Rise in gas prices promotes alternative energy source debate

Experts’ opinions on what energy source the nation should focus on differ.
With the increase in gas prices across the country, much of the debate over alternative energy sources focuses on the use of biodiesel fuels versus ethanol or E-85. Typically, gas contains 5 percent biodiesel fuel.

As gas prices and consumer anxiety about paying for transportation continue to rise, alternative energy sources have become a controversial and more prevalent topic of debate across the nation.

"For years and years, we used lead in our gasoline," said professor Leon Schumacher, who specializes in biofuel engineering. "And then we replaced it with another chemical, Methyl tertiary butyl ether, which also caused problems. Now, there are new alternatives to MTBE like biodiesel and ethanol."

Controversy about these new energy sources has largely revolved around the fact that these fuels come from sources primarily used for livestock feed and food products, like corn and soybeans.

Biodiesel is a diesel fuel created from the chemical fusion of lipids-like vegetable oil or animal fat-and alcohol.

J.P. Dunn, Missouri Soybean Association Field Services manager, said the process of creating biodiesel involves squeezing the oil out of a soybean, which is then used to create the fuel.

Dunn said the biofuel actually forms from the alcohol that is created when these lipids are fed to yeast, which then produces the fuel-forming alcohol.

Dunn said that Missouri produces about 150 million gallons of biodiesel per year, and with another potential plant, could produce more than 200 million gallons. He said that presently, everyday gas contains 5 percent biodiesel.

"In an overall view, we don't use a lot of the biodiesel fuel, but we make quite a bit," Dunn said. "We focused on that because we wanted to draw production to the state. We want to use Missouri soybeans and create jobs for Missourians."

Another alternative energy source, ethanol, is formed from fermentation of grains or sugar. A primary source of ethanol is corn, whose starch is extracted and formed into fuel.

Schumacher, who specializes in biofuels in energy conservation, said a common misconception is the belief that ethanol is one of the least efficient alternative energy sources.

With each unit of energy put into ethanol production, 1.5 units of energy come from the fuel, Schumacher said.

Comparatively, biodiesel is the better alternative energy option, Dunn said. Because the oil used for biodiesel is separated from the soybean "meal," or the actual protein used for feed and other food products, claiming that soybean biodiesel is wasteful is invalid.

Dunn said that in working with higher oil content in soybeans and increased yields per acre, biodiesel production could jump from 5 o 20 percent in the next 20 years.

"The question everyone wrestles with is 'how much,'" Schumacher said. "But we have to remember that it's all based on the technology that we have today. There are different technologies that people are starting to look at to see if these fuels could really have a bigger impact."

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., said in an email that there is a need to seek out more American-based energy sources, including alternative energy sources like wind, solar and biomass.

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