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Nirvana in the corn fields

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When you go to college smart people teach you all kinds of things you never knew you needed to know out in the real world.

One of those things is what physicists call the First Law of Thermodynamics.

The First Law of Thermodynamics states, 'Energy can be neither created nor destroyed.' It goes on to say energy can merely be converted into different forms. For example, electrical energy can be converted to light, and chemical energy can be converted to heat.

I don't know if the First Law of Thermodynamics is true, but that's what some professor taught us in physics class years ago at Oregon State University, and it seemed to make sense at the time. Besides, he was a professor and by definition smarter than the rest of us, so who was I to question him - Energy can be neither created nor destroyed. It's the law.

I used to wonder about that during the early 1980s when I was working as editor of Farm and Dairy, a respected farm publication in Ohio. I spent a lot of time talking to extension agents, researchers, commodities groups and farmers about advances in agricultural sciences. Every group, it seemed, had an ace in the hole that was going to save their bacon. Soybean farmers were betting on newspaper ink made from soybeans. Potato growers were going to use radiation to eliminate nematodes. Onion growers were going to use market orders to control supplies - and prices. Pig farmers were going to capitalize on consumer demand for low-fat protein by branding pork as 'the other white meat.' Wheat farmers were going to lower production costs and soil erosion with a 'no till drill' that would do away with conventional moldboard plows. And corn growers were going to get rich and reduce the nation's dependence on foreign oil by converting corn to ethanol, which could be burned in automobiles like gasoline. That's the one that captivated me - fuel from corn.

I attended several meetings of the Ohio Corn Growers Association where they talked about ethanol like it was the second coming of Christ. As you might expect, the corn-to-fuel initiative played well there in the heart of the Corn Belt. The country was awash in corn, prices were at historic lows, oil prices were at historic highs, and, best of all, ethanol burned clean, which sounded good to farmers, who were tired of being vilified by environmentalists for using harmful chemicals. Nirvana was just over the horizon.

The gullible farm editor dutifully went along for the ride without asking the obvious question: How does ethanol production square with the First Law of Thermodynamics?

The certified smart people in the Corn Growers Association never fully explained how they could start out with a tractor and a tank full of gas, plant a field full of corn, harvest the corn with a combine full of gas, load the corn onto a trucks full of gas, drive the corn down the highway to an ethanol refinery, use electricity generated by gas-fired turbines to turn the corn into ethanol, load the ethanol on tankers filled with gas and haul it to filling stations all over the country - and produce more fuel than they consumed in the process.

The only thing I could figure is somehow they managed to convert the sun's rays, probably through photosynthesis carried out by a genetically engineered corn hybrid, into fuel. If that's true, then the human race will be able to make gasoline out of corn until the sun doesn't shine, literally. And when the sun quits shining, we won't need automobiles anyway. In other words, we have reached the Promised Land of renewable energy.

I'm so happy and relieved about this development because like many Americans I enjoy driving my Ford F-150 pickup. It's big, tall and powerful. I get a shot of testosterone every time I take my rig out for a spin. The problem is it is also a gas-guzzler, and with gas prices hovering around $3.35 a gallon I don't know how much longer I can afford to drive it. If the prognosticators are right, and gas hits $4 a gallon this summer, I may have to trade my big Ford in on one of those gutless economy cars - like the one my wife drives.

The good news is we now live just a stone's throw away from the country's newest ethanol plant, Cascade Grain Products, located at Port Westward near Clatskanie. Cascade Grain is set to begin pumping out ethanol by the millions of gallons in May or June. If global trends in the energy market are any indication, people in and around the region might be in for a nice discount on ethanol prices. That's what's happened in countries who are members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC). Gasoline prices in those countries range from a low of 12 cents a gallon in Venezuela to 91 cents a gallon in Saudi Arabia. If we could come in somewhere in between, say around 40 or 50 cents a gallon for ethanol, we might not mind watching mile-and-a-half long trains loaded with Midwest corn steam through town or shelling out millions of dollars for better railroad crossings.

When it comes to ethanol, the First Law of Thermodynamics may still be a difficult factor to overcome. If it is too difficult, Cascade Grain might be forced to go to what some believe should be Plan B - making moonshine, which is roughly the same process as making ethanol. We all know the real money is in making hooch. Good corn whiskey is currently selling for $20 to $40 a fifth, which makes gasoline look cheap, even at $4 a gallon.

Rick Swart is publisher of the South County Spotlight. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. .