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Saturday, August 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 77.0° F  Fog/Mist
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Setting a course on biofuels
Researchers here endeavor to work out the kinks
on
Tim
Donahue: 'Our challenge is to get sugar from the parts of the plants that we
currently can't use.'
Tim Donahue: 'Our challenge is to get sugar from the parts of the plants that we currently can't use.'

Here's a quiz to gauge your level of environmental awareness: You're driving home from the food co-op, with your locally grown organic vegetables stowed in your reusable canvas shopping bags, when you notice the gas gauge flirting with "E." Luckily, you come upon two gas stations. At one, the sign on the pump boasts "10% ethanol." At the next, it reads "No ethanol." What's the greener choice?

If you think like Jon Foley, an atmospheric scientist and UW-Madison professor, you might just choose 100% gasoline - at least until science comes up with a better way to get fuel from plants.

"The science community is beginning to raise questions about biofuels, particularly about ethanol," says Foley. He cites recently published articles in Science and other journals which suggest the process for making ethanol from grain produces more greenhouse gases than burning petroleum and may actually increase global warming.

Ethanol, made from corn and other grains, is a renewable resource touted as the next-generation technology to quench our collective thirst for fuel and reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

But Foley and others have been warning for years that putting yet more land under the plow to produce grain for fuel could be a recipe for disaster. It makes no sense, he says, "when you have to use a barrel of petroleum to make 1.1 barrels of ethanol and then use it to run snowmobiles."

Biofuel skeptics are concerned about other effects of large-scale ethanol and biodiesel production. Some say it will cause food prices to rise and supplies to dwindle, jeopardizing the food supply, especially in countries where grains are a dietary staple. Others worry about destruction of rain forests in places like Brazil and Indonesia to make way for growing soybeans and palm trees to extract oils for biodiesel and sugar cane for ethanol.

The UW-Madison is at the center of the debate, as the recipient of a $125 million federal bioenergy research grant.

"One of our goals is to discover ways to extract the sugars to make ethanol from the parts of plants we now throw away," says Tim Donohue, director of the new Great Lakes BioEnergy Research Center. "If we can do that, we can get enough materials to go from 10% ethanol blends to 30% blends without needing any more acres and without using any corn kernels."

And that would mean less CO2 contributing to global warming and no risk to the world's food supply.

In Wisconsin, a half-dozen ethanol plants produce about 400 million gallons of fuel from corn, according to Pat Walsh, a UW-Madison agricultural engineer. The largest, in Jefferson County, turns out 130 million gallons a year.

Gov. Jim Doyle wants Wisconsin to produce more. He has proposed a $450 million public/private investment in renewable energy, including biofuels.

Wisconsin farmers, eager for new markets, have jumped on the ethanol bandwagon. The earliest ethanol factories were locally owned farmer cooperatives. Newer, larger plants have been built with outside capital. Government subsidies and other enticements made it an attractive and profitable venture.

But farmers and investors may find themselves in a situation similar to those who tried raising emus a decade ago: The early adaptors made money, but the venture petered out when something different came along.

Wisconsin's ethanol factories use a technology that has been around for centuries, since humans discovered that grains, fruits and root vegetables could become whiskey, wine or beer. Ethanol factories are basically moonshine stills. It's a good way to catch a buzz, but not such a great way to make fuel for our SUVs.

Critics say ethanol production drives up prices for corn and requires subsidies to survive. Randy Fortenbery, a UW-Madison agricultural economist, disagrees. He says corn prices are at record highs for a number of reasons, not just because of the demand for ethanol. As for the federal subsidies: "It's just creating a level playing field. The petroleum industry has always been heavily subsidized."

Donohue believes the BioEnergy Research Center can find ways to get fuel from plants without relying on grain kernels. They will search for ways to make ethanol from corn stalks, leaves, sawdust and other plant waste. Up until now, that has been difficult and expensive because the sugar in this material is tangled up in tough cellulous fibers. The researchers will try a variety of techniques to get at these sugars, from using enzymes to digest the tough cellulous fibers to breeding "softer" plants.

"It's easy to get the sugar to make alcohol out of corn kernels," he explains. "Our challenge is to get sugar from the parts of the plants that we currently can't use."

The UW-Madison center is one of three facilities that have received massive funding from the Department of Energy to do basic research to improve biofuel technology. But it's the only one whose mission expressly includes studying the environmental consequences and sustainability of new technologies.

"We will be looking at things such as soil quality, air and water quality, CO2 production and migration patterns," says Donohue.

The 200 to 300 scientists who'll work on the projects will test many potential energy sources - from extracting methane from landfills and wastewater to using microbes to generate hydrogen from plant materials and power fuel cells.

Donohue expects they'll discover new technologies to answer most of the criticisms of current biofuels. And he predicts these new technologies will be ready for the marketplace in about 10 years.

"When I was a kid, JFK said we would go to the moon, and 10 years later, we did," he says. He thinks that given the infusion of federal money - the largest grant ever awarded to the UW - the goal of developing an efficient, earth-friendly, plant-based fuel will also be achieved.

Foley is also optimistic. Right now, he says, "we are turning grain to ethanol, and that's not efficient. But if you can figure out how to do it with waste materials, that would be pretty cool."

But biofuels are expected to replace only 25% to 30% of petroleum, so there is also a need to use far less energy in the first place.

"The U.S. consumes more and more energy every year," says Foley, who moved from Mazomanie to a house with solar collectors within a short walk from campus to reduce his own carbon footprint. "We need to encourage people to conserve and be more efficient."

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