Cellulosic ethanol—derived from wood scraps and other forms of inedible plant mass– may or may not turn out to be a real technological breakthrough. On the one hand, it could reduce the ruinous impacts of grain-based ethanol on food prices. On the other hand, the extensive set of federal mandates and subsidies for cellulosic ethanol is not a good omen—good technologies rarely need federal help, and the existence of federal aid is often a tip-off that a new technology is a loser.
But here’s another question: if cellulosic ethanol does take off, what impact would that have on the clichÃ©s we use? Would we have to scrap the old saying about separating the wheat from the chaff, and instead talk about separating the chaff from the wheat?