The investment now taking place in alternative energy sources “is phenomenal,” but agriculture’s role in that picture is still being determined, says Kater Hake, Cotton Incorporated vice president for agricultural research.

“With the help of science and improved technology, U.S. agriculture has done a great job of steadily increasing its productivity and output,” he told members of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at their annual meeting at Memphis.

“It has kept pace with the food and fiber demand of a growing population — but not with energy demand.

“Agriculture’s role in providing fuel is one of the key challenges facing us today, and a major uncertainty in the energy picture is ethanol. While it’s great for beer and other products, it has some serious limitations in terms of use in automobiles.”

Other biofuels and other energy forms may hold greater promise, Hake said.

“Germany, for example, is investing at a very high level in solar energy — surprising, given that it’s a cloudy, rainy-type country.

“But if we look at the return on investment for solar, the cost to install has been steadily declining, and an article in the journal Nature projects that by 2015 the cost of solar energy should drop to the equivalent of energy from coal.”

Another promising alternative, Hake said, is DMF (dimethylfuran), which can be made from corn, but also from materials such as grass and biowaste.

“It has higher octane and lower water content than ethanol and, importantly, unlike ethanol it can be transported through existing pipelines.”

The major long-term factors confronting corn as a fuel source, he said, are “politics and environmental considerations.”

He cited an article in Science, “the premier U.S. scientific publication,” analyzing the total environmental costs of various biofuels in comparison to gasoline.

“While many of the biofuels are associated with lower greenhouse gas emissions, the scientists found that when all factors are taken into account, their aggregate costs are greater than for gasoline.”

According to the study, Brazilian soybeans ranked worst in terms of total environmental costs compared to gasoline, followed by U.S. corn, European Union canola, North American canola, and U.S. soybeans.

All this is occurring, Hake said, “at a time when cotton’s chief competition, the petroleum-based synthetic fiber industry, is facing major challenges in terms of supply, costs, and ability to meet demand.

“As populations increase in China, India, and other countries and personal wealth grows, more of these millions of people will purchase automobiles, placing even greater pressure on petroleum supplies.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com