How Does Cellulosic Ethanol Remove the Food Vs. Fuel Scenario?

Prairie Gleanings

With a push toward growing biomass, it seems like folks forgot about this old argument.

Published on: January 15, 2010

During the University of Illinois' Bioenergy Feedstocks Symposium, none of the speakers actually said, "Corn ethanol is bad."


However, there was a noticeable subtext that advanced biofuels (i.e. cellulosic ethanol from miscanthus or switchgrass) are the wave of the future and corn-based ethanol is on its way out. For those who haven't seen these biomass crops, both look like extremely tall prairie grasses. Miscanthus grows about 10 feet tall, while switchgrass is a bit shorter.


Sarah Davis, a post-doc student with U of I, spoke about replacing 27% of the U.S. corn crop with miscanthus. According to her research, miscanthus' life cycle sequesters greenhouse gasses, whereas corn's life cycle contributes to them. She came up with 27% because that's how much land we're currently dedicating to corn-based ethanol.


Think back to two years ago when corn prices went sky high. Remember how many food versus fuel headlines cropped up? Maybe I'm missing the boat here, but how does cellulosic ethanol eliminate a food versus fuel scenario?


For those wondering exactly where we are with cellulosic ethanol, the first commercial plant is set to go online in 2012 in Highlands, Fla. The 36-million-gallon per year facility is a joint venture of BP and Verenium. It's called Vercipia.


But, if you were thinking of growing a nice crop of miscanthus to ship down to Florida, you better hold off. They're using 20,000 acres of Florida land to grow "energy cane" (think high-sugar corn stalks for livestock feed) for the facility. Oh, by the way, that 20,000 acres was used as ranch land.


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