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Fueling a greener world with crops

Agriculture is at the dawn of a new age that will continue to feed humans while it replaces some petroleum and petrochemicals used to make synthetic clothing and carpet.

That's the vision that a DuPont group vice president brought to farmers and biofuels experts gathered in Des Moines, Iowa, Tuesday.

"We have never been more excited about what agriculture can do," said Erik Fyrwald, the group vice president for the company's seed, farm chemicals, and nutrition and health products.

Fyrwald showed an image of DuPont's new startup plant in Loudon, Tennessee, that began production last fall of a chemical, 1, 3-propanediol that's made from corn sugar. The plant is a joint venture with Tate & Lyle. Some of the first shipments went to DuPont to make Sorona, the company's trademarked fabric that will be used for clothing and carpet. By making the stuff from corn, the factory saves the equivalent of 10 million gallons of gasoline a year.

Using biological products to replace petrochemicals is yet another way to reduce petroleum use, and to also combat global warming.

Two weeks ago Fyrwald was in Davos, Switzerland, at the World Economic Forum, a gathering of corporate and government leaders and representatives of nongovernmental organizations and universities.

"This year the overwhelming consensus is the number one challenge facing the world is climate change," Fyrwald said. And those at Davos also agreed that "biofuels have to play a very big role in addressing climate change."

DuPont, which owns Pioneer Hi-Bred International in Des Moines, is working on that from several angles. Its breeding corn that will increase yields as well as producing more fermentable starches for making ethanol. Late this year, in partnership with BP, it will begin test marketing biobutanol in Britain. The fuel has the advantage of providing better mileage than ethanol, of being shipped through pipelines and blending well with either ethanol or gasoline.

Fyrwald discusses the advantages of biobutanol.

The commercial viability of butanol is still three to five years aways, Fyrwald said, as is the viability of ethanol made from biomass like switchgrass.

"Today we can convert cellulose to starches and biofuels, but again, its not economical," he said. Commercialization of fuels from switchgrass is also at least three to five years away, he said.

Fyrwald discusses why cellulosic ethanol is not yet economical.

The development of cellulosic ethanol is one of the reasons that General Motors decided to ramp up production of flexible fuel vehicles that can burn E-85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline), said Mary Beth Stanek, the company's director of environment and energy. One estimate based on University of Toronto data shows 35% of the nation’s light duty fuels coming from cellulosic ethanol by 2020.

"We're not going to work on a powertrain when we don't have fuel for it," Stanek said.

Along with Ford and Daimler-Chrysler, GM has plans to make half of its vehicles flexible fuel by 2012. And it has already more than doubled the number of models that can burn E-85 to 16 this year, Stanek said.

"This is not a temporary issue for us," She said.

Stanek explains why ethanol is an attractive prospect for auto manufacturers.

The cost of making each vehicle flexible varies from about $100 to $500, she said, as well as added engineering costs at the manufacturing plant.

Although most flexible fuel vehicles are larger cars and trucks today, Stanek said GM will introduce smaller entry-level cars capable of burning E-85 by 2010.

Stanek acknowledged some marketing hurdles for E-85, too, including lack of pumps dispensing the fuel, price volatility and lower mileage.

Expanding E-85 availability is not as difficult as some believe, Stanek says.

When asked about Saab vehicles that burn E-85 more efficiently (GM now owns Saab), Stanek said that it's possible through turbo charging. That can add "a couple thousand dollars" to the cost of the car, she said. And it's not yet being imported because it doesn't meet emissions standards, she said.

Agriculture is at the dawn of a new age that will continue to feed humans while it replaces some petroleum and petrochemicals used to make synthetic clothing and carpet.

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