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This is the age of energy innovation
Throughout history there have been periods of time when mankind experienced explosive creativity and innovation in specific areas.

During the Renaissance, great works of art, music, and literature were created. During the Industrial Revolution, entire economies and societies were transformed by mechanical and industrial inventions. We are entering another such period when science, technology, and agriculture are joining forces to change the energy sources that power the world.

As President Bush stated recently, “We are a nation addicted to oil.”

This is an addiction that is shared by most other developed nations in the world. The problem is we are running out of the stuff.

The International Energy Agency now predicts world oil production will peak between 2010 and 2020. That means after 2020 it is all downhill. As supplies shrink, oil prices will rise faster and higher. Since two-thirds of the world’s oil reserves are in Middle-Eastern nations, OPEC will become the most powerful force in the world. Industrialized nations with large armies will not take kindly to being so controlled. Wars have been fought over oil before, and they likely will be again.

Yet there is an alternative, an alternative that is taking root right here in the Corn Belt. Bio-energy holds promise for agriculture and for the world. As I recently told the Purdue Ag Forecast meeting, the world is looking to agriculture for an energy alternative. Agriculture is very quickly being seen as the food, fiber, and fuel industry.

Ethanol is not new; in fact, it was the fuel of choice for Henry Ford when he first started building cars. Yet, today ethanol is being rediscovered and represents a short-term solution to gasoline made from imported oil. Currently, ethanol is made from corn by big corporations in large processing plants. Yet the demand for the renewable fuel will soon outpace the ability of these plants to produce. A new generation of smaller plants are springing up across the Corn Belt, buying corn from local farmers and producing ethanol. Dr. Mike Ladish, Director of the Purdue Laboratory of Renewable Resources Engineering, explained at the Ag Forecast that new technology has been developed that will not only make these plants more efficient but allow them to produce ethanol from a variety of plant materials including corn stalks, wheat, wood pulp, and switch grass. The timeline on this new technology is very short. An ethanol plant in Illinois will start using this new technology this year.

A similar situation exists for soybeans. A curiosity just a few years ago, soy biodiesel is quickly making its way into the fuel mainstream. Here too the innovation is continuing. Dr. Bernie Tao at Purdue has developed an aviation fuel made with soy. Tao sees, in the not too distant future, a bio-fuels refinery. This facility will take in a variety of crop material and produce a wide variety of fuel and industrial products. Unlike a typical oil refinery, these plants will be clean, quiet, and, most importantly, located in rural areas.

While the bio-energy revolution will change our agricultural industry, farm economy, and rural community, the biggest impact will be on our world order. The development of bio-based energy will break the control of oil cartels and will give many nations a new source of energy independence. Farmers in countries with no oil reserves but plenty of grassland will find themselves at the center of a new economy. Energy will no longer be the property of the few but will be available to all.

This revolution will not come easily. Already there are those who are standing in the way of a move to a bio-based energy source. Indiana Senator Richard Lugar recently accused some major oil companies of refusing to allow their service stations to sell E-85 ethanol fuel.

Auto and engine manufacturers have also been slow to produce flex fuel vehicles or include soy biodiesel in the engine warranties.

Yet, eventually the obstacles will fall and the pessimists will be silenced. “The future will be one of energy choices,” said Dr. Ladish. He sees wind, solar, and hydrogen technology all playing a part in the energy world of the future. The key to this world becoming reality is innovation, research, and investment. Government, industry, and individual farmers must invest in this future and prepare for it. The age of energy innovation is here and our future will be shaped by it.

This farm news was published in the February 22, 2006 issue of Farm World.