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Corn ethanol could possibly fuel the future

September 27, 2007

The issue of corn ethanol production as an alternative fuel source has been presented to the American public and is becoming a reality as an alternative for gasoline, despite some concern.

Ethanol can be used as fuel either by itself or as a mixture of gasoline and ethanol, according to a Web site for Ace Ethanol, an ethanol plant in Stanley, Wis.

Brad Mogen, a professor in the biology department at UW-River Falls, led a discussion in a full room of students and community members on “The Science, Economics (and Myth?) of Corn Ethanol” Monday as part of the River Falls Public Library community classroom program.

Mogen, who came to River Falls in 1992, received his Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Minnesota. He then went on to receive his master’s and his doctorate in plant pathology and biochemistry from North Dakota State. At UWRF, Mogen teaches courses in plant pathology and cell biology.

Mogen agreed to discuss the issue of corn ethanol knowing it would be a way for him to learn more about it.

“I’m interested in the actual science of it,” he said.

Mogen wanted to be able to share information about corn ethanol with the River Falls community.

“Very few people seem to really be following the whole thing,” he said.

It is important to discuss corn ethanol as an alternative, as the oil supply for the United States is at risk because most of the major oil reserves are in countries that do not like the United States, nor do they care to support the United States, Mogen said.

“We are coming to the end of the era of oil,” he said.

There are currently 115 ethanol plants in production, 79 more under construction and still more on the drawing table. The majority of these plants are located in the Corn Belt, an area which covers western Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Missouri, eastern Nebraska and eastern Kansas, Mogen said.

“Iowa is pretty much the leader on it,” he said.

Ace Ethanol began producing ethanol in 2002, Robert Sather, board chairman at Ace Ethanol, said in an e-mail interview.

The motivation for the plant to begin producing ethanol was to help the United States become more energy independent, to have cleaner air and also to be able to give farmers in the area a reasonable price for their corn, he said.

In 2007, 91 million acres of corn were planted by U.S. farmers, an increase of 12 million from last year, Mogen said.

The United States produces 40 percent of the world’s corn. Of the corn production in the United States, ethanol production consumes 15-20 percent, and that number is expected to rise each year, he said.

The future of corn ethanol is looking at industry consolidation and having double the amount of production by the end of 2008. This means about 10 billion gallons of ethanol will be produced nationally, Sather said. The production of corn ethanol has been a controversial issue among people. Ben Augustine, a senior at UWRF majoring in crop and soil science, attended Mogen’s discussion. He was interested in hearing another view on the corn ethanol issue.

“I know it’s a big thing in the news right now,” he said.

The discussion had a lot of good information put together in a nice, clean presentation, he said. Mogen devoted a section of the discussion to the good, bad and ugly of corn ethanol production. The benefits Mogen discussed focused on farmers being able to make money, equipment and seed corn dealers being able to make money and the additional dollars that will be available to fuel the rural economy. Ethanol plants also increase the number of jobs available, he said.

Sather believes consumers should know about the benefits of using ethanol. Using ethanol means cleaner engine combustion and less auto exhaust particular matter, which means cleaner air, he said. Using ethanol will also decrease the dependency on imported oil and will expand economic development, Sather said.

Increased feed and fuel costs for livestock producers and increased fertilizer prices are some negative aspects of ethanol production, Mogen said. These costs eventually are passed on to consumers, he said. The ugly in corn ethanol production lies in the food versus fuel debate, Mogen said. By producing ethanol from corn, the amount of corn exported from the United States to third world countries will dramatically decrease. A major food supply will be diminished, he said.

“The risks [in using corn ethanol] are dependent primarily upon the commodities we buy and sell which vary in price and must be well managed,” Sather said.

The commodities include corn, distiller’s grains, carbon dioxide, natural gas and ethanol.

Mogen wanted people to be aware of the potential outcomes that may come from producing ethanol from corn.

“It will have significant ramifications,” he said.

Before researching the issue, Mogen was “adamantly opposed” to producing ethanol from corn.

“I don’t think there is a right and wrong answer,” he said, still opposed (though not “adamantly opposed,” he said).

Though he does not teach any classes specifically about corn ethanol production or using corn ethanol, the topic is discussed indirectly when teaching about fermentation or respiration, he said. Though he admits sometime in the future, “we’ll have to.”