Last month's Indianapolis 500 auto race, which required drivers to use ethanol fuel for the first time in the event's 95-year history, gave a glimpse of what's in store for the future of U.S. energy, a USDA official said this week.

"The Indy 500 this year ran on a 10 percent blend of ethanol, and they're converting to 100 percent ethanol next year," said Thomas Dorr, undersecretary of rural development at the U.S. Agriculture Department. "Ultimately, this is going to brand ethanol as a premium fuel."

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The granddaddy of U.S. auto races, held each year at the end of May, had not required a change in fuel mixture by drivers in more than 40 years, Dorr said.

"This is a terrific day for biofuels and the corn industry. I'm very proud of the progress we're making," Dorr said in a speech Monday night at the National Corn Growers Association Corn Utilization and Technology Convention.

Ethanol is produced in North America mainly from corn, but can be made from virtually any starch feed stock including sugar cane, wheat or barley. The clean-burning, renewable fuel is increasingly seen by some analysts and U.S. lawmakers as a viable alternative to America's dependence on foreign oil.

A century ago, automotive pioneer Henry Ford planned to use ethanol as the primary fuel for his Model T, but the less expensive gasoline emerged as the dominant fuel.

Dorr said ethanol has had a long struggle to gain the limelight and was conceived at the grass-roots level among growers and country pioneers. "We were ethanol before ethanol was cool," he said.

Wider acceptance of the alternative fuel is also changing the face of rural America, said Dorr, as new ethanol plants are springing up and creating jobs.

"Ethanol is a success story over 30 years in the making, and energy is now a major national security issue," Dorr said. "We do have a costly addiction to imported oil, but we can kick the addiction with ethanol and other renewable fuels."

SOME ETHANOL SKEPTICS

NCGA President Gerald Tumbleson encouraged delegates at the Dallas convention to jump on the ethanol bandwagon in a speech Monday night. "If you're not a part of it you'll be left behind," he said. "The world is short of protein and energy."

Back-to-back bumper corn crops were produced in the United States the past two years and the newly seeded 2006 crop is off to a roaring start. Genetic engineering continues to forge ahead, boosting the potential for corn hybrids to post phenomenal average yields of close to 200 bushels per acre in roughly 10 years, compared with the record average corn yield of 160 bushels per acre notched two years ago.

Ethanol does have its skeptics, who say the cost/reward ratio does not favor the use of ethanol over petrochemicals. There is also concern that corn may be used to make fuel at the expense of food.

Importers of food, feed and corn from the United States have been growing a bit uneasy about the constant barrage of news touting the use of corn as fuel rather than food. The USDA has projected that by next year more than 2.0 billion bushels of corn will be used to produce ethanol, roughly equal to the amount of corn that is exported and about 20 percent of the annual U.S. corn crop.

"Eighty participants from foreign countries are at this conference, and our corn customers need to be assured they will continue to have a reliable supply," said Davis Anderson, chairman of the U.S. Grains Council, a grains marketing and promotion group.

Anderson reminded delegates from Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, China, France and other countries that the high-protein distillers dried grain, a by-product of ethanol manufacturing, is available for export in addition to corn.

But ethanol proponents say the fuel could finally be on the way to gaining the inside track. "This is rural America's biggest new market in generations," Dorr said. "The bottom line is Henry Ford built the first Model T to run on ethanol, and we're about to come full circle. The future is very bright."

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