May 1, 2008

And Now for Something Completely Gassy...

Hatched by Dafydd

I suppose a couple of you have noticed food prices rising. (This only applies to those of us who eat.)

The major reason, of course, is the continued industrialization of large countries with economies that are just now emerging from third-world status -- especially in Asia, and particularly China and India. As more and more of their combined 2.46 billion residents (36.8% of the world's population) shift into a middle-class lifestyle, they eat more (duh); that means less food for everyone else, as neither has increased food production at anywhere near the rate they've increased consumption. (China has the additional burden of a water pollution and food contaminantion problem of staggering proportions.)

I suspect there is another hidden cause of food shortages and the consequent price rise; but none of the elite media has mentioned it (for reasons that will become obvious), so I don't know how much or little it contributes. From the beginning of the Clinton era until very recently, many countries in Europe, Africa, and especially Latin America have shifted leftwards. With internationalist obsessions with "land reform," anti-white racism, and the war against agribusiness, I suspect they've inadvertently sabotaged their food production and export.

Zimbabwe is the poster-child of this problematic trend:

Food insecurity in Zimbabwe is a result of a combination of factors, not all of which are due to climate. Drought-related food production problems, chaos resulting from violent disputes over the legitimacy of President Robert Mugabe's re-election, and the government's quixotic approach to land redistribution have combined to exacerbate the food shortage. In February 2000, seizure of white-owned farms commenced, and it increased in frequency leading up to the election in March 2002. At that point, Mugabe decided to break up the large white-owned commercial farms for the country's landless war veterans, which reduced the large-scale commercial-sector planted area by 74 percent compared with 2000-01 levels. (2) Due to pressures from the land redistribution program, large-scale commercial cattle stock, which traditionally accounted for up to 90 percent of national beef exports, is estimated to have declined by 70 percent from 1.3 million in December 2001 to 400,000 in July 2002.

I've never seen hard data, but I suspect revolutionary land-, energy-, and water-use policies have annihilated a significant part of the world food supply.

Still, at least some of the problem can be laid at the doorstep of the mass movement away from oil drilling -- and towards ethanol production from corn and other grains, items which are better eaten than burnt.

Thus, this research should come as very welcome news: General Motors has started sinking significant money into developing methods of creating ethanol out of the trash-parts of grain, out of wood pulp, and other inedibles:

The General Motors Corporation announced on Thursday that it was hedging its bets on how best to make ethanol from non-grain sources, and making an investment in a second company with technology that might do that job cost-effectively.

G.M., which has pledged to make half its vehicle production ethanol-compatible by 2012, said it had taken an equity position in Mascoma, a company based in Lebanon, N.H., that has three proprietary technologies for making ethanol from sources like papermill waste, corn stalks, wood chips and switchgrass. G.M. would not reveal the amount of its investment or the size of its stake.

In January, G.M. bought a stake in a company named Coskata that would use similar raw materials but with a different process.

I don't really see a downside to this. Coskata says that it can produce a gallon of ethanol from such otherwise junk plant sources for just a dollar to a dollar fifty; if they could produce ethanol at sufficient rates -- which they can't just yet -- that could dramatically lower fuel costs (for vehicles capable of burning alcohol-gasoline combinations).

So could drilling more of our own oil, of course; but there is no reason, other than political poltroonery, that we can't do both.

Evidently, it's the early stages of production, prior to fermentation, that need some real breakthroughs:

Ethanol made from non-grain materials, known as cellulose, is identical to corn ethanol, and the final steps ae usually the same: using yeast to ferment sugars into alcohol. But getting the sugar out of the cellulose is complicated. The process usually requires treating the cellulose with steam or acids to open up the material, and then letting enzymes — the digestive juices of bacteria or fungi — free the sugars. In addition, the cellulose includes both conventional six-carbon sugars as well as five-carbon sugars, but most industrial-grade yeast only likes the six-carbon variety.

Executives at Mascoma said they had developed a patented process, using heat and mechanical action, to treat the cellulose, avoiding the use of chemicals.

And, they said, they are working with some bacteria that feed off cellulose and break it down, and others that are efficient at converting sugars to ethanol. “Each one exists separately in nature,” said Dr. Lee R. Lynd, a founder of the company and its chief scientist. Now they are using gene splicing to give a single organism the ability to do both.

The approach is potentially simpler than the one used by some competitors, which is to digest the cellulose using an enzyme made in a separate process.

Just something to keep an eye on; it should be obvious that if we can make enough ethanol out of stuff we ordinarily would throw away, such as "papermill waste," it would be stupid to ferment and burn edible crops.

Once again, it's technology to the rescue. If Thomas Malthus were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave.

Hatched by Dafydd on this day, May 1, 2008, at the time of 5:24 PM

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The following hissed in response by: AMR

I have written here and other places including politicians repeatedly about this process and others. If we stupidly don’t want to drill for oil, and where has that been polled, then this and thermal depolymerization (TDP) type process facilities located at each major garbage dumps’ face could produce alcohol for ethanol and #2 fuel oil, respectively. A TDP facility is operational at a Butterball Turkey processing plant in Carthage, MO ( Popular Mechanics had a good article on ethanol production at
And yea, I commented there too!

Just imagine that in 2005 the highest point in Indiana was a garage dump and one in Rhode Island was approaching that hallmark according to NPR. The use of switch grass (our natural prairie grass), which can grow on marginal land not useable for crops, is another way to produce alcohol without impacting food crops.

Also the residue from producing alcohol from corn is a high protein product suitable for cattle feed or human consumption (, but we haven't reinvented a distribution system to handle this diversion of corn from the field. And to complicate matters, the genetically modified corn we grow in many areas is not saleable (nor can be given away) on the world market. The EU is afraid of it and Africa takes its lead from Europe.

As our environmentalist cry out now against ethanol, GM crops and the drilling for oil in ANWAR, some suggest we must “kill off” a major portion of the human race so the rest of us (them I suppose) can survive. While lessening the earth’s population through less radical methods such as education and raising people’s standard of living so their children don’t represent their SS for their old age would be helpful, I believe we have less of an energy problem than one of imagination and due diligence. And the major media does not help by giving the American people the facts and letting us determine what we are willing to pay or do to make ourselves independent of foreign control of our economic destiny.

The above hissed in response by: AMR [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 7:20 AM

The following hissed in response by: boffo

Practical and cheap mass-production of trash-based ethanol wouldn't just reduce costs for owners of cars capable of using it. It would reduce fuel costs for everyone.

When all the people with these cars start buying $1.50 ethanol instead of $3.50 gasoline, it will cause a shift in the demand curve for gasoline, lowering the overall price of gas.

Of course, this is based on the premise that this ethanol is truly cheap and efficient. The current incarnation of ethanol, where more than a gallon of gasoline is used to produce a gallon of lower energy-density ethanol, results in higher fuel prices *and* higher food prices *and* higher taxes for everyone. The only winners are the farmers receiving subsidies, and the politicians they pay off.

The above hissed in response by: boffo [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 9:34 AM

The following hissed in response by: cdquarles


One of the projects that I worked on back in 1978 was conversion of cellulosic material, namely loblolly pine bark (and there were parallel projects using kudzu) into pyrolysis oil and into fermentable lysates. This was funded by a NAS grant, and was part of a $1 million grant to the Chemistry Department of the University of Alabama (this was one of the largest alternative energy grants to the U of A had ever received, iirc).

Ethanol makes no sense as a general motor fuel. We will never run out of hydrocarbons. We have genetically engineered algae and bacteria to make plastics and medium chain oils (12 to 20 carbons). We also pump methane out of coal seams and landfills. We should continue to improve solar cells, revive nuclear power plant construction, accelerate oil field drilling both on and offshore, exploit methane hydrate clathrates (which outgas spontaneously today, btw), build new refineries (we have only been able to expand current ones via EPA waivers), and perfect in-situ Fischer-Tropsch coal liquification. Of course, we should continue to perfect in-situ methods of extracting tar sands and oil shale.

The above hissed in response by: cdquarles [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 9:59 AM

The following hissed in response by: Geoman

Ultimately electric cars are the only thing that will make sense. All that remains to be developed is a battery that can store sufficient charge, and the rest of the infrastructure falls into place. The energy for the battery can came from any source, nuclear, hydro, solar, coal.

Fortunately we are almost there with the batteries. GM knows this - they've already created the car (the Volt) and are just waiting for the battery to be finished. Maybe five years these will hit the market. Then we will no longer measure cost per gallon, but cost per mile traveled. Liquid hydrocarbons will be used mostly for air travel.

Biofuels will ultimately turn out to be a silly distraction.

The above hissed in response by: Geoman [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 10:24 AM

The following hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr

"If Thomas Malthus were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."

Malthus would NOT be surprised nor disappointed (Erlich, on the other hand, would be). His work contained more than just the trivial observation that unchecked population grows geometrically, while best-case agricultural increase grows arithmetically. That's only the start of his essay, but that's all most people know of.

It's easy to read Malthus pessimistically, but it's also possible to read him as reporting mathematical estimates and examining factors that could drive them in one way or another. The vast bulk of his work examined how economic forces drove free people to limit their reproduction -- in other words, removed the "unchecked growth" from the scare-scenario.

In summary: Malthus was not a pessimist.

This essay is fascinating; it explains specifically what I'm talking about.

The above hissed in response by: wtanksleyjr [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 1:06 PM

The following hissed in response by: Hal

Actually, a lot of the tech is out there to efficiently break down cellulose and what not. The problem so far is making it efficient on a large scale. A lot of that work requires rather delicate engineering of microbes, and that kind of set-up seems to be problematic for large scale operations (AFAIK).

I'd say that EtOH production for fuel could see some big breakthroughs in the next 5 or so years, but it's quite possible some other advances will make it irrelevant anyhow.

The above hissed in response by: Hal [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 1:17 PM

The following hissed in response by: yonason


One acre of corn can produce 300 gal. of ethanol per growing season. So, in order to replace that 200 billion gal. of petroleum products, American farmers would need to dedicate 675 million acres, or 71 percent of the nation's 938 million acres of farmland, to growing feedstock. Clearly, ethanol alone won't kick our fossil fuel dependence--unless we want to replace our oil imports with food imports - SOURCE

In fact, the problems with diverting so much of our energy to such a speculative venture are already becoming apparent.

It's too early to panic yet, but the warning light on the console is "ON," and it does give us time to avert more serious consequences, if we heed it.

The above hissed in response by: yonason [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 1:27 PM

The following hissed in response by: TerryeL

I farmed for years and the truth is for all their crying about subsidies, most people want a surplus of cheap food. They consider an increase in commodity prices to be a disaster, not a function of the market. Prices should never ever go up. Farmers are not supposed to make money and if they do, then the consumer is getting screwed. I have come to the conclusion that most people really look at agriculture like that.

The above hissed in response by: TerryeL [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 2, 2008 4:15 PM

The following hissed in response by: yonason

Another perspective I just came across which performs a reality check.

And another which sets the record straight on several misconceptions the MSM and the Left want to keep us snowed about.

Bottom line, Dems are interrested in control, not efficiency, in power, not better conditions for their constituents. Like all socialists, they pay lip service to what we need and want, but in practice they only have their own percieved self-interrest at heart. If people suffer, it just gives them yet another issue to spin a scam around. It's like they are living in another world.

...or, from one?

The above hissed in response by: yonason [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 4, 2008 12:28 AM

The following hissed in response by: snochasr

"If Thomas Malthus were alive today, he'd be spinning in his grave."

No doubt trying to get OUT. It's the same with our energy crisis. If we can get out of the strait jacket government got us into, we'll solve our energy (and global warming, if it exists) problems very nicely. During Jimmy Carter's oil crisis of 1972, there were all kinds of technologies that were listed as economically feasible "if the price of oil goes above [30/40/50] dollars a barrel." A wild guess would be that there are even more technologies available with oil over $100/bbl, if you can keep Congress from forbidding them, that is, or from subsidizing the $200/bbl one.

The above hissed in response by: snochasr [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 5, 2008 7:00 AM

The following hissed in response by: TBinSTL

Once again the Government has found a way to addict farmers to another program. Expect the corn method to be defended to the death, as a drug addict would defend his stash.

The above hissed in response by: TBinSTL [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 5, 2008 11:22 PM

The following hissed in response by: Dick E


“Ultimately electric cars are the only thing that will make sense. All that remains to be developed is a battery that can store sufficient charge, and the rest of the infrastructure falls into place.”

“Ultimately” you are probably correct. But don’t forget that part of the infrastructure that allows quick refills/ recharges/exchanges. Just being able to recharge your battery at home in a few hours is not enough.

People will still want to take the family bus on vacation trips, and they will demand that the same vehicle they use for the daily commute -- probably the only vehicle in the family -- be able to pull in to a fueling station and be on the road again in 5 minutes or so.

That will require that batteries either be able to accept a very quick charge or that they be quickly, easily (and cheaply) exchangeable.

I don’t know how close we are to this technology -- I suspect it is a few years away. But until we have it, people will demand cars that consume fuel of some kind so that they can be on their way to Disney World before the kids go nuts at each recharge station.

The above hissed in response by: Dick E [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 6, 2008 9:41 AM

The following hissed in response by: Dan

"I suspect" and "I suspect" and "I suspect" and "I've never seen hard data" are used way to much here. The energy obtained from ethanol results in a net loss of energy. That means it costs more to produce the source of energy than what you get out of it. Please research the science behind this stuff before you make things up and write about them.

The above hissed in response by: Dan [TypeKey Profile Page] at May 5, 2010 10:59 PM

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