Sunday, April 15, 2007

Taking The Corn Out Of Ethanol

It always seems to happen that when a good idea pops up to assuage a global issue, it creates problems in other areas. Our economy, for instance. An industrial biotechnology conference in Orlando last month came up with some ideas to help ease the transition from oil to ethanol.

The ethanol craze is putting the squeeze on corn supplies and causing food prices to rise.

Mexicans took to the streets last year to protest increased tortilla prices. The cost of chicken and beef in the United States ticked up because feed is more expensive.

That's where biotechnology comes in.

[...] Researchers are racing against time. Already, 114 U.S. ethanol biorefineries are in operation and 80 more are under construction. Producers made nearly 5 billion gallons of ethanol last year, a 25 percent increase from the previous year.

And nearly all of it was made from edible corn kernels.

That's good news for U.S. farmers, but consumers are suffering at the checkout stand because corn prices have nearly doubled over the last two years and will continue to climb.

And with farmers planting corn at unprecedented rates, often instead of other crops, prices for other products may soon rise as well.

Corn is a fundamental U.S. food ingredient, found in everything from soft drinks to cough syrup. It's also a staple throughout Latin America, where residents may feel the sting of rising corn prices the most.

Backers of alternative production methods argue that a technological change is needed soon, before corn-based ethanol grows so large that other manufacturing methods will be squeezed out of the market.

That's why genetic engineers from Berkeley to Florida are racing to produce ethanol without corn. They're looking into termite guts, the human urinary tract and sap from palm trees for exotic microbes that can produce alternative fuel sources.

Silicon Valley billionaire Vinod Khosla, the Sun Microsystems Inc. co- founder, is among the venture capitalists gambling on cellulosic ethanol. His venture capital firm has invested millions in biotech companies pursuing alternative fuel strategies.

"In a short period of time we can replace 100 percent of our gasoline use," Khosla told executives and scientists gathered last month at an industrial biotechnology conference in Orlando, Fla.

Read the entire article here.

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