The drawbacks are familiar. Most ethanol is now made from corn, the growing of which is an energy-intensive process. It’s almost the definition of a Catch-22: A substance distilled to create energy takes a lot of energy — i.e., other fuels — to make. It’s like a joke about a guy who eats to get the strength he needs to work off what he ate.
As if that weren’t enough of a challenge, corn-based ethanol also takes a lot of water. At a time when much of the country, including many corn-growing regions, is suffering from prolonged rainfall shortages and in some cases severe drought, a water-intensive process is as problematic as an energy-intensive one.
The difficulties of synthesizing corn-based ethanol have, not surprisingly, drawn fire from both thoughtful critics and usual-suspect hecklers. But somewhere between stubbornly plugging away at a process that costs at least as much as it yields, and surrendering to perpetual petrofuel addiction and the political and economic ransom — domestic as well as foreign — we will have to pay as a consequence, there must be some fertile middle ground.
Researchers at the University of Georgia may be close to finding it. A report by Susan Mittleman on Georgia Public Broadcasting and transcribed on the Public Broadcasting Atlanta website (pba.org) describes a promising new process for making ethanol and other biofuels from vegetation common to this area, such as switchgrass and pine or poplar trees. The idea of making fuel from biomass is not new. But like corn-based ethanol, fuel synthesized from biomass has so far been too expensive to make it practical. The difference, as UGA geneticist Janet Westpheling explained, is genetics — manipulating the DNA to make breaking down the raw materials cheaper and easier.
“Part of the conversion of really tough wood stuff like that,” Westpheling explained to GPB, “is that plants have evolved over millions of years to not be degraded by bacteria and the soil. But we work on bacteria that can eat the stuff … These organisms can do that without enzymes, without pre-treatment, which means they can do it economically.”
The other huge advantage, she said, is that such plants are plentiful in the Southeast and are “naturally drought resistant.”
We’re still a long way from being able to tell the Middle East to take its oil and … well, sell it elsewhere. But we’re getting just a little closer.