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Thursday, May 8, 2003 02:20 pm

Still making the case for ethanol

For years ethanol has been touted as a homegrown solution to satisfy America's unquenchable thirst for oil. It's made from renewable sources--any substance with sufficient amounts of sugar, or material that can be converted into sugar, like the starch in corn. When burned, ethanol creates less pollution than gas. Every year nearly 2 billion gallons of ethanol are now added to U.S. gasoline to increase octane and improve emissions quality.

But some experts claim ethanol's promise has been exaggerated. One professor at Cornell University released a study last year claiming there's no gain in ethanol production--it actually takes more energy just to grow the corn.

Illinois farmers and scientists aren't giving up on the dream so easily. This spring Southern Illinois University will open an ethanol research plant in Edwardsville. According to the plant's director, Rodney J. Bothast, the National Corn-to-Ethanol Research Pilot Plant will be the only one like it in the world. Of course, with continued political instability in the Middle East, the timing couldn't be better. "There's a keen awareness worldwide of our dependence on petroleum," says Bothast.

He hopes that the plant will help make ethanol production more economical. Prior to joining SIU in Edwardsville, Bothast was part of a team at the National Center for Agricultural Utilization Research in Peoria. In an article he authored last year in the International Sugar Journal, Bothast offered various ways to increase the amount of ethanol drawn from corn. He predicted ethanol demand will "more than double in the next several years."

The new 24,500-square-foot pilot plant will offer both wet milling and dry grinding techniques to transform 200 bushels of corn into approximately 500 gallons of ethanol a day. That's just a start. Bothast says, "This research will provide justification to ensure financial experts that the science will do the work."

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