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Monday, March 26, 2007

A Kernel of Truth

Do you remember how every once in awhile, Bo and Luke Duke got into a bind and had to pour some of their moonshine into the General Lee's gas tank instead of regular unleaded? It seems like our President does? He's been sermonizing about ethanol like it's nature's miracle fuel. It sounds like a pretty good deal at first. You take a few bushels of freshly husked corn from America's heartland and convert it into a clean-burning liquid that can compete with all that evil foreign oil. It just makes you want to go out and hug the whole state of Iowa.

Only, like all things, there's a catch.

You see, the picture in your head is all wrong. The maize your think of doesn't exist much anymore. The corn plants that ethanol is made from were never intended for eating. Even the ones that aren't genetically engineered and patented by Monsanto have been bred for all sorts of traits that don't make any sense. They have been taught to stand up straight and grow so close together that you could hide entire leagues of baseball players so even Kevin Costner couldn't find them. These high yield varieties suck need a steady supply of nitrates to keep them big and strong. Only the don't get those nitrates from the natural world any longer.

Once upon a time, farmers rotated their crops, using legumes like soybeans to add nitrates back into the soil. Before the Great War, the only usable nitrogen in the ecosystem came from a special relationship between the roots of certain legumes and some helpful bacteria. Then a German chemist discovered a process whereby nitrates could be acquired via science- called nitrogen "fixing." It turns out that if you get some nitrogen, which is readily available in the atmosphere in an entirely stable and unusable condition, and put it together with some hydrogen, add the presence of a catalyst, and zap it with electricity, you can manufacture some black gold.

The process was originally intended for use in explosives. Those of you who remember that Uncle Sam grows terrorists as well as corn down on the farm might recall the Oklahoma City bombing. Nitrates go boom. After World War II, we ended up with surpluses of nitrates, and having of course discovered better ways to explode people, we needed something to do with them. We decided to sell it to our nation's farmers for fertilizer, and a new industry was born. Today's corn fields can't survive a season without a heavy dose of manufactured nitrates. Those nitrates (here's the best part) require petroleum to produce. That's right, oil. Remember the hydrogen in the "fixing" recipe? Well we get it from petroleum. Combine that with the natural gas in the fertilizer, the fossil fuels running the tractor and the turbine, and making the pesticides, and it takes between 1/4 and 1/3 of a barrel of oil to make a bushel of corn. Let me put it another way. It takes roughly 131,000 BTUs of energy to make a gallon of ethanol. A gallon of ethanol yields 77,000 BTU's of energy. Here's where the math comes into play. It's complicated, but it turns out that 131,000 is actually MORE than 77,000- by roughly 54,000.

Don't be fooled. The companies that control our corn commodities know this and so do the car companies and the oil companies. There is an alternate energy source out there somewhere. But this ain't it.

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