Two years ago (May 2008), I popped into one of the ANTEC presentations not knowing what it was about just in time to hear William F. Banholzer, who was Corporate Vice President and Chief Technology Officer for Dow Chemical Co., say "It's stupid to take corn and make ethanol." I immediately found a chair and began to take notes.
Banholzer spoke of the "costs of transforming [bio-feedstocks] into fuels" being astronomical because no one really knows the price of these and the volatility of the commodities markets. Minimizing volatility in the chemical industry is crucial to companies being able to control their costs and make a profit, and do it without taxpayer subsidies. Knowing the price of their feedstock is crucial to minimizing volatility.
He noted that the capital costs "just to exchange one CO2 into another is tremendous and nobody's talking about how we'll pay for it." Sugar cane in Brazil is better than corn, Banholzer acknowledged, and he pointed out that Dow has a JV in Brazil that would bring on a 350,000-ton plant -"truly a sequestration" of CO2. "Dow is reducing the carbon from the atmosphere and making 8% of its LLDPE," he said at that time.
Corn yields 0.4% of its biomass into energy. Sugar cane yields 1% of its biomass. Plants convert sunlight into energy very poorly, Banholzer noted. "Photosynthesis is NOT going to be an improvement. Photosynthesis is a poor energy conversion process," Banholzer stated. "This is a fundamental limitation to any feed stocks for energy. Besides we don't have enough land to grow what we need to replace petroleum-based products, and it's not energy efficient (20mpg vs. 13mpg); it takes a lot of energy to raise corn and even more energy to convert it to fuel. Biomass as a potential feedstock for biofuels is doubtful."
Additionally, he noted that it takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. "When I brought this up to a congressman in Washington when I was there testifying before the Energy Committee, he said, 'You're confusing energy policy with agriculture policy,'" said Banholzer. "There's a huge farm lobby in Washington, D.C. Fundamentally, cellulosic ethanol is extremely expensive and we can't do it."
"CO2 is CO2 - it will put just as much CO2 into the air if we use plant-based products as fuel," he said. [That viewpoint was recently echoed by Ramani Narayan in his presentation at the SPE Thermoforming Conference in September.] "No matter what we do," Banholzer said, "it will never be cheaper than Mid-East oil."
Ultimately, concluded Banholzer, consumers will vote with their pocketbooks. "The world will not pay for green products," he stated. "The masses of the world say they want green products but won't pay for them. Dow has learned some very expensive lessons in this - people will not pay more for green. They will pay more for a better product, maybe. But not just for green products."
There are many who agree that we shouldn't use food for fuel for our cars, and want to look at the true costs in terms of reducing CO2. The questions need to be asked. We need to look at the amount of CO2 that is produced every day by Mother Nature - from the more than 20 active volcanoes, the rotting vegetation, and the gassy cows, sheep, pigs and other animals. Then we can make informed, scientific, rational decisions about the best use of all of our resources, rather than assuming that just because something has been given a "green" label by a marketing guru, it's going to be our salvation.