Ethanol as Fuel

While I don’t dispute Dr. Pimentel’s arguments that more energy is consumed producing ethanol for fuel than the ethanol returns, one need not worry flouting about the second law of thermodynamics in efficient conversion of energy from one form to another. We do such transformations all the time in converting the energy of falling water to electricity in power dams.

In all these cases (gasoline, ethanol, hydro), the original energy comes from the sun. What is of more concern with ethanol is whether the additional energy from non-renewable sources is greater than that expended in creating an energy equivalent in the form of gasoline (which includes the original oil used as well as the energy used in refining, transporting, etc.)

Knowing of Dr. Pimentel’s consistent record of good research, I suspect he has done that analysis as well.

Sadly, taxpayers continue to subsidize many questionable and some worthless energy projects where the main economic justification would seem to be the size of the campaign contribution.

I am pleased to see Cecil call it like it is on the ethanol boondoggle. The fact that he comes from a corn state (Illinois), and even eats corn, doesn’t seem to have affected his objectivity on this issue.

The fact that the professor’s numbers have changed from 70% excess energy to 29% shouldn’t surprise anyone. There are a LOT of assumptions in calculations like this, and this just shows that as better data are available – and better assumptions can be made – the guy is willing to update his calculations.

I agree with jonk: Ethanol subsidies suck, but it was a non sequitur for Cecil to imply that the second law of thermodynamics proves that subsidies are a crock.

Solar panels and wind farms both use more energy then they produce in electrity, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a clean source of energy. Likewise, because making ethanol uses more energy then it produces doesn’t mean that it’s not a clean source of energy. The thing that makes ethanol bad is how much non-renewable (e.g., petroleum based) energy it takes to produce it.

Compare this collumn with one of from the archive:
Is recycling worth it?

Why doesn’t ethanol get the same “cross our fingers and hope that improved technology and economies of scale make this worthwhile” treatment that recycling gets?

I don’t think he was implying that “flouting the second law of thermodynamics” made it a crock in its own right.

I’m more inclined to believe he was poking fun at the government.

citybadger- Ethanol doesn’t get the same “cross your fingers” treatment because a) recycling DOES have a benefit besides the conservation of energy- it reduces the amount of landfill space we fill up, and gives Boy Scouts something to do. More importantly, ethanol production is counter-productive not because of the technology available, but because of the basic means of production. Recycling does get more efficient when more individuals, groups, and businesses participate, whereas ethanol isn’t going to get more efficient to produce just because more people start using it (cheaper, perhaps). Combine harvester fuel efficiency hasn’t really improved over the last twenty years, and distillation as a process is pretty much cut and dried; not much you can do to reduce energy use there either.

Yes it does take more energy to make ethanol than you get back out of it. I have been told that it takes a thousand times more energy to make an alkaline battery than you get back out of it. The extra energy goes to make “convenience” and “utility”. Methanol makes a better race fuel than does a lump of coal or a truckload of AA batteries. If the energy you put into producing ethanol is from renewable sources and you realize that what you are paying for is utility and convenience then ethanol looks like a good deal. If you are converting petroleum energy to ethanol then it is a very foolish proposition.

I am generally not in favor of subsidies beyond getting the technology “off the ground”. A subsidy to a community to build an ethanol plant seems reasonable. Subsidies for continued operation are a bad idea. Eventually you do have to pay the true cost. I am averse to subsidizing private undertakings.

An alternative to subsidizing ethanol and biodiesel is to increase taxes on imported petroleum.

It’s interesting being in a General Question thread that turned into a Column.

It seems like the point about the second law of thermodynamics has already been covered so I won’t repeat.

I have a somewhat related question: how much energy does it take to produce an amount of gasoline compared to how much energy is realeased from burning that amount in a normal car engine?

All hail Cecil! We were once blind, but now we see. The veil of ignorance, once lifted allows the light in. You know, an even better solution is biodiesel. Have you heard of this stuff? All you need is a standard diesel engine, a few minor modifications, a warmer to keep the fuel from coagulating in the colder months (an alcohol burner will suffice) and ‘voila’! You can run the vehicle on waste fats from French fries and donut shops. It’s true. A couple of mechanical engineers modified a VW microbus and drove it coast to coast on nothing but waste oil from diners. They were glad to give the stuff away too, as they usually have to pay someone to take it off their hands. And the best part is the exhaust smells like fries or donuts! What could be better!? Between that and hemp seed oil we could save the world and tell the Arabs to shove that oil were the ‘sun don’t shine’! Way cool, huh?

Seems to me that Cecil’s argument makes assumptions about the goal of ethanol as a fuel. If it is to conserve overall worldwide resources, then I suppose that he is right.

But I had always assumed that the goal was not an environmental goal, but a political one. Okay, a little environmental for cleaner burning, but mainly we wanted to reduce dependence on foreign oil. If I was right, then the energy balance thing is completely pointless. The only real question is “Does ethanol production have a net positive gasoline/enthanol balance?”

We have lots of coal, and a fair amount of natural gas. If we “waste” those operating giant moonshine factories producing ethanol, but end up with more car/truck fuel that is not dependent on imports, have we not achieved a political goal?

I am now retired, but grew corn (among other crops) for many years. In fact the Mazzola corn oil commercial with the little Native American girl - “My ancestors called it maize” - was filmed in my field.
If in fact corn production is subsidized, I never got a dimes worth; and this despite dillegent reasearch. Ethanol production may well be subsidized, but it does not dribble down to the small farmer. Corn prices are below break even levels. The only reasons to even plant corn are for crop rotation or the fact that many farms have invested in corn machinery and it would be too costly to change. One always hopes for a “weather market” in which a crop failure elsewhere becomes our good fortune by rasiing prices.

<< Ethanol production may well be subsidized, but it does not dribble down to the small farmer. >>

Why bother to subsidize the small farmer, when we can subsidize the multi-billion dollar corporation? I mean, a small farmer would just spend the money on stuff like food and clothes and perhaps repair and maintenance, but the poor top execs at major corporations couldn’t buy $6,000 shower curtains or own multiple $100,000 cars without the taxpayers’ help.

Some of it at least trickles down to the shareholders as well - ADM currently has 72% of their float held by institutions and mutual funds (yahoo profile). It is a popular “value” stock, present in a lot of retirement portfolios and pension plans. It pays a steady, if unspectacular, dividend, is not very volatile, and does a curious 21:20 split most years which holders apparently regard as a “tax free dividend” (I asked about that once in GQ).

That does not, of course, justify the subsidy, which should be considered on its own merits / dismerits.

The complete text of my e-mail response to Cecil:

Hi Cecil. I’m a longtime reader and fan.

I realize that you can’t debate something as complex as energy
policy, let alone farm subsidies and the environment, in a thousand
words. Still, I thought I should mention some deeper facts on the
subject of ethanol.

Pimintel’s assumptions about ethanol production were correct in 1980,
and certainly 1973. However, he was found to be reusing that data
well into the '90s. Many changes have occured in industrial
processes in the past twenty years.

Please see “Fuel Ethanol Production from Midwest US Corn:
Help or Hindrance to the Vision of Kyoto?” by Wang, Saricks, and Wu.
It’s in the Journal of the Air & Waste Management Association,
vol. 49, p. 756 (July 1999). Wang, Saricks, and Wu are researchers
at Argonne National Labs, ouside of Chicago. I know that that makes
them immediately suspect as corn sympathysers, but I think Argonne
National Labs is about as politically-neutral an institution as
you’ll find in Chicago. Both Wang et al, and the studies they cite,
were peer-reviewed. At the very least, the three were not paid to
do the study by any industry group or lobby (agribusiness or

What’s most important is that the paper is a metastudy, reviewing a
decade’s worth of the ethanol question. The three point out the
pro’s and con’s of a diversity of studies, including Pimintel’s
latest, and a joint Department of Agriculture/Department of Energy
study. They conclude that the answer is somewhere in the middle-
between the optimistic and pessimistic energy balances, the most
accurate assumptions point to a slightly positive energy balance in
the conversion of corn to ethanol.

I’ll highlight the key points:

-Pimintel makes some broad assumptions. He assumes that 100% of corn
acreage is under irrigation. This is important because irrigation
pumps currently use diesel fuel. Wang, Saricks, and Wu point out
that of the four major corn-producing states studied- Illinois, Iowa,
Minnesota, and Nebraska- Illinois and Iowa have negligible acreage
under irrigation, and the worst state in this regard (Nebraska)
varies by region.

-Fuel usage in the form of fertilizer has dropped drastically
through the '90s. This is due to efficiencies within the fertilizer
industry, and reduced application by farmers (“precision farming”).
Pesticide production and application have shown no noticeable trend.

-The energy usage by ethanol facilities has also dropped by a
significant fraction. Since Pimintel’s 1980 study, molecular sieves
(“zeolites”) and polysaccharides (the Ladisch-Tsao process) have
almost eliminated the azeotropic process, reducing the energy
requirements of distillation. Wang, Saricks, and Wu note that
molecular sieves are the dominant dehydration method, with a few
holdouts not upgrading from azeotropes.

-The largest and least-disputed benefit is in reduced petroleum
importation. The ethanol processes are heat-driven, which is most
effectively done with natural gas. Natural gas is almost entirely
domestic in origin, and quite clean. Some older plants use coal,
which is dirtier, but also domestic. The remaining petroleum usage
is in tractors, corn and ethanol transport, and irrigation pumps,
but these too have become more efficient in the past twenty years.

-Net reduction of greenhouse gases depends on the facility, but is
overall positive. Natural-gas fired facilities are of course
cleaner, but overall the industry is a net greenhouse benefit.

I agree with Pimintel on one point: we must reduce fuel usage,
period. Usage of petroleum, ethanol, natural gas, etc. In other
writings, Pimintel advocates more-efficient vehicles and industries,
and conservation.

Also note that ethanol is also produced from potato-
processing scraps and excess paper pulp, which would
otherwise be waste products. The energy balances
of these are debateable, since what amount of energy
would you assign to the parent product? Still, the
net energy is positive given any reasonable energy

Rene Carlos
(Not funded by any interest- I’m a NASA engineer)

In the future, when historians debate when Cecil’s career came into decline and which articles should be attributed to “the school of Cecil Adams,” I’m afraid that this article will be one of the first of the latter category. Although I agree with the main points (ethanol = bad, ADM = greedy, government = corrupt) but the argument and facts are sloppy at best.
The problems are too numerous to cover in depth but the big ones are: (1) the whole second law statement (I did not read all the posts above but i think everyone sees the problems.) (2) The mention of MPG – we’re talking about energy content, not energy density. And (3), the one that bothered me was the statement: “The libertarian Cato Institute estimates that every dollar of ADM’s ethanol profit costs taxpayers 30 bucks.” The way this is worded it sounds as if it’s a bad thing that it’s only 30 bucks. It’s like saying “every dollar of GM’s profits cost car buyers 20 bucks.” The real problem is that ADM stands to profit at 1/30 of the government cost of ethanol and therefore is the major beneficiary of the program.

This is not a simple subject and I think the complexity is one of the factors which has allowed the subsidies to survive for so long. What’s needed is more clear and honest analysis and explanation. in this role I’m afraid Cecil has come up short today.

No it doesn’t.

For the rest, I do think we need more actual numbers, and those numbers better described. Biofuel does “produce energy from nothing” in a certain sense – as a way to convert solar energy into liquid fuel (which is the origin of fossil fuels, after all). But if the production process involves the burning of more fossil fuel than we obtain in equivalent ethanol as a result, then it’s a bad bargain, subsidized or not.

Well, that is sort of curious, since this part of it is off the point:
(a) When we spend money on any government program, it is likely that private vendors make a profit. (For example, GM is not making Hummers for the wars in the Middle East out of charity. Nor do I expect them to.)
(b) Ethanol – from corn – wouldn’t be any less a boondoggle if, say, ADM was only getting half the money and somebody else like Staley was getting the other half.
© We can’t determine, from the statistic cited, the extent to which ADM’s profit might be excessive. In fact, one is tempted to make the (almost certainly wrong) calculation that ADM’s margin on the business is 3% ($1/$30), which would be fairly low.

As to the comments in the original column about the laws of thermodyamics: I, for one, assumed they were a joke, and if they were in e-mail they would have had little smileys :wink: :wink: after them. But either people here didn’t get the joke – or they weren’t a joke, and Cecil should have paid more attention in junior high science class.

If Ethanol actually is a net user of energy, the only benefit, to anyone, is ADM’s extra profit.

If so, Congress may as well give $1 directly to ADM instead of $30 indirectly.

Renefast already pointed out the problems with Pimentel’s research, and frankly I’m surprised that Cecil gives Pimentel credit for a “2001” study without mentioning the fact that the data was recycled from the 1980s. Cecil mentions Pimentel’s detractors, but basically brushes them aside as being biased. We had a thread about this awhile back and by doing a little web research I discovered that several studies have been done which are far from agreeing with Pimentel.

I don’t think you can make such a blanket statement. A lot of assumptions were made to come to the “negative effeciency” conclusion. Among them were the cost of building ethanol plants themselves and the cost of transporting the materials to and from the plants. The problem with this reasoning is that we’re comparing a scarcely developed industry with the petroleum industry for which a massive infrastructure is already in place. I don’t see any reason to believe that it wouldn’t become more efficient were the industry to be further developed. In fact, it already has become more efficient in the time that we have been developing it.

Do you object to ethanol or to subsidies for ethanol? If the former, please re-read renefast’s post above. If the latter, then why?

Wow, renefast, that was an excellent first post. Welcome to the SDMB.