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Apollo vision needed for renewable fuels
Do you remember where you were in 1961 when President Kennedy said, “I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal before the decade is out of landing a man on the moon and safely returning him to Earth.”

I remember that speech very well because, like most Americans, it ignited my imagination. It was a grand, exciting vision, and coming in the aftermath of the Soviet Union’s Sputnik triumph, it was a goal most Americans wanted to achieve. That same kind of vision is needed as our nation moves into the realm of renewable energy.

On July 16, 1969, three American astronauts roared off the launch pad in a Saturn V rocket to achieve the goal set eight years before.

Billions of dollars and entirely new technologies were needed to make the trip possible; but the seemingly impossible had been done, and at 4:17 p.m. on July 20 man landed on the moon. Four hours later with the world transfixed, Neal Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon. The U.S. space program has had its detractors, but looking back with the hindsight of history, there is no doubt the world has benefited from the technology spawned by the race for the moon.

That same kind of vision and investment is what is needed if we are truly to realize the promise of renewable fuels, according to Mike Ladisch.

Ladisch is engaged in groundbreaking research at Purdue on the next phase of renewable fuels. Corn and soybeans represent phase one of renewable fuels, but phase two will involve crops we have not even started growing yet. In an interview, Ladisch told me the grand vision is to reduce our dependence on imported oil. Now what is needed is the technology to make that happen.

He pointed out that, like the Apollo program, vision is not enough. It takes technology, investment, infrastructure, standards, and a willingness by all parties to do things differently. Ladisch believes that cellulose represents the next wave for renewable fuels. This will require the growing of new grasses, especially designed for ethanol production. Recently I have heard many producers express concern that the rapid growth of ethanol production plants in the Midwest will exhaust the supply of corn. Ladisch said the first cellulose ethanol production plants will likely be on line in the next five years and rapid growth is expected to follow.

The grand vision of safeguarding our nation’s economy and security by reducing our dependence on imported oil has been laid before us. Now it is time to begin the work of realizing that goal. Agriculture and rural communities have a key role to play in reaching this goal.

Like the race for the moon, realizing this vision will take new directions and new products we have not even thought of yet. The important thing, however, is to not lose sight of the vision and not to let today’s problems and tomorrow’s challenges blur our determination to reach that goal.

In the 1940s Buck Rogers’ space exploits were science fiction. Today powering our cars on plants or lighting our homes with electricity made from animal waste may also seem farfetched. Yet, a decade from now, our energy situation and our agricultural economy may be vastly different. It will certainly be a giant step for mankind.

This farm news was published in the Sept. 6, 2006 issue of Farm World, serving Indiana, Ohio, Illinois, Kentucky, Michigan and Tennessee.