second was political: Ethanol producers were lumped together with moonshiners during Prohibition. Prices for petroleum-based fuel remained low enough to keep ethanol production from being a viable energy source for much of the remainder of the twentieth century.

      Over the last three decades, investment into alternative energy supplies has risen due to peaking petroleum production, political instability in oil-producing regions such as the Middle East, and environmental concerns over global warming caused by burning fossil fuels. his unsurprising that ethanol is one of the most touted alternative energy sources due to it, known production and use. However, the limited use of ethanol as a fuel source throughout the twentieth century means that the technology used in ethanol production is, for all intents and purposes, centuries old. To illustrate the dearth of research in the advancement of ethanol, only seventy-five U.S. patents were issued before 1970 for technologies dealing with ethanol. (22) In contrast, over the same period almost 1,700 U.S. patents were issued relating to gasoline. (23) It was only in the 1970s, the decade that saw the OPEC oil embargo, that research and development in the ethanol field first resulted in the granting of a substantial number of U.S. patents. (24) It is clear that the development of ethanol technology in the United States has suffered due to reliance upon readily available, cheaper petroleum.

      Corn is the dominant biomass used for ethanol production today due to the ease with which corn kernels--which have high glucose content are fermented into ethanol. (25) In the ethanol production process, corn kernels are ground and heated to release glucose, and the glucose is metabolized by yeast in the absence of oxygen producing ethanol and carbon...

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