Ethanol will extend our volume of gasoline, reduce dependence on foreign oil
Looking at the world situation in regard to food, fiber and fuel, and their economic and political relationships, brings forth some clear pictures.
Worldwide, there seems to be enough food, but some nations have an excess, and others fall far short of adequate nutrition. The same can be said for fuel. In the movement of food and fuel commodities, politics is very much involved. For today, concentrating on fuel leads us to note that some nations, like the United States, consume far greater amounts per capita than others. How is that addressed?
We spend awesome quantities of dollars to try to protect and ensure reliable supplies of oil coming to our shores. That causes a very large trade imbalance, and has a very large impact on our national budget, seen mostly in the defense budget. It also causes loss of life, for our troops and for civilians in foreign countries, another cost not usually mentioned regarding the real cost of fuel in the United States. Rarely does one see the total cost of petroleum.
The fact that our oil dollars support regimes and groups bent on antagonizing and even attacking us is hard to put into dollars.
That sets the stage for looking at ways for the U.S. to be more efficient with fuel use, and also ways to have fuel without the dependence on foreign oil. What can we do?
Enter ethanol, a type of alcohol that can be made from starch, the most available source of which in the U.S. is corn. It should be noted that worldwide, there is an abundance of starch, even in places like Africa, where root crops like cassava can produce a lot of starch, but not much protein. The world needs more protein, not more starch. The process to produce ethanol separates the protein part of the kernel from the fiber (hull) and starch parts, leaving the protein for food use. A study of the processes used by Archer Daniels Midland Company in Decatur to create ethanol from corn show the increased efficiency of the process.
Ethanol is fairly easy to mix with gasoline to extend the volume of gasoline. A 10 percent addition requires no special changes in gasoline engines. In the early days, my bulk tank truck deliverer to my farm mixed the fuel in my thousand gallon tank.
Some 25 years ago, when gasoline mixed with 10 percent ethanol became available for bulk buyers like farmers (think 500 and 1,000 gallon tanks), I began using it in my cars, small trucks, small tractors and small engines. The large farm machines, semi trucks, combines and large tractors are virtually all diesel powered. I encountered a few fuel filter issues, but once the tanks were clean, I had no problems from using the blend.
The process to produce ethanol 25 years ago was virtually unchanged over the previous 10 years. One of the local pioneers in using an ethanol/gasoline blend was Frank Andrews, an agricultural engineer at the University of Illinois. He had his own still for producing (non potable) ethanol, and he used it at his mini farm in his tractor and airplane. Parkland College offered a short chemistry class on producing ethanol from corn, which I took. As part of the class, we visited Andrews' farm. At the commercial factory scale, as use increased, ways to improve the efficiency of the process increased. With the current boom in ethanol production, billions of dollars (mostly private money, not government) are being invested in increasing the efficiency of the process.
That leads me to one of the major issues, as seen “from the farm:” lack of up-to-date information being presented to the public. The technology is actually changing every six months now. Think of that: from no change for 100 years, to changes every six months. The U of I has some folks on the leading edge of these changes, and a farmer from Pesotum, Eric Rund, is also on the leading edge of these changes. Rund leads tours to Brazil, where groups see technology in use producing and using ethanol, to the extent Brazil is energy independent. A new group at the U of I within the college of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, is pulling together experts to coordinate efforts in energy. Hans Blascheck heads it up.
Returning to the big picture, most folks see ethanol as a transitional piece in the fuel pie, certainly not as something that can replace oil. The entrepreneurial dollars in research will generate not only increased efficiency with ethanol production, but also lead to next steps, like butanol production and use of cellulosic sources to process into ethanol. Increased efficiency of users cars and trucks along with wind, solar power, geothermal and ocean tide energy, and environmentally friendly ways to use coal also fit into the picture.
As with all change, emotion plays a part. Actually, my experiences of dealing with education administration over 35 years has led me to conclude that emotions lead, with facts being tough to market. So we encounter ideas like that the price of Mexican tortillas will be strongly impacted by corn prices in the U.S. If you were to go to your favorite price-conscious grocery store, buy a bag of tortillas already made and compare the ounces in the package with the price of a bushel of corn (56 pounds to the bushel), you would see that even a 50 percent increase in the price of a bushel of corn has an extremely small impact on the cost of a week's worth of tortillas. We're talking a fraction of a penny per tortilla.
Along the same lines, if you look at the prices of gasoline and corn over the past 40 years I've been farming, you would see that if corn prices had kept up with gasoline prices, corn would cost $12 per bushel! That's a testimony to the increased efficiency of the American farmer.
A recent article in this magazine noted that costs of other corn based products, like corn chips, corn flakes and hundreds of other processed foods might go up. Once again, if you look at the ounces in a box of corn flakes and compare it to the 56 pounds per bushel, whether corn is priced at $3 or $4 a bushel will have little impact. The reality is that those who process corn into products, box, transport and advertise those products, will increase their prices due to their other costs increasing.
I appreciate the chance to share a view from a producer's perspective.
Editor's Note: Both our April cover story on ethanol and Morris Beschloss' column in our May issue on the negative impacts of ethanol received several comments from readers. We chose to print Linden Warfel's column to show a local farmer's perspective on ethanol.
- Linden Warfel is a fourth-generation farmer on a centennial farm southwest of Tolono that has been in his family since 1882. His college education at the University of Illinois focused on agricultural economics.