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March 22, 2007

U.S. Secretary of Agriculture talks on future of ethanol at Purdue

WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - When Secretary of Agriculture Mike Johanns spoke about renewable energy and the 2007 Farm Bill during a Wednesday (March 21) discussion at Purdue University, he was referring to cellulosic, not corn-based, ethanol.

"Energy deficits are changing rural America," Johanns said. "Agriculture is going to be a big solution to the nation's energy challenges."

Producers are challenged to grow more higher yielding crops, researchers are challenged to find the most efficient way to produce cellulosic ethanol and consumers are challenged to decrease gasoline consumption, Johanns said.

"This isn't your grandfather's farm bill," Johanns said, in presenting the U.S. Department of Agriculture's farm bill proposals. 

The 2007 Farm Bill should target the next generation of renewable fuels - cellulosic ethanol, Johanns said. Today's production of corn- and soy-based biofuels is not going to meet demand, but cellulosic ethanol can, he said.

Cellulosic ethanol uses feedstock such as specialty crop biomass, switch grass, corn stover, straw and other woody biomass.

A panel discussion followed Johanns' presentation. Topics ranged from the "food versus fuel" question to the impact of renewable energy on the nation.

"I don't think about using food for fuel," said Keith Collins, USDA chief economist. "I think about using crops for fuel.

"I say that because using crops for nonfood uses has been the objective of agriculture for a long, long time. Henry Ford built a car out of plastic made from soybeans a long, long time ago. We have been trying to utilize agricultural commodities for industrial uses for decades, precisely because the production capacity of American agriculture has been so great it has often overwhelmed demand and created lower prices. That's why we have this elaborate system of price and support programs."

Michael Ladisch, a Purdue renewable resources researcher, said that 1,000 gallons of ethanol can be produced from one acre of switchgrass and other cellulosic materials. Production of cellulose for ethanol will not be on prime farmland but in pastures, allowing producers to grow both food and fuel.

The USDA proposes increasing research in cellulosic ethanol and is encouraging land-grant universities like Purdue to do the same.

Cellulosic ethanol technology is likely to be developed in land-grant university research labs, where scientists take ideas from conceptualization and turn them into reality, said Ladisch, director of the Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering at Purdue.

Cellulosic ethanol's economic impact could be significant, said Purdue President Martin C. Jischke.

"If we could replace half the imported oil in the United States - and the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Biotechnology, which I serve on, has estimated that that is possible with biofuels - that's $150 billion to $170 billion a year. Secretary Johanns said that farm receipts are $259 billion. Think of the economic impact ? and the resulting broader social impact - of the infusion of another $150 billion to $160 billion into the rural community."

Other renewable fuels panel speakers included Bob Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association; Thomas Dorr, USDA undersecretary for rural development; Andy Miller, director of the Indiana State Department of Agriculture; and Bernard Tao, professor of agricultural and biological engineering at Purdue. Randy Woodson, Purdue's Glenn W. Sample Dean of Agriculture, moderated the event.

During Johanns' visit to Purdue, he toured labs where ethanol research is taking place.

Writer: Julie Douglas, (765) 496-1050,

Ag Communications: (765) 494-2722;
Beth Forbes,
Agriculture News Page

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