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January 2, 2007 > Cellulose challenging corn as ethanol's main ingredient

Cellulose challenging corn as ethanol's main ingredient

By MARK STEIL Minnesota Public Radio

WORTHINGTON, Minn. (AP), Dec 27 _ Ethanol has become a major component of the nation's alternative energy drive, and that makes its main ingredient a source of intense debate.

The basic technology of distilling corn into alcohol has been around for centuries. It was a natural choice for the ethanol industry when it started more than 20 years ago. Corn has limitations, though.

David Tilman, a University of Minnesota ecology professor, said there may not be enough corn to feed humans, livestock and fuel refineries.

``The estimates are within 40 or 50 years we're going to need twice as much food on the world and twice as much energy as we have now,'' Tilman said. ``And we don't have twice as much land to use. We don't have that much land left in the world now that we can convert to agriculture.''

Tilman studied native prairie plants as a substitute for corn in making ethanol. He found that they can provide plenty of cellulose to make the fuel. Other researchers have reached the same conclusion.

The problem is technology. No one is sure if cellulose to ethanol can be done profitably. To test the concept, the federal government is ready to hand out more than $150 million in grants. The money will help several companies build the nation's first cellulose ethanol plants.

The Department of Energy's John Mizroch said the money should be awarded early next year.

``Our goal at the department is to try to promote its being produced on a commercial scale cost effectively,'' Mizroch said. ``And we deem that cost effective at or around $1.07 a gallon.''

That would be in roughly the same range as what it costs today to make ethanol from corn. One of the companies hoping for some of that federal money is Broin Companies of Sioux Falls, S.D. It currently manages 19 ethanol production plants across the nation.

Broin's Mike Lockrem said the company wants to add a cellulose plant when it expands its Emmetsburg, Iowa, corn ethanol facility.

``We're committed to the development of cellulose technology,'' Lockrem said. ``But our project in Emmetsburg this is a vital part of that, that Department of Energy funding.''

Lockrem said the cellulose for the operation will come from corn stover. Stover is basically the entire corn plant, minus the ear. He said stover makes sense since the company is already tied in to a network of farmers who can easily meet the company's cellulose needs.

Tilman has a different sort of plant material in mind for cellulosic ethanol. He studied a mix of 16 prairie grasses and legumes.

``We find we actually get more net useable energy coming from an acre of prairie on this land than we do from an acre of corn that is used to make ethanol,'' Tilman said. ``And that really surprised us because corn's a very productive plant.''

Tilman said the main reason prairie plants beat corn is because they take far less energy to grow. Corn requires lots of fuel for tractors and natural gas to make fertilizers. The prairie plants are like lawn grass. Once they're established, they come up each year on their own.

Tilman said another benefit of the prairie plants is that they do fine on marginal land, leaving the best acres for food production.

The debate over which basic ethanol ingredient works best likely will take years to settle. Cellulose is promising, and energy companies are busy trying to find out if they can make the fuel and money at the same time.

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