September 06, 2007

Ethanol remains a 'maturing industry'

by K.C. Jaehnig


CARBONDALE, Ill. — Back in 1925, Henry Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethanol was "the fuel of the future." It's taken awhile, but ethanol may just be catching up to that future, though it looks a little different from here.

"Ethanol is a maturing industry," said C. Matthew Rendleman, an agribusiness economist from the College of Agricultural Sciences at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, who has been looking at ethanol for nearly two decades.

"Thirty-four percent of this country's corn crop now goes to the category that includes the manufacture of ethanol."

Because the big technological leaps have already occurred, we're unlikely to see the kinds of innovations that led to significant cost reductions when the industry was new.

"Technological developments in the manufacturing process are likely to produce only minor cost savings, though there is always the possibility of some sort of co-product breakthrough that would let manufacturers spin gold out of straw," he said.

Earlier this year, Rendleman and Hosein Shapouri of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Office of Energy Policy and New Uses published an agricultural economic report for the USDA on new technologies in ethanol production. It served as a sort of sequel to an earlier report on the topic done by Rendleman and another USDA researcher in 1993, shortly before Rendleman left the agency for SIUC.

"At the time, our secretary of agriculture was from Illinois and was thinking that ethanol was the wave of the future," Rendleman recalled.

"One of the points we tried to make in that first report was that with technology, we should be able to save 10 or 12 cents per gallon. While that was significant, it was really sort of small compared to the effect of fluctuations in the price of corn (the main source of ethanol in the United States) and the way it kept going up and down, up and down."

Looking back, the cost savings did materialize, but not quite in the way the pair expected. Plant automation and computer monitoring, with the resulting boost in efficiency and reduced labor costs, accounted for most of it.

"A lot of those things that we thought were on the cusp of happening are still out there, but they aren't happening in any big way," Rendleman said. "You still hear the same talk: Five to 10 years and it's going to be here,"

Researchers have made some progress in creating ethanol from corn stover (leaves, stalks and such left from the harvest of field corn), a process called cellulosic conversion.

"A company paid by the Department of Energy has found a way to break corn stover down into the simple sugars that make up ethanol by using enzymes, and a few plants are being built," Rendleman said.

"Everyone says it's the wave of the future, and I won't contradict them — it would be a nice thing. But to be successful, there must be more than a few plants, and people who loan money are very cautious."

Other alternate ethanol sources — switch grass and silver maple, for example — may produce ethanol in a laboratory but as far as Rendleman knows remain untried at the scale needed commercially. The sheer bulkiness of these potential feedstocks presents another challenge, albeit one with an upside.

"They would almost require the construction of small plants near the growers because of the transportation problem, though that might give a boost to rural economies," Rendleman said.

Further technological improvements now taking place in dry milling could make those small plants possible. While back in 1993, most ethanol plants relied on wet milling because the process allowed the recovery of corn oil as well, dry-grind mills have always been cheaper to build. That cost advantage plus new technology that provided a cheaper means for separating oil from corn has helped dry-grind mills take the lead in ethanol production. Although wet milling technology is improving, it's probably not enough to offset ongoing improvements in dry milling.

Asked about the future for alternate fuels, Rendleman, a self-described "cautious optimist," said, "The ethanol market looks healthy and will continue to use a large share of the U.S. corn crop, but if I were to speculate, I would guess that there would be a spreading out of the places we get our fuel from."

Rising prices for gasoline, concerns about carbon footprints and climate change, and the desire to be free of foreign oil sources all may help the ethanol market as we barrel toward the future.

"Ethanol used to be dependent on politics; it needed that tax break to be competitive with gasoline," Rendleman said.

"But now it seems like it would be profitable without any help from the powers that be. So maybe this is the time that ethanol will take off on its own."