The ethanol industry has a long, complicated history. But supporters believe the best days are ahead.
“Fuel ethanol was a thing as early as early as automobiles. Henry Ford made his automobiles to run on ethanol and called it the fuel of the future,” said Monte Shaw, executive director of the Iowa Renewable Fuels Association.
The journey from the past to the present is characterized by spurts, lulls and — most of all — government policy. Shaw is among those convinced that ethanol is here to stay in a big way. But there are caveats.
Tim Donahue, director of Wisconsin-based Great Plains Bioenergy, believes blend levels and cropping decisions may play a big role in the future of renewable fuels.
“The future of the ethanol industry will depend on what the country decides to do about how much ethanol we are going to blend into the fuel,” he said. “It depends on how many cars are sold that are electrified. And it will depend on how much land we want to use to grow corn or crops for fuel compared to food.”
The industry began to take off when Minnesota farmers lobbied the state to provide incentive payments for building the efficient but very expensive dry-mill refineries. Shaw calls it the Minnesota Model.
Nationally, ethanol was put into high gear with the passage of the Clean Air Act in 1990, which gave the federal government legal authority for pollution control, including automotive emissions. Another boost came at the expense of the petroleum industry, which had touted MTBE as a clean additive to gasoline.
“That blew up in the face of the oil industry about 1999 when underground storage tanks were leaking, and would leak further and faster than other oil components,” Shaw said. “At very low levels — something like 2-3 parts per billion — people could taste it in their water. You couldn’t drink your water.”
Some research suggested that MTBE was a carcinogen, and that didn’t help its popularity. States that had resisted removing the compound — such as California — began to ban it.
“About 2001 those bans became final in California and New York,” Shaw said. “The market for ethanol doubled and tripled overnight, and led to first massive expansion of ethanol production.”
While the starch from a kernel of corn is the source for much of today’s ethanol production, it has competition, including crop residue and biomass. Research began with grasses such as switchgrass and miscanthus, but has moved into other materials.
“We have stopped working on corn or crop residues as a feedstock. We have shifted over to so-called dedicated energy crops, things like poplar or forestry residue,” said Tim Donahue, director of Wisconsin-based Great Plains Bioenergy. “We’re looking at purpose-grown crops you would grow on non-agricultural land.”
Donahue is examining not only corn substitutes, but also at new uses for corn as well as biofuels. Lignocellulosic ethanol refineries have been put into production in Iowa and Kansas.
“They tend to be built right next door to starch ethanol refineries so that an industry can bring in both the corn stalks and the corn cobs,” Donahue said. “One refinery uses one kind of process to make ethanol out of starch and one makes ethanol out of lignocellulose.”
He suggests corn ethanol could expand if more research were aimed at uses other than fuel additives. That is happening in the biomass arena, as scientists are increasing work on building-block materials for plastics.
“Our mandate is to use cellulosic feedstocks. It was fuels originally, but now more in chemicals,” he said.
The Great Plains Bioenergy lab is one of four federally funded bio-energy centers.
“The ethanol industry is built on a business model that makes one product,” Donahue said. “That’s a different business model than the fossil fuel industry, which makes fuels and chemicals.”
Shaw said that many criticisms of ethanol have been debunked, or at least eased over the years. Among them is the argument that production of ethanol is a net energy loser because it is created largely with the use of internal combustion engines and nitrogen fertilizers. Another is that ethanol provides inferior gas mileage compared to pure petroleum fuels.
“At low blends, not at all,” he said. “Petroleum components are much different than they were. With ethanol blends you still get a more complete burn. In a laboratory setting, there would be a minuscule difference.
“E-85 does get lower gas mileage. I could probably build an engine that could get better mileage, but we don’t build engines optimized to run on E-85. But if you look at lower prices, for the last four-years at least, E-85 has consistently been the cheapest cost per mile.”
Another argument posits that too much acreage is being used for energy production, which reduces use of land for growing food.
“There is a legitimate dialog in the country about how much starch should go for food compared to fuel, and how many acres we have to grow it,” Donahue said.
Shaw points to the efficiency of modern agriculture, including the dramatic increase of corn and soybean yields.
Donahue doesn’t see his goals and those of the ethanol industry as being much different in the end.
“Our technology can coexist very nicely with starch ethanol technology,” he said. “I don’t think it’s one or the other. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s not either or.”