Fuel vs. Food

September 26, 2007 | 6 Comments

Perhaps the glow of alternative fuels might need a little tarnishing. Actually the last person on earth that might be doing that would be me – I pride myself in being a strong proponent for alternative fuels and energy resources. All over the world the effects of the run up in petroleum prices has pushed people into choices about spending and it’s not just the lower income population in the developed countries who are adapting without the financial resources or income cushion.

I’m still struck by the neat and clean method of photosynthesis for recombining CO2 and water into cellulose, starches and sugars. These substances make great feedstocks for yeasts, bacteria and enzymes to make fuels. They are also the sole form of calories for food for people. And the problem is that photosynthesis just isn’t very efficient.

It’s clear that solar systems, both thermal and photovoltaic offer more efficiency than photosynthesis now. We’re really just getting started on the possible developments for these energy-collecting methods. And there is a lot of marginal land much more suitable for solar than food production. Windmill generators occupy very little land and generate a huge amount of power relative to the land use. There’s a lot of good happening and much more coming on line.

But the liquid fuel segment is putting pressure on land that deserves some careful and deep thought. That pressure for liquid fuel is changing the landscape and the choices made by landowners and farm operators all across the planet. From Southeast Asia to Brazil, across Europe to the US breadbasket a shift of priority is taking place. That shift isn’t critical yet, but the critical stage is rushing towards us. Its much more clear and free of debate than “global warming.”

The leading example is in the US where a big chunk of the corn crop has been moved into ethanol production. A year ago the cash price for a bushel of corn was about $1.75. The US Taxpayer was funding low price deficiency payments (the LPD) to farmers making up the price to $2.49. That made it possible for makers of corn sweetener, cornstarch, dairies and feeders of meat animals to pay a subsidized price for corn, which made the foods we eat less expensive at the supermarket.

After October of 2006 the ethanol boom started, rather quickly, to measure the bushel of corn by its value against a barrel of oil. Although that thinking soon died down the price corn stormed to over $4.00 a bushel. Over the months until now the price has been as low as $2.87 scaring a few to think the LPD might come back – which worries those who must fund the US federal budget. Currently the cash price is about $3.35, comfortably above the LPD breakpoint. Some estimates have been made about the impact this has had on food prices and I’ve seen a low estimate of $46 per person per year to the silly sounding $106.00. On the other hand billions of dollars weren’t spent making LPD payments, but there is no chance you’ll see the government rebate that LPD money back to you. In the US and other developed countries with systems to assist the low-income people this effect is hard to notice.

But where rice is the primary food source things are very, very different. In this part of the world there aren’t any effective programs to put a safety net under the low-income people. And those people aren’t a 15% population share there – they can be 75% of a population or more in some countries.

A certainty is in the rush, it’s that major land use changes are coming, and many plant-based fuel feed stocks will compete with food crops. Some thought needs given to how the low income people will be able to afford food when the land use is more profitable for fuel feedstock.

Part of the answer lies in getting research results for more efficiency per land unit in providing fuel and more adroitly, for crops that can grow in areas where prime food production wouldn’t be such a competitive issue. Another part needs to be getting technological knowledge out into the hands of farmers in those countries.

But the big answer is in cellulose to sugar conversion. In the US the corn ethanol game is really a quick choice with positive yet poor results. If cellulose to sugar was a technology in hand, and butanol replaced ethanol things would be very different. Choosing land use for total feedstock value would push corn right off the list of choices. And the choices would be extraordinary compared to corn. Miscanthus yields as much as five times more potential alcohol per land unit. And butanol offers nearly a third more BTUs per unit than ethanol. The president could then set a target for displacing a third of gasoline with butanol and really impact the oil import and price problem.

But . . .

Converting cellulose to sugar isn’t ready yet. It can be done, its not economically viable – yet.

So while you watch the presidential candidates spend hundreds of millions of dollars to persuade you that they can solve the world’s problems, imagine what the difference worldwide would be if the cellulose to sugar conversion technique was in hand. Perhaps a prize like we’ve seen for other goals would be a better way to donate your money. Say a $10 billion dollar prize for an economical cellulose to sugar process. In a market of trillions of dollars a billion is a pretty small investment.

While you may be a person who believes government should have a role or one that believes the market should rule I offer this thought on the side. Markets are the best way to move people to choices in their own interests. But the driver – oil prices- are not clean markets. Rather they are political results caused by OPEC, US policies, tyrants, China coming into the market with distinctly un-market like investments, India and other countries adding more oil use to their economies.

Where are we right now? Well, Evan Ratliff loaded his piece at Wired.com yesterday. It’s really good. OK, he’s stuck on ethanol, but the prospects look good. I agree with almost everything except the notion that “one molecule” or a single step process is the end goal.

See: http://www.wired.com/science/planetearth/magazine/15-10/ff_plant?currentPage=1


6 Comments so far

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