A dark cornfieldDark harvest: A cornfield destined for ethanol.Photo: Big Grey Mare

Like countless politicians before him, Obama is striving to shore up his political support in the Midwest by brandishing goodies for the ethanol industry. There you go — scrambling to check on baseball scores or celebrity gossip. (That is, unless you farm a few thousand acres of corn or run an ethanol plant, like so many Grist readers.) I know, I know, even my editor groaned when I said I was writing about ethanol again. But this will be riveting, I promise!

In a speech last week, Tom Vilsack, Obama’s USDA chief, underscored the administration’s fierce commitment to ethanol by promising more than $1.5 billion in gifts to the industry. He also urged Congress to extend the $0.45/gallon tax break, due to expire in December, currently enjoyed by the industry — a perk that will cost taxpayers about $6 billion this year.

But this isn’t your father’s mindless ethanol boosterism. It’s a new kind … although I’d argue it remains quite mindless.

There’s one corn every day

In the past, to appease the ethanol gods, politicians had to sing the praises of corn-based ethanol. But the Energy Act of 2007, with its highly aggressive “renewable fuel standard” mandates for ethanol usage, have upped corn-based ethanol production to 13 billion gallons (vs. less than 2 billion gallons, as recently as 2001). Ethanol is already taking more than a third of the corn crop; if production levels haven’t reached their limit, they’ve gotten quite close.

Meanwhile, the renewable fuel standard mandates that cellulosic ethanol add at least 16 billion gallons to the fuel supply by 2022. So far, it contributes approximately zero, despite 30 years of steady government investment. So promoting corn-based ethanol only gets you so far. To really pander to agribusiness interests in the Midwest, you have to push cellulosic ethanol.


“There is no such thing as a free biofuel from crop residues.” — Rattan Lal


Not surprisingly, according to a Reuters account of Vilsack’s speech, the USDA chief barely mentioned corn ethanol. Instead, he fixated on “assistance, from field to filling station, to bring next-generation biofuels to market.” That means cellulosic ethanol.

What is cellulosic ethanol exactly? Well, to make corn ethanol, processors isolate corn’s ample simple sugars, ferment them into alcohol, and then distill that alcohol into something that can power an internal-combustion engine. With cellulosic ethanol, processors break down the non-sugar (cellulosic) parts of a plant — in short, any biomass, from grass to wood scraps to the stalks and cobs left over after the corn harvest  — into sugars that can be fermented.

That sounds like a fantastic alternative to both fossil fuels and corn-based ethanol: inedible plants and waste products transformed into fuel for our cars! In practice, generating commercially viable cellulosic ethanol has proven monumentally vexing, billions of dollars in government research support notwithstanding. The first problem is that it requires tremendous amounts of energy to break down plant cellulose into fermentable sugars. The second problem is that it requires tremendous energy both to harvest bulky, heavy plant matter and then to haul it to ethanol refineries.

Researchers have made significant strides toward dealing with the first problem, conjuring up novel enzymes that break down cellulose more efficiently. But they still haven’t quite solved it. “The latest generation of cellulosic enzymes has finally moved the industry within the reach of commercialization,” Ethanol Producer magazine recently declared. (You subscribe, don’t you?) Note the hedge “within reach.” For decades, boosters deemed cellulosic ethanol “five years way” from commercial viability. Now its status has been upgraded to “within reach.” Progress!

Bait and switchgrass