April 14, 2006
Acreage For Corn Dropping Due To High Energy Costs

Corn for ethanol is touted in some circles as a solution to high energy costs. As long time readers know, FuturePundit is mighty skeptical about corn ethanol and thinks it is a boondoggle. Green Car Congress reports that high energy costs are causing less corn to be planted in the United States.

The rising costs of fuel and fertilizer are leading US farmers to switch from corn to less input-intensive crops such as soybeans in 2006, according to the Prospective Plantings report recently released by the US Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS). Dry conditions also contributed to lower corn planting intentions in the southern Great Plains.

Farmers plan to plant 78 million acres of corn in 2006, down 5% from 2005. They intend to plant a record-high 76.9 million acres of soybeans, up 7%.

Anyone see a problem here? This shift is happening in spite of government interventions through subsidies and regulations to increase the production of ethanol from corn. In spite of the US government's support for corn ethanol the rising cost of fossil fuels energy is causing farmers to shift away from producing corn. Hardly a reason to be bullish about corn ethanol, is it? The rising use of corn to make ethanol for transportation energy is going to drive up the cost of corn for animal and human feed. The decline in corn production is going to drive up the cost of corn ethanol too.

Large scale grain crop biomass as a way to supply a large fraction of transportation fuel is a bad idea. It makes Archer Daniels Midland and some corn farmers happy. It also makes some of the more ignorant greenies happy. But we do not have enough land to make corn a major source of energy. The government subsidies spent on corn ethanol would be better spent on research into photovoltaics, batteries, nuclear molten salt reactors, and other technonologies which can help produce replacements for fossil fuels.

Development of genetically engineered corn that can bind nitrogen would probably reduce or reverse the shift of farmers toward soybeans. High natural gas prices have driven up nitrogen fertilizer costs and soy's ability to fix nitrogen makes it a better crop in the face of high natural gas prices. But if biomass is to have a much larger energy future my guess is that future lies with the development of technologies for breaking down cellulose combined with grasses which produce more energy per acre.

If we really have entered the Hubbert "Peak Oil" era then we need to get more hard headed about what can replace oil. Corn is not the solution or even on a top 10 list of solutions.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2006 April 14 11:07 PM  Energy Biomass


Comments
back40 said at April 15, 2006 12:38 AM:

I don't disagree with the thrust of your argument. But . . .

"Development of genetically engineered corn that can bind nitrogen would probably reduce or reverse the shift of farmers toward soybeans. High natural gas prices have driven up nitrogen fertilizer costs and soy's ability to fix nitrogen makes it a better crop in the face of high natural gas prices."

This is tricky stuff. Recent research has shown that the Illinois Soil Nitrogen Test (ISNT) is unreliable. It appears that maize has been consistently over-fertilized and soya consistently under-fertilized. This matters because soya production is reduced by the need to trade plant sugars to soil bacteria in exchange for nitrogen. No free lunch. Nitrogen fixation is not cost free, it is just diffuse.

Natural gas isn't needed to synthesize ammonia, it's just a convenient source of hydrogen. There are other sources. As long as you are willing to entertain future technologies such as nitrogen fixing maize and molten salt reactors why not also consider alternativs to Haber-Bosch ammonia synthesis. Huge amounts of energy can be generated in remote locations, sometimes on an intermittent basis, but the cost of transport to the grid is prohibitive. That energy would be just dandy for hydrogen production and thus ammonia synthesis. Ammonia would be easier and cheaper to transport than either hydrogen or electricity.

John Brothers said at April 15, 2006 4:25 AM:

I followed your link and read up on Molten Salt Reactors - I couldn't find anything appealing about them at all. They sound dangerous, complicated and expensive. What did I miss?

Bob Badour said at April 15, 2006 7:01 AM:

John,

"dangerous, complicated and expensive"

Doesn't that describe every electricity generation plant?

Randall Parker said at April 15, 2006 8:56 AM:

John Brothers,

First off, I've read cost estimates (provided by links from other readers in previous comments) that Molten Salt Reactors (MSR) would be cheaper than Light Water Reactors (LWR) once the MSR reactor technologies became mature. First off, they use less fuel. So their fuel costs less and the reactors stop for refueling less often. Second, they generate orders of magnitude less waste and waste with shorter half lives and so waste disposal drops as well.

Whether the reactors would cost more to build has yet to be determined.

As for safety, here's what Wikipedia said at that MSR link:

The accident potential of the MSR is far lower than that of a water reactor. The primary cooling loop is operated at atmospheric pressure and the fuel salt does not react violently with air or water. Even in the unlikely case of an accident, most radioactive fission products would stay in the salt instead of being dispersed into the atmosphere. An already molten core is of course meltdown-proof, the worst possible accident would be a leak. In this case, the fuel salt can easily be drained into passively cooled storage, making the accident manageable.

MSR would be safer than LWR. Fuel and waste costs would be less. Whether the reactors could be made as cheaply as LWR (or cheaper?) is still to be determined. We ought to do a big research push and find out.

Paul Dietz said at April 15, 2006 12:14 PM:

MSRs are reactors that are already melted down. This is supposed to be a good thing? Fission products, instead of being confined in sealed fuel elements, circulate in the primary loop. This loop will inevitably leak. When it does, you will have massively more contamination than you do when the primary loop of a LWR leaks.

Randall Parker said at April 15, 2006 1:23 PM:

Jan Leen Kloosterman of the Deltf University of Technology in the Netherlands has interesting things to say about MSR:

A MSR produces fission power in a circulating molten salt fuel mixture at ambient pressure. Only when the salt enters the graphite core, the neutrons released in a fission event can moderate to thermal energies and initiate new fission. Because the fluoride salt is used to remove the heat from the core and to circulate the fuel, a fraction of the salt stream can be diverged to extract the fission products and to add fresh fuel. This means that no refuel outages are needed, which reduces the operation costs considerably.

But of the 6 major Generation IV nuclear reactor designs being funded by the United States and the Generation-IV International Forum (GIF) consortium members MSR is considered to have the longest technological development time.

The feasibility studies for the more mature systems – i.e. the Sodium Fast Reactor (SFR) and the Very High Temperature Reactor (VHTR) – should last until 2008 and 2012 respectively; and the performance studies, until 2015.

Regarding the more futuristic systems – i.e. those having fast neutrons and gas coolant ( GFR ), lead (LFR) and supercritical water (SCWR) – the feasibility studies will continue through 2013 and 2015, and the studies of optimization until 2020. The timeline for the molten salt system will be longer.

...

Molten Salt Reactor (MSR): The MSR involves a circulating liquid of sodium, zirconium, and uranium fluorides as a reactor fuel. The MSR has been presented as providing a comparatively thorough fuel burn, safe operation, and proliferation resistance. The initial reference design would be 1000 MWe with a deployment target date of 2025. The design could use a wide variety of fuel cycles. Temperatures for electricity production would not be as hot as for some other advanced reactors but some process heat potential exists. Versions of the MSR have been around for some time but never were implemented for commercial uses. During 2003, the MSR was down rated within the Gen IV program because it was seen as too distant into the future for inclusion within the Gen IV schedule.

So MSR looks like a rather distant prospect.

Paul Dietz said at April 15, 2006 2:56 PM:

providing a comparatively thorough fuel burn, safe operation, and proliferation resistance.

The way proliferation resistance is normally proposed is by using the Th-U cycle instead of U-Pu. The 233U becomes contaminated with 232U, which is difficult to separate and which decays to an isotope with high gamma emission.

However...

232U has a halflife of only 69 years. This means that if your uranium accumulates 1% 232U, its alpha activity will be as bad as or worse than reactor grade plutonium (233U is also rather radioactive, compared to enriched uranium fuel, with a halflife of 159,000 years). Worse, uranium, unlike plutonium, is quite soluble in oxidized conditions, so it will be mobile in the environment if any escapes.

AA2 said at April 15, 2006 9:10 PM:

It seems insane to me to even think about corn ethanol. The scale that we would have to farm on, to feed even today's energy needs is enormous. What we want to do is use less and less farmland as our farming becomes more efficient. Aka higher and higher yields over time per acre under cultivation. Which we have been achieving, and it seems we can continue to do so.

The US is actually retiring farmland, while increasing total farm production. Returning land to nature. The next thing I am pushing for, is to stop using wood for construction. Only using wood for decoration. Instead using concrete, steel and glass to build our homes, and offices. That way we can take a vast amount of land that is being logged.. and return it to the wild. And hopefully some percentage of it can be turned into parks for people to enjoy.

farmer said at April 16, 2006 7:34 PM:

You can't see the forest because you're staring at one tree.

Soy is planted in annual rotation with corn. Soy is also grown for biodiesel. Corn and soy - ethanol and biodiesel. Same farmers, same farms, same land, same needs being addressed.

Randall Parker said at April 16, 2006 8:07 PM:

farmer,

But the annual rotation is a two way street. Last year's soy fields ought to become this year's corn fields. The rotation should net out.

Soy for diodiesel: But the far bigger demand growth is for corn for ethanol.

Dezakin said at April 18, 2006 12:35 AM:

"MSRs are reactors that are already melted down. This is supposed to be a good thing? Fission products, instead of being confined in sealed fuel elements, circulate in the primary loop. This loop will inevitably leak. When it does, you will have massively more contamination than you do when the primary loop of a LWR leaks."

While this is how the original MSR prototypes are designed, is this necissary? Can we not stick heat exchangers in the core rather than taking the loop out? And if it is necissary, why is a leak seen as inevitable.

The contamination from a MSR leak however much worse than a primary coolant leak in an LWR (which is largely water) isn't _that_ severe. It solidifies into a glassy substance with nearly all of the fission products immobilized outside of the core, and its not implausible to design a hot chamber where we expect to do clean up of such events, where the goo is picked up and thrown back in the core. From an operational standpoint I cant see it being worse than the sodium fires that occur in fast breeder loops.

"232U has a halflife of only 69 years. This means that if your uranium accumulates 1% 232U, its alpha activity will be as bad as or worse than reactor grade plutonium (233U is also rather radioactive, compared to enriched uranium fuel, with a halflife of 159,000 years). Worse, uranium, unlike plutonium, is quite soluble in oxidized conditions, so it will be mobile in the environment if any escapes."

Thats kind of the point for proliferation resistance: Fissile material that is just to much bother to work with.

Molten salts are clearly the best _breeder_ reactor technology avaliable, since all the vulnerabilities of molten salts exist in other breeder regimes, but at different stages in the fuel cycle with more possible complications. Weather we will develop breeder reactors instead of once through LWR or PBMR's is a different question.

But I don't quite understand the paranoia about a leak when thats pretty much the worst failure mode of an MSR that you can engineer your plant around and how such leaks tend to be self-containing in terms of contamination.

Paul Dietz said at April 18, 2006 8:30 AM:

why is a leak seen as inevitable.

The experience with all reactor types tells us leaks are inevitable.

Consider liquid sodium cooled breeder reactors. Leaks have been a major problem with them, especially in the larger ones. This is true even in 'pool type' reactors of the kind you were advocating.

But I don't quite understand the paranoia about a leak

As soon as the inside of your reactor containment building is sufficiently hot, it becomes expensive to do maintenance. This would ruin the reactor's economics.

(This is also an argument against fusion reactors, btw.)

Dezakin said at April 20, 2006 10:19 PM:

"Consider liquid sodium cooled breeder reactors. Leaks have been a major problem with them, especially in the larger ones. This is true even in 'pool type' reactors of the kind you were advocating."

Further work should certainly be done on MSR's to minimize likelyhood of leaks and complications of when a leak occurs, but I'm unaware of leaks in any running MSRs. In any case, at least the salt just vitrifies and doesnt catch fire like the sodium does.

"As soon as the inside of your reactor containment building is sufficiently hot, it becomes expensive to do maintenance. This would ruin the reactor's economics."

Sure sure, but the salt has a rather low fissile load so it would take a number of large leaks to make it 'sufficiently hot' after cleaning up the vitrified salt. Leaks are a potential problem certainly, but one of the only potential problems. (The other big one being clogging of the heat exchangers with noble plate out)

I don't know if MSR's can be made to run cheaper than LWRs or PBMRs, but they certainly are superior to every other _breeder_ reactor, and because of the simple fuel cycle and continuous uptime (and maybe someday the potential to recover fission products of market value such as platenoids) high thermodynamic efficiency and low waste volume, its conceivable that MSRs can be cheaper than LWR's or PBMRs.

I don't think they should be pursued merely because of fuel efficiency; We have so much uranium I think thats a non-issue. Rather I think we should pursue MSRs because I think (maybe) they can be a safer, more cost effective reactor than LWRs and PBMRs, and as a concept should not be discounted so readily.

"(This is also an argument against fusion reactors, btw.)"

I guess you've heard of the fusion/molten salt hybrid then? The argument against fusion reactors is solar power will be cheaper than any conceivable fusion reactor for the next 100 years. Maybe if someone comes up with some real nonintuitive magic that makes us all feel like fools...

Well, I'd love to be able to feel so foolish.

Turd Furguson said at April 21, 2006 7:42 AM:

I read somewhere, maybe even this page, that bio oil from algae is magnatudes more efficient a bio source for fuel than any grain or soy based ethanol/biodiesel process. We could turn the whole southwest desert area into giant algae / energy farms. Use the molton salt reactors to pump and desalinate supply water for the algae farms, even though Rubbia's energy amplifier seems a safer bet as far as nuclear power goes. :)

Paul Dietz said at April 22, 2006 7:55 AM:

I read somewhere, maybe even this page, that bio oil from algae is magnatudes more efficient a bio source for fuel than any grain or soy based ethanol/biodiesel process.

Efficiency is not the problem; cost is. A farmer's field is much cheaper, per square meter of solar collecting area, than a semi-transparent vessel to contain algae.

Matthew Kennel said at April 27, 2006 4:41 PM:

On the cost of algae biofuel.

All that needs to happen is the value of the yield per area
minus cost be better than the yield per area minus
costs of conventional farming, land plus fertilizer plus fresh water.

If algae yield is dramatically higher, that can support more technology
of course.

What about something really cheap and low-tech for algae farming:

plastic bags.

Like those inflatable pool rafts, but transparent on top, and
presumably black or reflective on the inside bottom, with
low-tech hoses going in and out.

Limitation here would appear to be potential UV degradation, but
still the much lower upfront cost would help in a capitalization sense
which could be critical for initial deployment. Also have to worry
about freezing in some climates, but I would imagine that sunny deserts
near ocean water would be ideal, and the land there would have little
pre-existing value. I'm thinking Sonora desert and the middle of
the outback in Australia's southern coast.

And compared to much more tech-intensive photovoltaics or engines
plastic bags with hoses would be pretty cheap and simple.

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