Saturday, June 10, 2006

As the price of a barrel rises these days, and let's review, it has risen sharply since September, 2001, other commodities rise as well; how I wish I had bought gold when it was cheap, at a mere $350 an ounce! Having missed such a golden opportunity, there is comfort in knowing there are other markets. In Iowa this month, the price of a more mundane item, corn, was up for discussion. While it had no such stellar rise as petrol and precious metals , it is nonetheless going up a notch, from $2.00 a bushel to $2.10 a bushel. OK, that's only 5%, but enough to encourage farmers to pick corn this year rather than soy, wheat or cotton.
Part of the rise in the price of corn is due to its cellulose content; cellulose is a carbohydrate which converts easily to ethanol, and for many people tired of paying lots of money for petrol, this is an important bit of information. Truckers have been demanding biofuel for years now in the US, as their incomes are shrinking as inflation rises. So the corn farmers are now able to sell what was once farm waste, the inedible parts of the corn plant, and do the country a service as well. Patriotism, without shedding blood.
However simple some things may be in life, there are always those who can get things wrong, and in the reporting of this in no less a paper than the New York Times, there were worried voices expressing concern about using a food plant to supply energy. Do these people really imagine that they are going to use all the kernels to make fuel? Do they not realise that the kernels are a fraction of the plant's weight, they are the seeds, thus they contain the proteins that make them valuable as a food; the rest of the plant can be dehydrated and fermented for biofuel. We kill two birds here for the price of one.
Sloppy reporting over the years about energy plants is not limited to the Grey Lady in the Big Apple; no less a rag than the UK's Independent will write articles about biofuel without an understanding of the whole picture. Recently, they wrote that it was unfeasible for the UK to farm energy as the rape crop would not produce enough ethanol from its stems. Right they are, but why are they talking about rape when Henry Ford, who certainly did know a thing or two about cars and energy, talked about hemp and farm wastes?
At least the NYT article (Matthew Wald, 16 January, 2006) took notes from those in the business, such as Robert C. Brown, a professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State, who noted that the idea that using corn for energy was taking food from our mouths was incorrect. Benie Punt, also quoted in the NYT, is a manager of a plant in Siouxland, and he was also able to point out that the leftovers from the ethanol conversion are even used as animal feed.
The scare tactics, interestingly enough, come from the Washington based International Food Policy Research Institute, whose director, Joachim von Braun, warns that: "even a small shift could have big effects...the mouth of your car is a monster compared to your family's stomach needs." OK, one does not need to be a rocket scientist, or related to a former Nazi rocket scientist, to see that this argument is actually better suited towards two other goals - reducing driving and reducing dependence on foreign energy. For an idiot, it stands to reason that we better not use farm wastes to produce ethanol, unless we want a big raise in the price of food.
Actually, by harnessing the energy in farm wastes, the US would quite likely get back on its feet finacially, while providing jobs in the energy and agricultural sectors to its own citizens. If farm wastes were not enought to provide the country with its energy supplies, then certain crops could be grown to provide more, such as hemp, which is one of the fastest biomass producing plants in the world, ready to harvest in a season with little effort. Its stems are high in cellulose, and the seeds can be harvested for oil and cattle feed among other products.
The Founding Fathers grew hemp, so there ought to be little objection to growing this in the US, it can, by the way, be grown in all 50 states. With a little more education and the will to succeed we can. Recently, Sir Richard Branson put his money into ethanol production after listening to Al Gore hold forth on the subject in London. Sir Richard is using farm wastes, thus utilising what is already cheap and available. Little wonder that he became the billionaire that he did.

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