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Turn Iowa farm excess into energy


When we wanted an atomic bomb to win a war, the federal government invented one. When we decided to visit the moon, the government bought us a ticket. But it’s clear by now that a solution to our ludicrous dependence on foreign oil will have to come from scattered bits of scientific research, one lab report at a time, instead of through a massive, coordinated national effort.

The good news is, scientists are making progress in surprising ways. Even better, some of the recent breakthroughs offer fantastic potential for Iowa’s economy – and could improve our quality of life, to boot.

Consider two commodities that we produce in overabundance: Low-priced corn and pig manure.

Researchers at Cornell University recently landed a $2.25 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop fuel cells that use hydrogen made from ethanol. Ethanol? Iowa’s corn farmers would be happy to provide all you want.

Meanwhile – and, yes, we’re being serious – engineers at the University of Illinois are turning pig manure into crude oil. Do you think we have a large supply of that raw material?

This is all small-scale research so far, but the technology apparently works.

The ethanol specialists have discovered a way to produce four molecules of hydrogen from every molecule of ethanol, with hopes of doing even better. On the all-important political side, last month a Cargill Corp. executive was named to a biomass research committee that advises the U.S. secretaries of energy and agriculture. Create a new market for ethanol in a critical area and watch the price of corn finally climb from the level at which it has languished for decades.

Over in Urbana-Champaign, they use heat and pressure to transform pig manure samples into oil in a mere 15 minutes. Yuanhui Zhang, a professor of agricultural and biological engineering, told a reporter: “If 50 percent of swine farms adopted this technology, we could see a $1.5 billion reduction in crude oil imports every year.” Wherever you stand on foreign policy, that sounds like a good thing.

Zhang also said, “Swine producers could see a 10 percent increase in their income.” Imagine the boost to Iowa’s rural economy if that came to pass.

Iowa’s universities and congressional delegation need to push this kind of research as vigorously as possible. We’re always casting about for brand-new industries, as we should. But if we already have what we need to prosper, let’s use it.  

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