U.S. Senate Examines Biofuels’ Potential

By Published On: February 2, 2007

Despite the current image of corn as the basic feedstock for biofuel, nearly every expert addressing a February 1 Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing declared that corn-based ethanol is not the sole answer to creating alternative fuels. “I’ll be the first to tell you, [alternatives] have to be much bigger than corn and much bigger than Midwestern,” said American Corn Growers Association chief executive officer Larry Mitchell. “It’s a reoccurring theme – there’s too much emphasis on corn and not enough on cellulosic” based fuels. The latter can be made from grasses, biomass, other nonfood crops, and waste. While President Bush called for the country to produce 35 billion gallons of ethanol in his State of the Union speech last month, experts told Senators that the goal is unlikely to be met. “It’s not that we don’t have the technology – we don’t have investors,” noted Dan Arvizu, National Renewable Energy Laboratory director. He estimated that in 10 years the country might have the capability to produce 6 billion gallons of cellulosic fuel. Production is only one part of the biofuels equation. There is a “systems” problem, according to Kristala Prather of the MIT Laboratory for Energy and Environment. Those far-flung systems include what crops to plant, where to plant them, how to break them down to fuels (chemical or thermal), how to transport the fuels, and what standard or standards the fuels from different sources may be held to. They also entail whether car makers have to be mandated to produce flexible-fuel vehicles, to what extent fuels should be used for electricity instead of being poured directly into internal combustion engines, and whether vehicle efficiency should be mandated to save fuel consumption in the first place. One thing that all the 33 witnesses in the daylong hearing agreed upon was that creating and distributing enough alternative fuels to begin to wean the country off its petroleum dependency will require government subsidies to reassure investors and spark research and development. – J.A. Savage

Share this story

Not a member yet?

Subscribe Now