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Quest for the perfect fuel

Ethanol and biodiesels playing larger roles on world and local stage
by: Submitted, This aerial photo of the Cascade Grain Products corn ethanol plant at Port Westward taken in January shows a plant in its final stages of completion. Fifty-three people have been hired to operate the $200 million plant, which will be fed by Midwest-grown corn delivered via rail. Charles Carlson, the company president, said corn deliveries into the Pacific Northwest from cornbelt states are not new, and that the region is a jumping off place for corn exports to the Pacific Rim.

Energy crops are hot, and investors are stampeding to join the 'biofuels game.' There is a clear need for a sustainable long-term replacement for petroleum, imported or otherwise, and finding cleaner-burning fuels is on nearly everyone's agenda.

Even if you aren't a believer in climate change or fuel conservation, if you fill 'er up in the metro area, including Columbia County, you are helping to reduce 'greenhouse gas' emissions because a 10 percent ethanol blend is required for use in Oregon. There is a federal mandate, as well, to double alternate fuel use by 2012.

Efforts to use alternative fuels are driven primarily by the need to reduce carbon emissions. In 2004, Oregon released 67.5 million metric tons of greenhouse gases, and a third of that was from transportation.

An even greater incentive is at our doorstep that we are slow to acknowledge: petroleum demand is soon going to overtake supply. According to Dr. Kenneth Williamson at Oregon State University, 'We're sorta there now.' People alive today are the last to see cheap plentiful fuel for getting around. 'It's not going to be cheap ever again,' said Williamson, who works on biofuel processing.

A January report to Gov. Kulongoski, written by the Climate Change Integration Group (CCIG), has proposed specific strategies to help reduce carbon emissions and petroleum use. They recognize that their first goal of reducing greenhouse gases in Oregon to 10 percent below 1990 levels by the year 2020 will be hard to achieve. Population and economic growth counterbalance those efforts, but it brings opportunities, as well. The CCIG sees large amounts of capital flowing into the 'green economy,' and Oregon is ready to earn its market share. Ideas to reduce reliance on petroleum include alternate fuels, education, and better options than commuting long distances with a single person in the vehicle.

The fuels

The quest is on for an alternative to gasoline, and fuels obtained from traditionally food-bearing crops are particularly promising. Generous state and federal government incentives help get these industries off the ground. The ethanol mandate in Oregon has been a lure for local investment in ethanol production - a guaranteed customer base. Pure ethanol is corrosive, so it isn't good to move via pipelines. Having production plants near distribution points helps.

Making ethanol from corn has been leading the way as an alternative fuel in the United States. The technology is simple and the supply of corn is plentiful and cheap. Concerns have popped up, however, since so much corn has been devoted to ethanol production. Last year, 93 million U.S. acres were planted in corn. Increasing amounts are going to ethanol instead of food or livestock feed, and fewer other crops are being grown in favor of corn.

Studies vary on the data, but using farmland for growing fuel is driving up food prices.

The rising price of imported oil isn't helping with food costs, either. Oil is used to fuel farm machinery and to transport goods to market. Four dollar a gallon gas is adding urgency to the biofuel quest.

Williamson said that higher prices will be the first effect we'll experience from a reduced gas supply. Additionally, we can expect rationing as a way to stretch supplies, and perhaps taxes on each gallon sold. 'Biofuels are not going to be able to replace petroleum,' as a fuel for transportation, said Williamson. The demand for fuel is too great. He said we will need to change the way we drive and will need other energy sources, like electric cars, and perhaps someday, hydrogen. There are very difficult problems to solve with hydrogen, however.

Although right now corn is the energy crop of choice in the United States, corn-based ethanol has lackluster energy efficiency - a 10 percent blend burns cleaner than pure gasoline but cars get slightly worse gas mileage, and corn ethanol takes considerable energy to produce. Corn also requires lots of water and fertilizer, but new varieties are reducing those faults. Monsanto is working on developing corn that will yield more ethanol, which right now is around 330 gallons per acre.

Total net reduction of carbon emission is minimal with corn because gains are offset by production and transportation. The economic payback realized just a couple of years ago isn't that great any longer, as corn prices go up and ethanol prices fall from overproduction. Building new corn-based ethanol plants has stalled. The corn ethanol plants already built will continue producing for years because demand will increase, and sufficient alternatives to corn won't be ready for years.

There are other feedstocks that are being heralded as perfect for biofuel -if only we could figure out the technology and bring costs down. The perfect crop shouldn't require thousands of square miles to produce in sufficient quantity to make a difference, either. Every acre devoted to fuel is one less acre devoted to food, fiber, lumber, or native habitat for wildlife.

Columbia County may have a toe in the door of one of these feedstocks. GreenWood Resources grows hybrid poplars and native cottonwoods in the county, owning and leasing more than 6,000 acres near Scappoose and Clatskanie. They have a deal to grow poplar trees for the new pilot cellulosic Pacific Ethanol plant near Boardman. GreenWood trees are being grown for chips in Columbia County, but that may change. 'As the industry grows, biofuels is one of our areas of development,' said Don Rice, a spokeman for GreenWood. Columbia County sites are good and the trees potentially may be used for biofuel. GreenWood grows enough trees in the Boardman area at the present time for the pilot project.

The rotation for harvesting trees for ethanol would be very short, only two-three years, said Rice, producing steady income for the grower. Hybrid poplars are good at taking up Nitrogen in water polluted with excess fertilizer or sewage, but a rapid cut cycle is harder on soil.

Cellulosic technology breaks down fibers in woody stems and grasses. A Scientific American Web site says cellulosic biofuels result in more net energy and emit significantly fewer greenhouse gases than corn ethanol. Byproducts are used as the energy source at the plant. Switchgrass is a promising plant for this technology - just mow it to harvest, and it uses little water or fertilizer. It has a significant net energy gain. The technology is still being perfected to make cellulosic ethanol affordable.

Weyerhauser and Chevron announced last week that they are joining forces to use wood products and recycled paper for cellelosic biofuel production. The ramifications of growing trees on forestland specifically for fuel instead of paper and lumber is unknown. The timber industry is looking for ways to economically market slash and brush on forestlands, as well.

Biodiesel is getting a lot of attention - using seed oil instead of sugars from crops. It burns with very little CO2 (a greenhouse gas) emissions and is very efficient to produce. According to the Department of Energy, it is 2 percent less efficient than gasoline, requiring more gallons per mile. The best fuel crop depends on whom you talk to, but canola, soy, and sunflowers are possibilities. Millions of acres would be needed to grow such crops. It brings us right back to the supply problem - replacing millions of acres needed for food and wood with crops for fuel, not to mention wildlands. The more crops are harvested, the more carbon is released, as well.

Algae is getting a lot of people excited as a source for biosdiesel, as well as ethanol as a byproduct - but it's finicky, and not just any old algae will do. A Popular Mechanics article states that algae needs just the right temperature and salinity to grow, so a controlled environment is needed. It has a high oil content and can be harvested daily - two pluses. Right now it's very expensive to turn into oil, and the technology needs fixing. The yield per acre (in vats) compared to other crops is very high if all goes well. It would take millions of acres of algae farms to make a significant contribution to the biodiesel supply.

Other fuels to replace petroleum are plentiful, but highly polluting, damaging to retrieve, and poor quality. Oil shale and tar sands in North America may someday be mined, but it's debatable if they will be useful for transportation needs. Other technologies are being looked at as well, but no studies or alternate fuels out there offer a complete replacement for the amount of petroleum we now use. 'There is nothing on the horizon to replace petroleum,' said a teacher at the Oregon Institute of Technology, which has a degree program in renewable energy systems.