Wednesday, February 08, 2012

strange ideas from my brain...

So... when I'm driving I have time to think.  Some would argue TOO MUCH time to think, but there we are.  Now, you can fill your time up with the radio and blast your brains with music and other such nonsense, but I don't.  I like to think. 

Well over a year ago, I used to listen to a lot of NPR.  And it was a couple of their news stories which inspired a little tumble in my head... and there's something that's been festering in there for quite a while, and I'm getting a little tired of mulling on it, so I'm going to throw it out there and see if A) I'm a little insane or B) if anybody else out there thinks anything about this is workable. 

It starts with ethanol. 

One or Two years ago, when gas prices started to go through the roof, there was a lot of talk everywhere about alcohol being used as fuel.  NPR had a few stories about it.  The one that stuck in my head was how Egypt has been using the straw left over from their rice crops to make ethanol for well over 20 years now.  Very practical of those Egyptians I thought... and went on about my merry way. 

Then, one or two weeks later, there was another story.  This time they were talking to somebody about getting grain, specifically corn (if you're in the US it's called corn, the rest of the world calls it maize) turned into alcohol here in the US.  He kept talking about how the technology didn't exist, and how it was going to take several million bucks of government money to do the research.  It was also mentioned that straw or corn silage can be turned into alcohol, but that wasn't practical, because it had to be chopped up fairly small so that it would ferment, and they would again have to spend several million dollars to create the right choppers and such... and for several reasons, this entire interview thoroughly pissed me off. 

One, I distinctly remember thinking, "Hillbillies have been turning corn into alcohol for well over 300 years but this bunch of MIT graduates can't figure it out?" 

Then I remember thinking something along the lines of "Egypt has been turning straw into alcohol for years.  Are you telling me that Egypt has technology we don't?"  Don't get me wrong, Egypt is not exactly 3rd world.  They are a civilized and technological country, but I was always under the impression that the US was a bit more advanced. 

Now, here's the thing.  I've mentioned before that I'm a depressive.  This has many disadvantages.  But it has advantages too, most people don't see that, but it does.  Here's one of them.  Depressive minds tend to dwell on things.  What most people do is they get upset with something and they move on.  What we do is get upset with something and hold on to it.  And we don't get distracted from it.  It kind of sits there like a big lump while we walk around it, stare at it, occasionally poke it with a sharp stick.  If we were easily distracted by the next thing... we wouldn't be depressed... we'd be following every new thing that came along. 

So here's what's happened... this idea has been growing in my mind for a while now.  I'll come up with what may or may not be a decent solution, only to hit a roadblock or other problem, and now I'm going to spell out some of my conclusions.  They may be stupid, they may be interesting, they may be totally unworkable... but here they are. 

First... about that straw, silage, whatever being ground up to a small enough size to ferment... I also know from recent events that they have grinders that can turn an entire automobile into little pieces of one inch metal.  Seriously, that's what happened to all those cars that were traded in with that government program a while ago.  I'm 99% sure that the technology to grind up corn silage into small chunks already exists.  If I'm not mistaken... I think it's called a wood chipper.  Now, above mentioned MIT grad was displaying a typical tendency of engineers.   Namely... why on earth would you adapt technology that already exists when you can get the government to write you a check so you can re-invent the wheel?  Seriously, folks... go to Home Depot and buy a few wood chippers.  After you go into production you can build a new machine to refine the process, hopefully using your profits instead of my tax dollars.

And as for corn... well, that bothered me.  I'm related to corn and soy bean farmers.  I know a bit about it, but not overly much.  I can tell you this... most of the corn(maize) grown in the US is not used for direct human consumption.  Most of it is used for animal feed, and then there's the other by-products, corn oil, corn syrup, etc...  and here's another thing that some research has told me.  We are entirely too dependent on that one crop.  They keep stretching the crops as far as they can go... but one good drought (remember the dust bowl?) or one good fungal disease (remember the Irish potato famine?) and we're in deep shit.  (Sorry about the language, but since I'm just clearing my mind, and not writing any sort of actual presentation or anything, I think it's allowable...) 

What I'm saying is that it might be advisable to steer clear of a crop that's been stretched as far as this one has been. 

Now, also through some research I've learned a few other things.  Alcohol can be distilled from about any plant material. 

The problem with farming corn, and expanding the crops and such is that there is a huge amount of land that has been pretty much farmed out.  Large tracts here in Texas are used as pasture for cattle and used to be actual grain acrage, but are now lying pretty much fallow.  (I have some other thoughts on this, but one brain maggot at a time.)  The problem is that the land was weakened by too many crops of grains and/or cotton to the point that now it pretty much is used as rather week pasture because most crops won't grow there anymore, and if it was used for other crops, there's little organic matter in the ground to hold water and would require irrigation.  Add to that... the rich topsoil has either mostly washed away or blew away in the aforementioned dustbowl.  That's a major problem with plowing a field every year.  It keeps the soil all loose and it doesn't always stick around after that.

So... lets think about other crops.  After much mulling and stewing and such, (sugar beets looked promising for a moment) I finally stumbled upon an option that you would have thought would have been fairly obvious to me.  Cactus.

Specifically, Prickly Pear cactus.

Here's my thoughts...

1)  They already commercially grow prickly pears (Nopales) for the food industry.  They were quite trendy a few years ago, although their cachet, and their price, is dropping.

2)  The sugar content in the leaves should be high enough to produce a decent alcohol.  (I can't find anything to support this.  Not to mention, I have absolutely no idea who to ask.  Any of you research addicts got any ideas?)   And we don't have to confine ourselves to the one or two varieties that are used as a food item... there are others that grow quickly and on a massive scale that would be good for this purpose. 

3)  They are a perrenial crop and they don't require the field to be plowed every year.  You would go through the field and either place a fresh pad directly in the ground every 3 feet, or you would plant pads that had been rooted over the winter months in greenhouse conditions for a head start.  You might get a crop the first fall, but you'd be better off letting them wait till next spring.  I'm even pretty sure that with the faster growing varieties you could even get several crops during the second season, and bigger crops during the following ones as the plants produce more coming off the established root systems.  This is in opposition to most perrenial crops which only produce one crop a year.

4)  They do not require super rich soils, massive amounts of fertilizer or insecticides. 

5)  Irrigation would be minimal to none.

6)  You could grow it on land that is in many ways not suitable for any other crop. 

7)  I'm pretty sure that you could even double purpose the land... I have a strange vision in my head of fields with long lines of prickly pears,  separated by 20 foot rows of grass that have cattle or sheep grazing in them.  Sounds strange, doesn't it?  However... Cattle or any livestock animal are kept out of corn fields because they eat the corn.  I don't think that's a problem with the cactus, especially the thorned varieties.  Plus... livestock does what it does, primarilly, eat grass and produce manure that would provide all the fertilizer the cactus needs...

So... there's that brain maggot out of my way.  for the moment.  I have a strange feeling that there's another few ideas gonna spring out of this. 

Now... all I need is someone with 5 acres, a few cactus cuttings, a few cows, a wood chipper, and a distillery in the back barn to test it out... LOL


  1. You're not the first one to think of using crops other than corn for ethanol. There have been studies showing that switchgrass is better.

    Your mention of a wood chipper makes me wonder why not use any scrap plant matter? Collect any unused plant parts from agriculture, yard waste, etc., chop it all up and make ethanol out of it.

  2. Celtic Rose... hadn't heard the switchgrass info... I'll look at it.

    The problem with using any old yard waste is consistency. If you're going into large scale production of something, you have to have a pretty good idea of exactly what's going in so you know exactly what's coming out.

    That being said, there's no reason you couldn't use recycled paper to make wood alcohol... hmmmm

  3. one more point... there's nothing stopping people from making their own alcohol from kitchen and garden waste at home in their garage... aside from safety issues of course.

  4. I like your cactus and cow fields Idea!!! I think it would work!!!