With global oil supplies diminishing — having apparently peaked in 2005 — interest in alternative fuels are increasing, as is the awareness of the environmental impact of burning fossil fuels. In the United States, the bulk of the petroleum and non-petroleum fuels are consumed by transportation — cars, trucks, trains, and other vehicles. Until the majority of these vehicles' engines are powered by electricity-based replacements, if ever, we will continue to need vast quantities of liquid fuels.
Of the alternatives to petroleum, ethanol is currently the favorite biofuel. The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires an almost five-fold increase in ethanol production in the United States, to 36 billion gallons annually by 2022. The bulk of this is currently obtained from corn, which is driving up the prices of corn and feedstock, as well as the foods produced using them. Supporters of ethanol point to the great success achieved in Brazil, which is on track to be completely energy independent, with no oil imports.
However, these advocates usually fail to mention that the sugarcane crops, and the climate that support them, are key components of that success, and not available in North America. Creating ethanol from other plants, such as sweet grass, makes more sense, because they provide greater net energy, which is the energy produced by burning the ethanol minus all of the energy required to produce it. This is an important consideration, because critics of corn-based ethanol point out that it is at best net neutral (i.e., consumes just as much energy as it produces), and possibly even net negative. So why the huge support within the federal government for the least efficient option? The corn growers lobby makes large campaign contributions to key members of Congress.
Illustrating the power of the free market, Coskata, an Illinois-based startup, has developed a superior process that combines gasification and bacterial conversion. Specifically, it first converts organic material into a synthesis gas comprising carbon monoxide and hydrogen, which is pumped into a bioreactor containing bacteria, which produces the ethanol as a waste product. The process yields 99.7 percent pure ethanol. Best of all, it can utilize any organic material, including municipal trash — even Congressional paperwork.
While large-scale production has yet to be tested and implemented, Coskata's approach holds great promise, because it has a high net energy, does not consume corn or other foods, and produces ethanol for less than one dollar per gallon — versus corn-based ethanol at $1.40. This new approach could be a breakthrough, both technical and political.