Biofuel Organisms - Corn

Ah corn, the staple of the American diet (North or South) for centuries and now a staple of the fuel supply chain. Most of the ethanol in North American gasoline, up to 10% in some regions, comes from corn grown in the United States. This is the case because the government mandates the use of ethanol in gasoline and subsidizes the price of corn. This practice has led to a great deal of controversy.

Biofuel Properties and Land Use

Corn is actually a rather poor biofuel feedstock. Corn falls into the first generation of biofuel feedstock and is considered by some to be the original feedstock. The U.S. is the largest producer of ethanol in the world, churning out 13.5 billion gallons per year in 2006. However, with government mandates that 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel would need to be blended with fossil fuel by 2012, that number has jumped to closer to 15 billion gallons.

Only about 800,000 square kilometers of corn are planted across the globe annually. If we wanted to meet fuel demands only the United States for a single year, we would need to plant about 1.46 million square kilometers. That is an area that is roughly double the size of the state of Texas. Using sugar cane would require only half that much land and algae would require an area only 10% of that size at its lowest efficiency of output.

Controversy

In 2012 the United Nations food agency called upon the United States to suspend its production of ethanol for biofuel. U.S. law states that fully 40% of corn harvested must be used to make biofuel and the U.N. says using that massive quantity of corn for fuel rather than food is contributing to the global food crisis. The problem is twofold.

The first arm of the problem has to do with the sheer quantity of food involved. By some estimates, the corn that is being used to make biofuel could feed as many as 412 million people. At a time when an estimated 1 billion people are going hungry, 412 million is a big step toward fixing the problem.

The second arm of the problem has to do with food prices. By increasing demand for ethanol made from corn, the demand for corn also increases and along with that comes increases in the cost of food. In 2012, the USDA predicted prices as high as U.S. $8.90 per bushel, which is well above the $6.40 they predicted previously and more than double the $4.00 per bushel that corn sold for in the mid 2000s.