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Biofuels, a Clean Way Out of Gasoline

The United States, which uses more oil than the next five highest consuming nations combined, not only needs to reduce its demand for petroleum, but also needs to rapidly increase the production of alternative sources of energy. Ethanol, bio-diesel and the commercial development of what is called biomass (organic matter that can be processed to produce fuels, chemicals and power), represent the fuels of the future. VOA's Zuli Palacio has more, in a report narrated by Melinda Smith.

Steve Wagner, the Vice President of Merrick & Company in Golden, Colorado, puts his hand into running ethanol. “This is 200 proof ethanol and it actually would remove the moisture from your skin, it will dry out your skin quite a bit… very strong smelling," he said. He is in charge of the ethanol plant built inside the Coors brewing plant, one of the major beer companies in the United States.

Ethanol, made from agricultural and organic products, is abundant, renewable and clean.

Mr. Wagner describes the partnership between Merrick and Coors. "Coors is not in the fuel business and Coors was not about to get into the fuel business, so what they did instead was they allowed us to build the unit and actually sell us the brewing residual streams."

For years, brewing companies have paid to dispose of considerably large quantities of organic waste, including yeast condensate, aged discards, spills and different beers that do not meet their standards. Merric and Company now uses all of the brewing residuals generated at this plant. But most of the ethanol produced here comes from the yeast drying plant.

Wagner says yeast is a by-product of beer that is utilized in making ethanol. "This is actually dry yeast, for every pound of yeast that you add to the fermentation process when you brew bear, you actually generate about three pounds of additional yeast as they propagate and ferment the beer and the sugars."

Just outside the yeast drying plant are the ethanol tanks. More than 11 million liters of ethanol a year are sent from here to various gas stations in the country.

"What we are doing is taking a waste stream that has a cost associated with disposal and making a revenue stream out of it to the tune of about $6 million a year."

Six million dollars is a small amount in the gasoline market. The United States consumes well over 20 million barrels of oil a day. Replacing some of this oil with ethanol seems, so far, to be the most feasible solution to reducing the country's dependence on petroleum.

Today, most cars on the road can use a mix of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. But the car industry is rapidly changing to a higher mix of ethanol.

But relying on ethanol is not without costs. Among the problems is the use of land previously dedicated to the production of food, the impact of a single crop on the soil, and the natural limitations of agriculture.

Susanne Hunt specializes in bio-fuels at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. "Recent government studies show that we can reach about one-third of our fuel supply with biofuels if we used waste residues in this next generation technologies, without causing substantial harm to wildlife, and water, and land resources."

Aware of the limitations of ethanol and bio-diesel, the U.S. government has concentrated its efforts in the research of biomass, derived from crops and agricultural wastes, at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Denver, Colorado.

"This is corn stover (mature corn stalks of grain with the ears removed that are used as feed for livestock) this is the stock and the husk and the cobs of the corn after the grain has been harvested," says Andy Aden, a process engineer at the laboratory. "One ton of this type of material can typically be made into ethanol to the tune of around 75 gallons of ethanol."

Biomass includes elements such as corn stalks, corn stover, Switchgrass, and a type of wood known as Poplar.

But most of the research is concentrated in the corn stover because of its availability: farmers use some of it on the fields as nutrient and erosion control, but most of it is wasted.

The government is also looking into Switchgrass, a native grass that grows extensively in the plains of the country.

"It could be used as what we call an energy crop where it is specifically grown for energy purposes. It is nice because you can get even more ethanol out of this than what you can get out of an acre (hectare) of corn stover."

At the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Andy Aden and a team of chemical engineers have proven that the extraction of ethanol from biomass and yeast and sugars works. But their research continues to make the process cost effective. "We're looking into commercializing this probably within the next five to ten years."

But Aden, as many environmentalists, dream of a future of bio-refineries, instead of oil refineries, where biomass can be converted not only into ethanol and bio-diesel but also into biodegradable plastics and chemicals.