The increased use of corn-derived ethanol and other bio-fuels has been blamed, in part, for rising food prices worldwide. But defenders of these fuels say their impact on food prices is exaggerated and that new fuels under development will largely bypass that problem. VOA's Greg Flakus has more on the story from College Station, Texas in today's Searching for Solutions report.
American corn fields feed much of the world and also provide the main ingredient for the alcohol fuel, ethanol, in the U.S. Federal law requires ethanol make up about 10 percent of the gasoline mixture. Some flex-fuel vehicles can burn an 85 percent mix. The arrangement benefits U.S. corn farmers and creates jobs at rural refineries like this one run by POET Energy.
But critics say congressional mandates to use ethanol are ill-conceived.
They note that corn-derived ethanol generates less than two units of energy for every unit used to produce it.
Even ethanol promoters agree that the future lies in using more non-food material, like corn stalks, to produce what is called cellulosic fuel.
Brian Jennings represents the American Coalition for Ethanol.
"I believe the first cellulosic bio-fuel that is commercialized will probably come from some sort of agricultural residue, meaning that it will grow on a farm and a farmer will sell it to a bio-refinery," Jennings said. "We strongly embrace cellulosic ethanol alongside corn ethanol. The fact of the matter is we need both."
One promising replacement for the corn in producing ethanol is sorghum, a grass that produces grain used in some foods and in animal fodder.
Bill Rooney, who runs the sorghum project for Texas A and M University, says sorghum-derived fuel could start having an impact on the market within five years.
"If we are talking about a sugar platform, one that is very similar to sugar cane, we can use sweet sorghums to do that in the very near future," Rooney said. "If we are looking at cellulosic, the whole plant and all the fiber, then we are looking at systems that are a little bit longer out."
Researchers at Texas A & M are looking for ways to produce fuel from harvested plants. After all, fossil fuels like oil and coal come from plant material that has been compressed and heated underground.
They are investigating algae, which is grown in ponds rather than fields. David Baltensperger heads the Texas A & M Department of Soil and Crop Sciences.
"Algae produces about 60 percent oil on a dry-weight basis, 60 percent of the material is oil. With soybeans it is about 17 or 18 percent oil," Baltensperger said.
He says the algae also helps reduce greenhouse gases.
"We can pump excess CO2 from manufacturing processes or whatever into the ponds and the algae converts it because it needs it for photosynthesizing," Baltensperger added.
The new bio-fuels could be running many automobiles in a few years. Scientists say plant material is unlikely to replace oil but could help meet the growth in worldwide demand.
Mark Hussey oversees agriculture programs at Texas A & M.
"Hopefully, if we can take care of this increased growth in demand that we have got for energy, both in this country and globally, with bio-based fuels, we will go a long way to solving the energy issues," he said.
Hussey and other experts say bio-fuels will be just one part of the overall solution to the world's energy crunch.