Innovation in the Lead

By Bob Dinneen | February 04, 2009
In December, an economist at North Dakota State University cautioned that if America is not diligent about pursuing next-generation renewable fuel technology that it could very well be passed by other nations in the race to bring such technologies to the marketplace.

What a tragedy that would be after 30 years of hard work by countless people dedicated to a renewable energy future for this nation. Fortunately, this industry is not going to let that happen.

If there is one word that defines American ethanol production today it's innovation. From advancements in farming practices to improvements in efficiencies at ethanol biorefineries to the deployment of cellulosic feedstocks and other next-generation technologies, America's farmers and ethanol producers are answering the call for cleaner, greener alternatives to costly imported oil.

Recently, a team of researchers from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln published a paper in the Journal of Industrial Ecology concluding that by using today's farming and ethanol production technologies, ethanol use can reduce greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) between 48 percent and 59 percent compared to gasoline. As the study points out, "Recent improvements in crop production, biorefinery operation and coproduct utilization in U.S. corn-ethanol systems result in greater GHG emissions reduction, energy efficiency, and ethanol-to-petroleum output/input ratios compared to previous studies."

The study also notes that between 10 and 19 gallons of ethanol are derived from each gallon of oil used, reducing America's dependence on foreign oil. Such improvements are only the beginning.

While today's farmers and ethanol producers are constantly evolving to produce more while using less, new technologies are entering the market at a faster rate than ever. As a leading engineer from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo., recently told USA Today, "The old joke was that cellulosic ethanol was always just five years down the road. Now, there's steel going in the ground."

Indeed, what has been perpetually just over the horizon is now directly in front of us. Dozens of ethanol producers, both starch- and cellulose-based, are developing, deploying and building technologies that will turn switchgrass, wood waste, corn cobs and garbage into the clean-burning renewable fuels that will power generations of Americans.

In Louisiana, sugarcane bagasse is the feedstock for a demonstration facility that will produce 1.5 MMgy of ethanol. In the middle of Georgia, steel and concrete are being put in the ground for a facility that will soon gasify wood industry waste into renewable ethanol. In Kansas, designs are being completed on a commercial-scale cellulosic ethanol biorefinery that will use a combination of grasses and corn stover to produce ethanol.

There isn't an ethanol producer in the United States that doesn't have aggressive plans and research programs in the works to commercialize the next generation of renewable fuel technology.

That professor from the Great Plains was right to warn America, and particularly its political leadership, that without a steadfast commitment all of the investments made in renewable fuel technology will be for naught.

Judging by comments from President Barack Obama and his Cabinet, the innovation that defines this industry has believers at both ends of Pennsylvania Ave. America has the talent, ability and ingenuity to answer the economic, energy and environmental challenges we face. American ethanol producers are ready to help lead the way.

Bob Dinneen
President and CEO
Renewable Fuels Association