Cornstalks?

Cellulose-derived ethanol may be ready to take off.

Looks as if ethanol derived from cellulose is about ready to take off.

And not a moment too soon.

Meantime, DuPont and BP seem to think they can make butanol (butyl alcohol) from corn, sugar beets, or cellulose at prices competitive with ethanol. Apparently butanol has some important technical advantages, including the capacity to be sent through petroleum pipelines. (Ethanol, which attracts water, can’t be.)

Footnote I wonder what sort of legislation Archer-Daniels-Midland is going to come up with to make this impossible? After all, biomass is even more of a threat to the ADM ethanol racket than it is to OPEC.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

10 thoughts on “Cornstalks?”

  1. As long as you realize that the current "price" of ethanol derived from midwestern plants contains ZERO allowance for soil depletion.
    Do a little experiment for me: get off the Interstate and drive around in west-central Illinois, the world's most fertile corn-growing region. Find a small town with a cemetary right next to a corn field. Note how the cemetary edges, where grass is growing, are 6-18" higher than the cornfield. Then think about why that is, and what it implies.
    Cranky

  2. Butanol, aside from much lower water solubility than ethnaol, has a higher "fuel" content (tetravalent carbons), although it has a lower volatilty than ethanol or most gasoline components (remembering, of course, Grizzly Adams the disaster that was beard when the Cherries jubilee was ignited..)

  3. > why, cranky?
    > do you mean that the
    > corn field is sinking?
    The cemetaries have never been plowed. They have been in grass since the time of the Indians. Some of the tallgrass you see growing in preserves is from seed collected in those cemetaries.
    So – the Illinois prairielands have lost up to 18" of topsoil since 1850. Not as dramatically as the dust bowl, and new techniques are supposed to help slow down the loss. But the soil is going away.
    Cranky

  4. Uh, ADM's ethanol racket is biomass. And if they can make ethanol out of corn and cellulose, how exactly is this going to make ADM upset?
    And why is there zero allowance for soil depletion in the price of ethanol? Farmers already do crop rotation and such in recognizance of soil properties and the effect growing has on them, rather than growing as much as they can as fast as they can. At least, in the US they do.

  5. I like that: "peak soil".
    We are going to accelerate the strip-mining of the soil. This is really great.
    Are conservatives capable of thinking of any economic scheme, which doesn't involve either enslaving a huge group of people or a massive, uncompensated externality?

  6. > It will be at least 100 years before we
    > reach peak soil.
    Since my family has farmed the same land for 120 years that kind of thing tends to worry us ;-(
    Cranky

  7. "
    Are conservatives capable of thinking of any economic scheme, which doesn't involve either enslaving a huge group of people or a massive, uncompensated externality?
    "
    Cellulosic ethanol is not some conservative plot.
    The fundamental problem, which isn't going to go away no matter who runs the US or the world, is that there are too many people on the earth to all live well. The choices are to for most of them to live horribly, or to cut the number of people.
    The conservatives, at least, have the kinda-sorta intellectual honesty to admit (to themselves, if not to the world) that they are quite happy with a situation where most live horribly, as long as they and their friends aren't part of that group.
    The left have been singularly unhelpful in dealing with this problem since they refuse to admit the basic point. They bemoan the affluence of the west, then bemoan the poverty of the south, then bemoan resource depletion, then tell you that a concept such as overpopulation is racist and classist.
    The fact is that
    * The US is not going to halve its energy (or other resources consumption) and that
    * even if it did, so what, twenty years of Chinese or Indian growth will swamp the halving anyway.
    As for whether or not ADM or Exxon wants to kill cellulosic ethanol doesn't really matter. It's going to happen. Countries like China and India are going to go down this path to limit their oil vulnerability — you don't think they look at Brazil with envy? The US can act retarded, try to stem the tide, and spend a few trillion dollars or so on oil before getting on board, but this is going to happen.
    As for topsoil.
    Freeman Dyson claims that excess CO2 levels can be parlayed into rapid growth of the micro-organisms that create soil through some minor genetic engineering. I've no idea of the truth of these claims. I've never heard anyone else make them. (And, of course, I can just imagine the political fight that's going to break out when it is suggested that we blanket the planet in a new form of genetically engineered micro-organism.)

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