In his State of the Union address, President Bush set an ambitious goal for the United States -- to reduce oil imports from the Middle East by 75 percent. He said this can be accomplished by increasing the supply of alternative fuels and reducing projected gasoline usage in the United States by 20 percent in the next ten years. Tthat could give the ethanol industry a big boost.
President George Bush said in his State of the Union address, "It is in our vital interest to diversify America's energy supply. The way forward is through technology."
Tied to the President's initiative, the U.S. Department of Energy is asking Congress for $17 million to improve automobile efficiency, and the Department of Agriculture is seeking $1.6 billion in new funding for renewable energy development -- all in an effort to support the president's goal of reducing gasoline usage by 20 percent.
"We need to press on with better research for plug-in and hybrid vehicles and expand the use of clean diesel vehicles and bio-diesel fuel. We must continue investing in new methods of producing ethanol" the president said.
There are now 110 ethanol plants in the United States with another 73 under construction.
Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel that is produced by fermenting and distilling starch crops, usually corn. Mixed with gasoline, ethanol increases fuel efficiency and reduces dangerous vehicle emissions. But there are obvious negatives involved in using food for fuel. Food prices could go up. Exports could suffer. And many also believe that the ethanol refining process is not as energy efficient as it can be.
Gassa Asram, with the United States Department of Agriculture, shares the goal. "The challenge that is in front of us is to develop the next generation of bio-refineries, the ones that can take the leaves, the branch and agricultural wastes to turn it into energy and fuel for the future."
The latest research centers on the production of cellulose ethanol. In the case of corn, cellulose ethanol is made not from the edible ear, but from the stock, stem and other usually discarded parts.
“The excitement about cellulose ethanol is that it helps you avoid the conflicts with food provision and it also allows you to use inputs that are more environmentally friendly” says Susan Hunt, who specializes in bio-fuels at the Worldwatch Institute in Washington. “So you can use waste stream, you can use switch grass, which the president mentioned in his speech, which is much more environmentally benign. This appears to be the future of ethanol."
And if that is the case, scientists have a much better chance of meeting the President's energy goals. "America is on the verge of technological breakthroughs that will enable us to live our lives less dependent on foreign oil and these technologies will help up be better stewards of the environment and they will help us to confront the serious challenge of global climate change."