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Importance of farm-based energy production has come full-circle

Agriculture.com Staff 01/24/2008 @ 9:47am

We grew up just after the end of an era when biofuels -- though we did not call them that -- were the basic means of getting farm work done. Farm houses were heated with wood from the woodlot and the horsepower that plowed the fields and harvested the crops was fed by grass, hay and oats that were grown on the farm. In some places, a DELCO or Windcharger system powered by a windmill provided rudimentary electric lighting for the farm. In addition, windmills were universally used to pump water for livestock and household use.

With the advent of gasoline and diesel tractors and rural electrification, the energy we used on farms came from somewhere else. It was refined from crude oil or generated from coal and much of the pasture and oat fields were converted to crops like corn and later soybeans. The bulk truck and the on-farm fuel tank became the source of energy that was used to power the agricultural work of the farm. In time, the idea of biofuels began to sound strange.

Later on, low corn and soybean prices sent farmers looking for some way to get more dollars out of the raw products they were producing. Ethanol and biodiesel seemed like logical products, after all Rudolf Diesel used peanut oil to fuel his early engines and farmers have been converting corn into alcohol for a long time. It was a struggle to develop the budding biofuels industry in the late '90s. The idea of biofuels sounded far-fetched.

Then along came Katrina, political instability in the Middle East, and crude oil above $60 a barrel and suddenly everyone was talking about biofuels and energy independence. Though commodity prices have risen in response to the additional demand for corn to be converted to ethanol, oil prices have continued to rise as well and suddenly it seems that everyone is in the biofuel business.

At the opening of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, General Motors announced that it had bought a stake in Coskata, a start-up company. They plan to make ethanol by using inputs—wood chip and industrial and municipal waste—other than corn. When it is in full production, Coskata expects to be able to produce ethanol for less than $1 a gallon. They claim their process gets more energy per ton of input than other processes and uses less than a gallon of water for each gallon of ethanol produced.

Diversified Energy Corporation recently demonstrated a process that takes renewable oil—both plant and animal—and converts it directly into a "biogasoline fuel very similar to traditional unleaded gasoline." The process they used was developed by scientists at North Carolina State University (NCSU). Henry Lamb, NCSU Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and lead investigator on the bio-gasoline work, remarked, "With over 243 million vehicles on U.S. roads (with a majority using gasoline), finding an affordable renewable drop-in replacement would be a major achievement."

At one time, people were talking about five to 10 years before biofuels other than corn-based ethanol would be available commercially. Today, the press releases are talking about having plants online by 2011, three years from now.

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