e85 gas pumpImage courtesy Shmurfect

Biofuels help provide an economic lift to Minnesota farmers

Ethanol from corn: a Minnesota success story

Biofuels are produced from biomass-defined as "any recently living organism"-such as corn. Biomass can also be a product of a living organism's metabolism, such as manure.

Minnesota farmers have had tremendous success converting biomass such as corn, soybeans, and wheat into biofuels such as ethanol. In fact, they've been so successful that in January the federal government indicated that corn stockpiles were shrinking rapidly due to the boom in ethanol production and corn prices hit a ten-year high.

All this ethanol production is visible in the growing availability of E85-a gasoline alternative made for "flex fuel" vehicles. Governor Pawlenty's Next Generation Energy Plan calls for an increase in the number of E85 pumps in Minnesota from 300 to 1800 by 2010.

e85 gas pumpCorn stover is a major biomass resource in Minnesota.

Image courtesy U.S. Department of Energy

What's next?

The production of biofuels from biomass like corn is a great step forward, but experts warn that if use of biofuels to increase, scientists will have to find different sources of biomass. In the coming years, as the world population grows, more food and more energy are going to be needed. It's not possible to produce enough corn, wheat, or soybeans to feed both humans and livestock and fuel refineries.

Pawlenty's plan addresses this concern by calling for funding to assist and encourage the growth of the next generation of biofuels, such as cellulosic ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is produced from prairie plants or waste from agricultural sources.

Prairie grasses are a better source of biomass for ethanol production than corn because they require far less energy to grow than corn does. Growing corn involves fuel for tractors, the use of fertilizers, and lots of labor. But once prairie grasses are established they grow continually on their own, multiple crops can be harvested each year, and they can grow on land that is considered marginal for food-producing crops. The problem is that no one is sure that prairie grasses can be converted to ethanol in a process that doesn't consume more energy than it produces.

Pawlenty wants Minnesota to be a leader in cellulosic biofuel, and has set aside $10 million to invest in new biomass technology. "I believe this will be Minnesota's next bio-energy home run," Pawlenty said. He also hopes his plan will boost other biofuel production technologies to offset natural gas use in the state.

How can we consume less natural gas? One model project is the biomass gasification system being built at the University of Minnesota, Morris (UMM) campus. UMM uses corn stover-the dried stalks and leaves left over after the corn has been harvested-as their biomass. When stover is heated without oxygen, it turns into a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen gas. This gas burns far more cleanly and efficiently than the raw plant material and is then used as a fuel to generate electricity or steam.

Minnesota is the fifth largest ethanol-producing state, and the third-largest producer of biomass, so the future of these alternative fuels seems bright.

Biofuel energy debate

There is some debate regarding the actual efficiency of biofuel production. Is the energy that goes into growing, harvesting, and transporting the biomass converted into biofuel greater than the amount of energy produced when the biofuel is used? In some cases it isn't clear that the amount of energy gained is greater than the amount of energy used to produce it.

Also, increased demand for biofuels has decreased the amount of biomass, such as corn, available as food for people or livestock. This increased demand increases the price, which has an economic impact on livestock farmers and other consumers.