Look, ma, no fossil fuels!

Nixon goes to China, the corn-based ethanol version.

Published June 27, 2006 7:07PM (EDT)

At his R-Squared blog, Robert Rapier makes a compelling case against the inefficiency of corn-based ethanol. He regularly rails against the wasteful stupidity of using coal or natural gas to process corn into fuel. Of all the currently popular ways to make biofuels, corn-based ethanol is probably the worst, especially as measured in terms of return on energy investment. You put a lot of fossil fuels in, but you get very little out.

Rapier makes his case so often, however, that I was beginning to tune his blog out, simply because of how many times I'd heard his point of view hammered home. But I had to take notice today when he highlighted a company, E3 Biofuels, that makes ethanol from corn, and gave it his qualified endorsement. Rapier has earned his critical credibility.

What's the difference between E3 Biofuels and all the rest? An integrated lifecycle. E3 manufactures ethanol from corn, uses the waste stream from the corn to feed on-site cattle, and then uses methane captured from animal waste to provide the energy to transform more corn into more ethanol.

Rapier says that the whole process still requires additional inputs of natural gas to make it work. And growing the corn will still no doubt require the application of petroleum-based fertilizers. It's not a perfectly closed system. But, if it all works out as planned -- the initial plant isn't supposed to go online until September -- the improvements in efficiency would be enough to make this particular brand of biofuel a worthy contributor to our energy needs.

E3 Biofuels is no fly-by-night start-up run by a bunch of Northern California hippies preaching Gaia-worship. Judging by its executive team, it is laden with veterans of the gas and energy and cattle industries, and the first plant is being set up in Mead, Neb. The president, David Halberg, founded the Renewable Fuels Association.

Some environmentalists accuse the Renewable Fuels Association of being a corn lobbying organization in the pockets of Archer Daniels Midland. That may be true. But it also might make the potential success of the E3 Biofuels model all the more important. If a company operating right smack dab in the middle of the current food-and-energy industrial complex can make a nearly closed integrated life cycle approach work, the prospects for future expansion could be unlimited.

By Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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