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The Dallas Morning News: Texas researchers aim to make ethanol without corn

11:13 AM CST on Wednesday, December 26, 2007
By DAVE MICHAELS / The Dallas Morning News
[email protected]

WASHINGTON – Investors and ethanol producers, most of them in the Midwest, cheered last week when President Bush gave new life to the foundering fuel by approving a new national mandate for its use.

But so did some producers in Texas, where researchers say they’re making progress growing special crops that can make ethanol without the negatives of corn – too much water and land, and a tendency to drive up food prices.

Although the new energy law calls for more production of grain-based ethanol, the fuel must increasingly come from high-yield crops such as sorghum and switchgrass.

“The plants that generate large amounts of biomass are ideally suited to Texas and the southern United States,” said John Mullet, director of Texas A&M University’s Crop Biotechnology Center.

Ethanol’s future remains clouded by questions about whether researchers can master the complex process of making ethanol from these plants’ sugars, known as cellulose. Other problems, such as fertilizer runoff, must also be addressed.

“Everything is based on assumptions,” said Kyriacos Zygourakis, a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at Rice University. “We have to do a lot more homework here – not just on the process [to make ethanol], but the overall system.”

In a report issued earlier this month, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said there remained “considerable uncertainty about the speed with which this technology will become commercially viable (even with substantial government support).”

Texas, which imports more corn than it uses, has so far been left out of the ethanol boom. Four corn ethanol plants, all in West Texas, are expected to be operational next year, according to the Texas State Energy Conservation Office.

But state officials say Texas’ future lies with cellulosic ethanol. The Texas Legislature yanked its corn-ethanol incentive earlier this year after feedlots and ranchers complained about ethanol’s impact on corn prices.

Bill McCutcheon, associate director of the Texas Agricultural Experiment Station, said cellulosic ethanol could be ready within five years, and some of the feedstock could come from Texas.

The experiment station, a division of the Texas A&M University System, has partnered with Ceres, a plant-breeding and biotechnology company, to make ethanol from sorghum.

Just outside College Station, the group is growing a towering brand of sorghum developed specifically to make fuel. Researchers hope they can produce enough sorghum to make it a likely feedstock once new technology decreases the cost of making cellulosic ethanol.

“The return on investment for biofuels and electricity production is much more economically viable [with energy crops] than with growing a grain crop,” Dr. McCutcheon said.

If the process is mastered, it could mean a new multibillion-dollar industry.

Gerson Santos, vice president of research and development at corn-ethanol producer Abengoa Bioenergy, said the country would need 210 distilleries to generate the 21 billion gallons of cellulosic ethanol required by the energy bill.

“This is going to require the creation of a new energy infrastructure like we have not created for 100 years,” said Brent Erickson, executive vice president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization.

Questions remain about whether the country can annually generate enough biomass to produce enough new ethanol without displacing food crops or having other unintended consequences. The U.S. Department of Energy says the country needs 750 million tons of dry biomass to produce enough ethanol to decrease gasoline consumption by 30 percent.

Although biomass comes from most biological material – trees, citrus peels and even garbage – the amount varies depending on the source. Biochemists say experimental crops such as Texas A&M’s sorghum generate 10 times as much biomass as a similar amount of corn.

Yet sorghum also requires almost as much fertilizer as corn. Fertilizer runoff has irked environmentalists and, in some communities, turned public opinion against ethanol distilleries.

“The issue is where sorghum is going to be planted, because it’s being grown in places that are also good for corn,” said Dr. Zygourakis.

To be sure, corn isn’t being left behind. Corn producers will get another boost from the energy bill, which requires the country to double its output of corn-starch ethanol to 15 billion gallons by 2022.

That would seem to keep corn prices high in the short term, pleasing farmers. The outlook isn’t as sanguine for ranchers and livestock producers, who lobbied against the so-called renewable fuels mandate.

“I’m not going to apologize for the commodities that I’m producing being at a higher prices,” said Scott Averhoff, a Waxahachie farmer who grows corn, cotton and wheat on his 1,200 acres. “Because I can certainly remember when we delivered corn to the livestock industry below the cost of production.”

Still, the impact on food prices gave pause to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican who voted for the bill yet called it a “reckless” way to boost alternative fuels. Ms. Hutchison said she wanted to negotiate a way to escape the mandate if droughts or floods hurt harvests.

“We must give relief to the livestock producers and the consumers in this country if, in fact, we cannot produce this mandate,” Ms. Hutchison said during Senate debate.

The oil industry has issued a different warning: New blending rules require expensive changes to refineries – costs that will be passed onto consumers.

Other skeptics question how the country will transport its new ethanol. Refiners insist ethanol, which soaks up water, can’t be moved by existing pipelines.

Producers disagree, saying pipelines could be modified to accommodate ethanol. Alternately, other types of alcohol, such as butanol, could be added to ethanol-blended gasoline to reduce its water absorption.

“That plays into the existing strengths of Texas,” said Richard Hamilton, Ceres’ president and chief executive. “You have so much of that infrastructure in place and the ability to leverage that will be very exciting.”

Then again, a new solution could emerge. DuPont and BP are working to make biobutanol, a biofuel that could be transported by existing pipelines.

“The technology is changing so rapidly that what we say today won’t be true in two years,” Mr. Erickson said. “Things are going to be happening much faster than we can anticipate.”

http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/bus/industries/energy/stories/122607dnbusbiofuel.2333520.html

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