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Energy & Resources
Is ethanol the answer?
Mineral resource of the month: Beryllium


Is ethanol the answer?

With the price of a gallon of gasoline hovering around $3, consumers are concerned, and policy-makers, especially those up for reelection this fall, are scrambling to do something. Some are turning to ethanol and the world’s leader in ethanol production, Brazil, to see if the plant-based alcohol can help reduce America’s dependence on foreign oil.

The Brazilian military-led government launched its ethanol program in 1975, following the oil crisis of the early 1970s. That crisis left the country in dire straits energy-wise, says Phil Lampert, executive director of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition in Jefferson City, Mo. Production now tops 4 billion gallons a year, and Brazil’s ethanol program has become one of the largest alternative fuel programs in the world, supplying much of the fuel used in Brazilian cars.

“There’s no question that Brazil has the most successful ethanol system in the world,” says David Victor, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Well more than half of all cars sold in Brazil today are “flex-fuel vehicles,” meaning that owners can choose to fill their tanks with pure ethanol — made from sugarcane — or a blend of gasoline and ethanol, depending on price at the pump.

Brazilians can buy ethanol at some 29,000 gas stations throughout the country, and it’s usually (though not always) cheaper than gasoline, partially due to government subsidies, Lampert says. Ethanol does result in lower gas mileage, but as long as it is relatively cheaper, it still works out for the buyers, he says. And it is a cleaner-burning fuel than gasoline.

Brazil’s program would never have gotten off the ground without government mandates and a large influx of money, Victor says. But, equally important, he says, once the program was going strong, the government dismantled most of the subsidies and largely deregulated the price of ethanol and gasoline. That “exposed” sugar farmers to the global market, meaning that they choose whether or not to produce sugar and ethanol based on global prices and demand.

This year, Brazil has become energy “self-sufficient,” meaning the country produces the same amount of energy it uses, Victor says, yet ethanol only accounts for one-tenth of all the country’s energy liquids. “Brazil became self-sufficient by producing more oil and improving efficiency,” not just through producing ethanol, he says. The United States has lessons to learn from Brazil, but “we must be careful to learn the right lessons.”

In the United States, ethanol is produced predominantly with corn, rather than sugarcane as in Brazil. Although corn ethanol has been used as a fuel for a century, interest has been increasing lately. When Congress passed the energy bill last August, it mandated an increase in the volume of renewable fuel that is blended into gasoline, and that the amount double by 2012. This year, the departments of Energy and Agriculture project total ethanol production to be around 4 billion gallons (about what Brazil produces), much of which will go toward fulfilling the void left by the phase-out of MTBE as an oxygenating fuel additive this spring.

Still, considering that U.S. consumers use about 140 billion gallons of gasoline each year, 4 billion gallons of ethanol — less than 0.3 percent — is not going to make a dent in our dependence on foreign oil, Victor says. “Even if 100 percent of the corn grown in the United States went toward ethanol production and fuel use — currently 14 percent goes toward ethanol — it would only account for 7 percent of total fuel use,” says David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agricultural sciences at Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y.

“Scale really matters here,” Victor says: The U.S. market is so large, at 10 times the size of Brazil’s, that modeling U.S. production after Brazilian production is not feasible. Furthermore, “doing it at scale with current technologies would be economically difficult and environmentally damaging,” he says.

“On average, using sugarcane is better than making ethanol from U.S. corn,” Pimentel says, due to environmental concerns and the fact that ethanol from sugarcane is a much more efficient source of fermentable carbohydrates than corn. Ethanol from sugarcane costs less and requires less energy to produce than ethanol from corn. But sugarcane isn’t perfect either, he says.

Until researchers figure out how to make fuel from the “waste” parts of plants, as well as from starchy plants such as switchgrass, commercially viable, “I’m skeptical that ethanol will make a big difference in our markets,” Victor says. What people need to focus on instead of solely ethanol, Victor says, is gaining self-sufficiency through increased production and better efficiency, as Brazil has done.

“As is, we can expand the use of ethanol a bit, but if we push too hard, too fast, there will be problems, such as higher fuel prices,” Victor says. Indeed, the U.S. government should avoid any mandates on ethanol use or sales and let the market work itself out, “which it will, and probably soon,” Lampert says.

“It’s the bottled water scenario of 25 years ago: One entrepreneur bottled water and started selling it out of the refrigerator case and everyone scoffed,” Lampert says. Today, water is the most profitable item in that case. “We need one entrepreneur to plant that ethanol seed in the United States, and we’ll see the same thing,” he says.

Megan Sever

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Mineral resource of the month: Beryllium

U.S. Geological Survey mineral commodity specialist Kim B. Shedd has compiled the following information on beryllium, a metal used in computer and telecommunications, automotive electronics, medical instrumentation, and aerospace and defense applications.

Beryllium metal is lighter than aluminum and stiffer than steel. These and other properties, including its strength, dimensional stability, thermal properties and reflectivity, make it useful for aerospace and defense applications, such as satellite and space-vehicle structural components. Beryllium’s nuclear properties, combined with its low density, make it useful as a neutron reflector and moderator in nuclear reactors. Because it is transparent to most X rays, beryllium is used as X-ray windows in medical, industrial and analytical equipment.

Beryllium’s leading use is as an alloying element, improving the mechanical properties of other metals. For example, beryllium makes copper stronger while retaining copper’s conductivity and corrosion resistance. Beryllium-copper strip and wire are used to make electronic connectors and contacts, as well as other parts for computers, telecommunications equipment, automotive electronics and home appliances.

Beryllium oxide ceramics are lightweight, very rigid electrical insulators that can withstand extreme temperatures and dissipate heat better than any other ceramic material. They are used as heat sinks in high-performance powered electronics and semiconductors, and as components in a wide variety of instruments, including aircraft and missile guidance systems, automobile ignition systems and sensors, and transmitters for radiofrequency applications.

In 2005, the estimated world production of beryllium ore was about 114 tons. The United States supplied about 80 percent of the total and was a net exporter of beryllium materials and articles. China was also a significant producer of beryllium ore.

Bertrandite is the principal beryllium mineral mined in the United States and is mined by open-pit methods from a large deposit of volcanic tuff in the Topaz-Spor Mountain area of western Utah. Proven bertrandite reserves in Utah total about 16,000 tons of contained beryllium. This amount is sufficient to last more than 100 years at current production levels.

Beryl is the principal beryllium mineral mined in the rest of the world. It is usually recovered by hand sorting from pegmatitic deposits, which are often being mined for other minerals such as feldspar and mica. Aquamarine and emerald are some of the many gem forms of the mineral beryl.

Identified world resources of beryllium have been estimated to be more than 80,000 tons of contained beryllium. About 65 percent of these resources lies in nonpegmatitic deposits in the United States, mostly in the Topaz-Spor Mountain and Gold Hill areas in Utah and the Seward Peninsula area in Alaska. Worldwide, only four plants process beryllium ores — one in Utah, one in Kazakhstan and two in China.

The United States maintains a stockpile of strategic materials for use during a national emergency. Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, the U.S. Department of Defense decided to sell most of its stocks of strategic materials, but because of its importance to certain defense applications, beryllium metal is one of only a few materials that will continue to be stockpiled under the current plan.

For more information on beryllium and other mineral resources, visit minerals.usgs.gov/minerals.

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