for National Geographic News
While a cheap alternative to gasoline may be pie in the sky, ethanol producers in cattle country will soon be reaping the energy rewards of pies on the ground.
Ethanol production plants fueled by cow manure are under construction in Hereford, Texas, and Mead, Nebraska.
The new facilities may have a big impact on the growing debate over the value of ethanola liquid fuel distilled from food starches such as cornas a supplement or alternative to gasoline.
Critics have long argued that traditional ethanol production consumes nearly as much fossil fuel energy as it saves, once all the energy costs of growing and processing corn are factored in.
(Read "Ethanol Not So Green After All?" [July 2006].)
But in Hereford, a cattle town in the Texas Panhandle (Texas map), Dallas-based Panda Ethanol is building a production facility driven by the area's most abundant and least appreciated resource: manure.
The new plant is expected to extract methane from 1 billion pounds (453,000 metric tons) of manurethe product of about 500,000 cowsto generate 100 million gallons (378 million liters) of ethanol, plus ash by-product, each year.
Methane derived from the manure will be burned to generate the steam necessary for processing corn into ethanol.
"We thought it made a lot of sense to use a renewable fuel to create a renewable fuel," said Panda CEO Todd Carter.
"There are literally mountains of manure in the Hereford area."
Cows Crack Corn
By mining those mountains for energy, the Panda facility is expected to save the equivalent of a thousand barrels of oil a day that would otherwise be required to fuel ethanol production.
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