Environment Blog

Corn to Run!

What is the Boss of Biofuels?

July 15, 2006

I had a barbecue last weekend. It was pretty fun. We had all the regular food offerings: hamburgers, hot dogs, some steak, and I grilled some corn on the cob.

I love grillin’ up some corn on the cob. I like it slathered with some garlic and butter, but some people like their corn prepared as fuel — though I wouldn’t eat it!

Results published in the July 11 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences show that corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel are efficient fuels, debunking criticism that it takes more energy to make the fuels than they produce.

To prove their point, the researchers from the University of Minnesota recorded all of the energy used for growing and converting corn and soybeans into the environment-friendly fuel. They also compared how much fertilizer the crops needed and how much greenhouse gases, nitrogen, phosphorus, and pesticide pollutants each released into the environment.

The researchers found that both corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel produce more energy than is needed to grow the crops and convert them into biofuels. The soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than the amount it takes to make it and corn grain ethanol returns 25 percent.

Not only that, but the soybean fuel also produces about 41 percent and corn 12 percent less greenhouse emissions than gasoline.

A common argument from those who love getting their fuel from fossils is that it takes more energy to make the green-fuel than it produces, making it an unrealistic to think that it could replace the energy needs of the US.

Those oil lovers may be right about one thing: it is totally unrealistic to think corn and soybeans can supply enough energy for the US’s needs.

The researchers found that all current corn and soybean supplies in the US would only account for 12 percent of the gasoline demand and 6 percent of the diesel demand.

This may be disheartening, but things are looking up!

The study helps support the fact that using environmentally friendly fuels are efficient and shouldn’t be counted out. The scientists believe there are other possible sources.

Prairie grasses have great potential,” says David Tilman, Regents Professor of Ecology and a co-author of the study, in a press release. He suggests prairie grasses, which can be produced inexpensively on mediocre farmland and have the potential to produce even more energy than the corn or soybean fuels.

Let’s hope that prairie grass can work better than those niblets!

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About the Author

I hold a B.S. in Human Biology/Premed from Cornell University. After graduation, I spent three years working in a biochemistry lab that studied Alzheimer disease. I decided I didn’t want to go the medical or research routes, realizing I just enjoy science. So, I’m writing about it!

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