Nothing can break down faster than a technology supported 100% by government, 50% by industry and 10% by reason. Which is why the ethanol industry in America is suddenly looking to be on shaky ground. It seemed like a godsend a couple years ago: Replace foreign oil by helping local farmers and reducing greenhouse emissions! WHERE DO I SIGN!
Politicians loved it, and so subsidies were thrown at producers and ethanol is booming. Unfortunately, it turns out to not be the silver bullet that everyone hoped it would be. And featured this week in three of the four magazines I receive in print form are stories pointing out some of the weaknesses of our current bio-fuels situation.
The Economist published a story entitled (no, I'm not kidding) Ethanol Schmethanol, which points out some of the limitations of the fuel itself, while National Geographic's cover story "Green Dreams" bemoans the inefficiency of the current ethanol system. Finally, WIRED's cover story hits on much the same topic, but from a more technical perspective, with a focus on cellulosic ethanol and switchgrass.
Long story short? Corn ethanol isn't working. It's inefficient, reduces supplies of actual food which actual people need to actually eat, and increased demand is only leading to the destruction of the last untouched American prairie lands. But solutions might be on the way in the form of cellulosic ethanol, which is much more energy efficient (though more expensive) to produce, as well as alternate forms of biofuels that are more energy dense and gasoline-like than ethanol (namely butanol.)
So don't give up on biofuels yet...but certainly, beware of corn ethanol. If the burst in legislation surrounding it teaches us anything, it's that our government can act on good ideas. We just have to hope that they continue to support alternative biofuels that are more intelligent and actually have science (and logic) behind them.