Prof steers away from corn for biodiesel

  • Chhandak Basu

    Chhandak Basu Associated Press

Published: 9/6/2008 6:36 PM

GREELEY, Colo. -- When it comes to alternative fuels, a University of Northern Colorado professor says weeds and algae should be in our gas tanks, not corn.

"People are suffering; the food prices have gone up," said Chhandak Basu, a plant biologist who's looking beyond food-based ethanols. "I'm using plants that have no economic importance."

Basu is attempting to clone genes from a tropical tree that possesses a compound known as oleoresin, with properties similar to diesel fuel. He hopes to recultivate them into nonfood plants or algae for biofuel production.

"It's an ideal time to work on a biofuel project to find a solution for the rising gas prices," said Basu, who received a grant for about $50,000 from UNC and another for the same amount by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. "It's affecting people from all the different levels of life: rich to poor," he said.

To get his hands on the genes, Basu traveled to Puerto Rico for the "diesel tree," which is a lush evergreen that can grow over 100 feet tall.

Because the tree takes 15 years to mature and can't weather the climate in continental North America, Basu said weeds and algae make better hosts.

He is working alongside a University of Tennessee researcher and UNC students to nail down the genome sequence.

"It's a needle in a haystack," said Basu, who expects results by mid-2009.

The next step would be to determine the economic viability of this biodiesel.

"This is a homegrown product," Basu said. "It's better than bringing in foreign oil. ... This could be a cash crop for farmers."

Some experts say the food-based ethanol demand for biofuels is outpacing supply, which translates to more expensive food.

Since 2001, corn grown to produce ethanol in the United States has increased by 300 percent. And the price of a bushel of corn has risen from about $1.50 in 2001 to about $5 or $6 today.

The use of corn for biofuel is one, but definitely not the biggest, factor affecting prices, said Matt Hartwig, spokesman for the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade association for the ethanol industry.

"What is really driving the price of corn, as well as food, is demand," he said. "Worldwide demand for grain is much stronger than people predicted."

Record-high gas prices are the other culprit, he said.

According to a July Farm Foundation report written by Purdue University agricultural economists, higher gas prices have bumped up the cost of corn by $3, while ethanol production has bumped prices by only $1.

Biofuels faced other criticism this year.

Two studies published in the journal Science in February argue that biofuels release a significant amount of greenhouse gases (more so than conventional fuels) because of the energy expended tearing up the land. It also robs the planet of natural sponges -- rain forest and grassland in particular -- that absorb emissions, the studies say.

This is the reason why Basu is looking at algae.

No land would need to be cleared because plants could be harvested in an aquatic setting, he said.

Joe Fargione, a science director at the Nature Conservancy and author of one of the studies challenging the environmental friendliness of biofuels, said algae is a promising alternative.

The yield can be higher, it doesn't require soil, and it can be grown anywhere where there is enough sunlight, he said.

Basu said his research won't be the silver bullet for high fuel prices or climate change.

"It's just one of the tools in the toolbox," he said.