Sunday, September 30, 2007

Is this the right path to alternate fuel? Ethanol, food prices, fuel, energy, commodities trading... I think not

My personal view on ethanol is that it's a handy way to add something to the commodities markets so that first-world nations can trade on corn and it's backed by the US government with money. Have we as a planet screwed ourselves out of food sources in order to cut our CO2 emissions and run our cars? Perhaps.

Everyone has an opinion about this. I've selected 4 sources that I think make a good argument or at least have a point-of-view that is fairly balanced in its representation. You be the judge of what you think.
Big Oil's Stall on Ethanol from BusinessWeek 1-Oct-07 (apparently, written in the future but published in the past ;) )

" A more moderate conclusion comes from a recent study by the University of California at Davis, which last year received a $25 million grant from Chevron to study biofuels. It said the energy used to produce ethanol is about even with what it generates and that cleaner emissions would be offset by the loss of pasture and rainforest to corn-growing. Only a small part of the research backed by the grant will involve ethanol, says Billy Sanders, UC Davis' research director. The primary focus will be developing alternative processes and feedstocks for biofuel that is not ethanol.

Infrastructure problems are behind much of the oil companies' resistance to E85. It adds "too much complexity and cost," says Shell spokesperson Anne Bryan Peebles, since it requires separate pumps, trucks, and storage tanks. Any mix with more than 10% ethanol may cause corrosion and other problems in existing pipelines."

One Molecule Could Cure Our Addition to Oil from Wired magazine 24-Sep-07

There's just one catch: No one has yet figured out how to generate energy from plant matter at a competitive price. The result is that no car on the road today uses a drop of cellulosic ethanol.

Today's cellulases are the enzyme equivalent of vacuum tubes: clunky, slow, and expensive. Now, flush with cash, scientists and companies are racing to develop the cellulosic transistor. Some researchers are trying to build the ultimate microbe in the lab, one that could combine the two key steps of the process. Others are using "directed evolution" and genetic engineering to improve the enzyme-producing microorganisms currently in use. Still others are combing the globe in search of new and better bugs. It's bio-construction versus bio-tinkering versus bio-prospecting, all with the single goal of creating the perfect enzyme cocktail.
Go Back to Basics Before you Buy Commodities from the Financial Times 29-Sep-07

Take the drastic shifts in the grain market wrought first by the demand for corn to make ethanol and then by the drought in Australia. Farmers switched from wheat to corn, contracting the supply of the former. Then the drought further constricted wheat supply.

The result: wheat futures have doubled over the past six months, while corn futures have declined. But you would have needed to do a lot of homework to see this coming.
As Prices Soar, US Food Aid Buys Less from the New York Times 29-Sep-07

Corn prices have fallen in recent months, but are still far higher than they were a year ago. Demand for ethanol has also indirectly driven the rising price of soybeans, as land that had been planted with soybeans shifted to corn. And wheat prices have skyrocketed, in large part because drought hurt production in Australia, a major producer, economists say.

The higher food prices have not only reduced the amount of American food aid for the hungry, but are also making it harder for the poorest people to buy food for themselves, economists and advocates for the hungry say.

Biodiesel vs. Ethanol, why biodiesel is the way to go
Biodiesel Boom Heading Towards Wall Street from Business 2.0 magazine 26-sep-07

These days biodiesel isn't just good for the environment - it's good for the bottom line. The U.S. market for the combustible stuff has more than doubled every year since 2004 and will hit $1 billion this year. The number of retail pumps nationwide has grown from 350 in 2005 to more than 1,000 today. A couple of biodiesel IPOs are in the offing - and opportunities abound...

Biodiesel is 30 percent more fuel-efficient than gasoline, which in turn is 30 percent more efficient than ethanol. And while most ethanol produced in the United States comes from a single feedstock - corn - biodiesel has many sources: the oil of seed plants, such as soy and canola, french-fry grease and animal fat. That means the market can weather a price increase in any one raw material. Solazyme, a South San Francisco biotech firm, has even started making biodiesel from genetically modified algae.

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