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A Policy Disaster

Deroy Murdock writes on the ethanol scam, and its global effects on food and fuel prices.

[Update a few minutes later]

If this pans out, ethanol will make a lot more sense, won't be competing with food, and won't require any subsidies:

Along with cellulose, the cyanobacteria developed by Professor R. Malcolm Brown Jr. and Dr. David Nobles Jr. secrete glucose and sucrose. These simple sugars are the major sources used to produce ethanol.

"The cyanobacterium is potentially a very inexpensive source for sugars to use for ethanol and designer fuels," says Nobles, a research associate in the Section of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics.

Brown and Nobles say their cyanobacteria can be grown in production facilities on non-agricultural lands using salty water unsuitable for human consumption or crops.

Bring it on.

[Evening update]

David Freddoso has an appropriately outraged follow-up to the Murdock piece:

Our government's negligence and perhaps even malicious misdirection of societal resources toward a worthless, unwanted product -- ethanol -- will cause millions of people to go hungry tonight.

The way things are going, this could become the worst chapter yet in the sad, ruinous history of our bipartisan agricultural welfare programs. For those who write in and protest that free-market capitalism is an uncompassionate, un-Christian economic system, I submit that you are currently witnessing the alternative.

Indeed. End the tariffs, end the subsidies. Let the market work.


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Karl Hallowell wrote:

From the article

-- Cyanobacteria that can fix atmospheric nitrogen can be grown without petroleum-based fertilizer input

In addition to providing sugars for ethanol production, this might provide a source of nitrogen fertilizer for regular crops. A key source of nitrogen fixing uses hydrogen from natural gas and atmospheric nitrogen to make ammonia. If we can get adequate nitrogen from cyanobacteria, then that can reduce another fossil fuel source for agriculture collectively.

Ray wrote:

Here's a post I did on the X PRIZE Foundation and a possible "Biofuels Prize":

There are a few things in the first article that need to be looked into more. First, are food price increases caused by ethanol, which has been around for a while (the U.S. energy bill with the ethanol increase was just signed recently, after the year's crops came in), or are they caused by increasing gas prices? Gasoline is used, after all, in food production, distribution, etc. If it's both, what's the breakdown?

Also note that a major byproduct of corn ethanol production is farm animal food.

Also note that, although the article is right that ethanol flames are invisible and thus a fire hazard, ethanol that's actually sold for fuel is mixed and not invisible.

Nevertheless, I totally agree that corn ethanol by itself is not the solution to the energy independence problem, and, though I lean "L" in most cases, I don't think the market is going to solve the problem (and I do think it's a "live or die" national security problem), either. I still haven't seen a more convincing argument than Zubrin's, which is something like:

- keep or increase the gas tariff (the market will not work with the OPEC cartel - they can open the pumps, or threaten to open them, to kill any competing industry, since they can pump cheap)
- get rid of the ethanol tariff (as recommended in the article) - especially for regions that can replace drug crops with ethanol crops, plant regions lost to the Sahara, etc
- mandate flex-fuel vehicles so current gas cars can support methanol (very important, and unfortunately current FFVs usually don't support methanol), ethanol, and gas ... yes, a mandate, but a good trade for removing the ethanol tariff if you don't like regulations

The theory of the mandate is that noone want to pay extra for an M85/E85 flex fuel vehicle, even if only ~$100 more, because there are hardly any M85/E85 gas pumps, and nobody wants to invest in the expensive pumps if only 6% of cars can use the fuels. Even $4 gas isn't enough to budge the situation. Break the deadlock - we need multiple fuel sources for our economy and our safety.

This would encourage the pumps to get installed, and the industrial E85 and M85 production to start. It would also give a big boost to the types of R&D and industrial engineering needed in cellulosic ethanol, cyanobacteria as mentioned in the 2nd article), and many more possibilities, since they have an actual market to address.

In the meantime, methanol can be produced from natural gas (often flamed off/wasted), coal (abundant in the U.S.) and tons of bio and waste sources, and without the tariff ethanol can add to corn.

Bob Hawkins wrote:

If only we could have convinced environmentalists to apply the Precautionary Principle, they would never have rushed into this short-sighted policy.

Paul F. Dietz wrote:

What would be really cool would be a microorganism that can turn electrical energy and CO2/water into an immediately useful liquid fuel, like lipids or ethanol. No need to go through cellulose or have the microbes double as solar collectors.

There are microbes that power themselves by oxidation/reduction of metal ions, so electrochemical regeneration of those metal ions might be the way to go (especially if a stockpile of regenerated ions could be maintained to have the system act as a dispatchable consumer of electricity). Now we'd just need a way to get the CO2, say by having the microbes grow in alkaline solution and get their carbon from carbonate/bicarbonate ions (and thereby also increasing the solution pH), then resaturating the solution by spraying it into a tower to absorb more atmospheric CO2.

GW wrote:

Great post. Linked.

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This page contains a single entry by Rand Simberg published on April 24, 2008 1:15 PM.

Illegal Legal Weed was the previous entry in this blog.

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