Soybeans and corn power their way into fuel options

With fossil fuels costly and crop prices low, bio-fuels represent a clean- burning, renewable energy source.

So you think America's too dependent on foreign oil? Some people say the time is ripe for bio-fuels:

* As early as May, St. Louis public-transit passengers could be riding buses powered by a mix of diesel and soybean oil.

* Coming off a banner year, the corn-based ethanol industry plans to expand production to record highs.

* Then there's Edgar Leightley's method. The Pennsylvania farmer got so tired of high oil prices he started burning corn to heat his home with a new furnace that's selling like hot cakes.

While burning food for fuel isn't new - Rudolph Diesel used peanut oil to power one of his engines a century ago - the idea has suddenly become a lot more practical. Fuel prices are so high and crop prices so low that politicians and fleet managers are taking a new look. Already a hit in Europe, bio-fuels are renewable, clean-burning, would stretch the US fuel supply, and help stabilize its farm economy.

They even smell nice. Users report the truck exhaust from soybean-based bio-diesel smells like French fries.

Even if crop prices go back up, experts say bio-fuels could have a bright future if the US makes it a high priority to curb global warming.

"There is no doubt that these renewable energy systems are carbon neutral. So you just grow it and burn it and things just recycle," says Don Erbach, national program leader of engineering and energy with the research arm of the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). "If that really gets to be a serious issue and we really have the international will to address this issue, I could see where it would be a big thing."

Ever since gasohol hit the pumps in the 1970s - with mixed results - corn farmers have urged motorists to use more ethanol. Now it represents the third-largest use for corn after animal feed and exports.

Last year, the industry produced a record 1.6 billion gallons of ethanol, and it is expanding. Archer-Daniels-Midland in Decatur, Ill., which makes about half of America's ethanol, plans to boost its ethanol capacity by a fifth.

The biggest surprise this year is bio-diesel. Testing has suggested the diesel-soybean-oil mix works just as well as regular diesel (except in particularly cold weather) and burns much cleaner. But the standard mixture - 80 percent diesel, 20 percent soybean oil - has proved far too expensive. Now, thanks in part to low soybean prices, prices have fallen from $4 a gallon to between $1.25 and $2.25, says the National Biodiesel Board, an industry trade group based in Jefferson City, Mo.

That's almost on par with regular diesel and close enough for many users to take a new look. The USDA has begun mixing bio-diesel with heating oil to heat a dozen buildings - and two dairy barns - at its Beltsville, Md., research facility. A Phoenix concrete company has converted its 100 trucks to run on 100 percent soybean fuel.

"We would very much like to use it," says Lyle Howard, manager of product development for the Bi-State Development Agency, which runs the mass-transit system in metropolitan St. Louis. He's preparing a proposal to use bio-diesel in the agency's 580 buses and 63 para-transit vans later this spring.

Subsidies help. In November, the USDA set aside $150 million for each of the next two years to pay ethanol producers for increasing the use of bio-fuels, such as ethanol and bio-diesel. At least five states are now looking at enacting tax incentives to further encourage bio-diesel use.

As a result, production has gone through the roof - from 500,000 gallons in 1999 to 5 million gallons this year. The USDA projects its program alone will boost output another 36.5 million gallons.

Such numbers don't begin to rival the 56 billion gallons of regular diesel produced annually. But if the petroleum industry is forced to move to low-sulfur diesel by 2006, as the Bush administration

announced last week, soybean oil could become a key lubricant that allows the fuel to work, proponents say.

Lubricants, in fact, represent another promising market for crops. Instead of petroleum products used to grease semitrailer couplings, railroad tracks, and chain saws, researchers have developed crop-based alternatives that are now just as cheap and more environmentally friendly. "We hope this year will really blow the top off" the marketplace, says Lou Honary, director of the Ag-Based Industrial Lubricants Research Program at the University of Northern Iowa in Cedar Falls.

Such projects are helping to funnel money back into the nation's long-suffering farm economy. Ethanol production alone adds some $4.5 billion in farm revenue a year, according to the Renewable Fuels Association in Washington.

Still, some farmers are taking matters into their own hands. "I'm not selling corn to turn around and buy oil," says Mr. Leightley, a grain and vegetable farmer in Centre Hall, Pa. Instead, he's burned about 350 bushels of corn kernels to heat his farmhouse, saving half of what he would have spent using fuel oil. The company that made his furnace - Ja-Ran Enterprises in Lexington, Mich. - used to struggle to sell 10 of its biomass furnaces a year. Now, it's selling 24 a month.

"People are getting their gas bills and their propane bills," says owner Randy McLachlan, "and the stragglers are beginning to wake up."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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