The Food V. Fuel Myth

So, as of a few weeks ago, I
subscribed to the assumption that biofuel was a bad idea. Had you asked me how this opinion was formed, I wouldn’t have been able to say what the data was based on. Just the foggy notion that biofuel perpetuated a broken industrial agricultural system, promoted GMO corn and re-allocated food growing space to fuel growing. Was I ever wrong.

David Blume’s “Alcohol Can Be a Gas!” has been a revelation. A real tome, this book should be mandatory reading with anyone who wants to keep this earth habitable for civilization. Not only are the contents praised by Buckminster Fuller (the author’s mentor), the reader soon realizes that even as far back as Henry Ford and Edison, ethanol has been considered the perfect fuel by many luminaries.

While I can’t do this book justice here, I will highlight a few fascinating factoids and leave the rest to you, to order it, read it and make up your own mind.

In fact, there is one strategy discussed of particular interest: Making biofuel from cattails. Cattails live in marshy brackish waters where they thrive off surplus nutrients. They range from near arctic-conditions to the humid tropics like Vallarta. Cattails have the incredible capacity to filter sewage and it has been “conservatively calculated that 35 acres of cattail marsh can treat 5 million gallons of secondary sewage a day” (Blume). It’s nutrient uptake and biomass production is several times higher than corn’s.

The big news is this: with new technology, it is possible to generate 10,000 gallons of ethanol per acre with cattails. Using 1.46% of US agricultural land, all the sewage of that nation could be treated while simultaneously replacing 200 million gallons in fossil fuel demand. Not only could this fuel power vehicles, the methane production (a co-product) could fuel the production centers themselves. And all the while utilizing the internal combustion engines nationwide that are currently in usage with minimal conversion (if any).

But it gets better. For those balking at the idea of even dedicating 1.6% of farmland to cattails, highway ditches which currently require expensive mowing and often inspire copious herbicide use by counties, could be converted to cattail production. 5 ft wide strips on either side of a highway along 1,000 miles of roads per county, could yield 61 billion gallons of fuel (40% of US gasoline use). While eliminating otherwise-used herbicides, detoxifying road runoff, and without using a single acre of farmland.

Utilizing cattails has the additional benefit of absorbing the overload of nutrients that wash into our waterways. This is a particular problem with the US’s heartland agricultural runoff contaminating the Gulf of Mexico and creating marine deadzones.

In short, using today’s technology in cellulosic fuel production, we have the capacity to purify our waterways while generating clean fuel. With minimal-to-no conversions for our vehicles or fuel pumping systems.
Cattails are just one tiny facet of this book and I am hardly doing it justice. But I just want to put this out there, especially as we head towards another election cycle up north. The framed argument of “drill-baby-drill” versus “should-we-just-frack” is a manipulated set of options indeed.

There is a world of possibilities out there, including methane and biomass production that can turn problems like waste into solutions, using a decentralized energy supply, right now. We have options today that do not require our fuels to be blended with blood. What is required is the political will to talk about it.
Please check out David Blume’s “Alcohol Can Be a Gas!” to become part of the conversation.

Emily Majewski
Emily Majewski is Co-Founder of PHYTOSTONE, a small firm based in Nayarit dedicated to creating advanced natural materials for home and garden.