Whyfore ethanol?

I have asked this in some past thread but I hope a thread of its own will provoke a better discussion. Why is our government so heavily promoting the use of corn-derived ethanol as a gas replacement?

Ethanol production as it stands requires the diversion of food crop into a fuel crop. It requires energy to produce. Enough energy that it is far from carbon neutral. Yes, research is ongoing to harvest biofuels from cellulose and thus to be able to use non-food product, but even then why?

Doesn’t it make a lot more sense to use biomass to produce electricty by burning it with coal and promoting the era of plug-in electric cars, even if that means a plug-in hybrid transition phase? Burning non-food biomass would be not only carbon neutral but, in some cases carbon negative. Mixed stands of prairie grasses end up capturing more carbon (by leaving root structures behind) then they release upon buring and can grow on land not suitable for food crops. Iowa, as a case in point, has land that farmers have been paid to not farm but to let go to prairie as a means to reverse their high erosion rates, that are due to now go back into production but which are still poorly arable for row crops. (In fact keeping some stands of prairie grass rotating with row crops may actually increase food crop productivity.) Non-food portions of food plants may also be usable as a biomass for electricity production. At least one utility is positioning itself to use biomass in new power plants (no doubt also hoping to benefit with this relatively inexpensive fix if/when carbon tax or cap and trade are implemented.)

So why the fixation with converting biomass into biofuels at a significant efficiency disadvantage and substantial other deleterious effects? Is it lobbying from farm states that see a quick rise in corn and soybean prices as in their best interest? Or from oil companies who see a more lasting role in distributing biofuels as gasoline becomes prohibitive than in cars mainly running off of the electrical grid (assuming that promised production cost obstacles in battery technologies are indeed surmounted in the near future)?


Yes again.

Any strongly pushed alternative fuel scheme will stall development of better batteries for electric cars. If a workable battery were developed, all-electric would have very few barriers. Lots of tankage, depots, and pipeline infrastructure (not to mention thousands of filling stations) would soon be useless.

I’m not sure what the term “carbon neutral” means, but it doesn’t make sense that burning food that we have to grow in fields for fuel would be considerably less carbon neutral than burning non-food that we have to grow in fields.

I thought ethanol was produced from a type of grain that isn’t necessarily fit for consumption. I also thought that current ethanol schemes were not aimed at releasing the product in its current form tomorrow, or as soon as congress allows it, but rather aimed at increasing the efficiency of ethanol to a point that it could be a realistic alternative for gasoline.

Also, I don’t understand how mixed grasses can soak up more carbon than what is released when they’re burned. Where does the extra carbon go?

Anyway, I’m no expert, but my guess is that ethanol is being pushed because it’s at least a little promising as an alternative. From what I understand, a pure electric car has serious disadvantages in terms of performance and efficiency, and that those problems are not likely to be solved any time soon.

Into the (unharvested) root system, he said. I guess they’ll eventually be metabolised by soil organisms, but at least some of it would be sequestered for a while.

The big sticking point is coming up with something as easy and convenient as putting ten gallons of gas into a tank in a minute or two. Hard to match with any kind of battery.

One point in favour of ethanol is that what’s food to yeast in a fermenting tank isn’t necessarily food to a human being - I don’t know how easily you can ferment straw, but I’ll bet it’s easier than eating it.

Butanol seems like a much better replacement for gasoline then ethanol http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Butanol_fuel

But a cow can eat that straw and we can eat that cow.

The West Wing had an excellent episode (King Corn) on ethanol, which included this dialogue of politicians visiting Iowa:

“about ethanol… It’s bad for the environment, its expensive. Mother of all panders… Transportation is difficult. Storage is a nightmare… It’s corporate welfare… Seventy-five percent of the money goes to the richest 10% of American farmers…”
“Yeah, well explain it to them after someone’s actually elected us to something, okay?”

Probably true, but the longer it can be put off, the less likely the problems are to be solved at all, ever. The safe thing for both agribusiness and big oil is to kill off even the potential of a competing technology.

The point I was trying to make is that ethanol might be closer to a true solution than rechargeable batteries. Why spend a lot of time trying to develop the second most promising technology, instead of the most promising?

DSeid There are two companies that pretty much dominate Ethanol. Archer Daniels Midland and another whose name I cannot recall. Their lobbies are quite powerful.

Ethanol is not even the second most promising technology. Right now it actually takes more energy to produce than it puts out. Brazil is doing a better job of it with Sugarcane from what I hear.

It’s not being developed because it’s the most promising. It’s being developed because there are such powerful interests behind it.

i.e. replacing rainforest with sugarcane.

Hey, follow the money.

As to the efficiency of electric cars: we addressed this in the Who killed the electric/solar car? thread. Current electric cars are much more efficient than ICEs in both miles per Mj and carbon emitted even using coal as your power plants. Even comparing to the Prius they come out way ahead. The Prius gets 0.68 km/MJ. The Tesla coming out, a sportscar that goes 0-6- in 4s and has a range of 250 miles gets 2.18 km/MJ and the Phoenix Motorworks sport utility truck, which performs as well as any ICE power ute and has a 130 mile range gets 1.66km/MJ. That car even boasts a 10 minute recharge. The problem now is getting battteries to an affordablitiy point; these cars aint cheap. While even 30 miles would cover most people’s daily driving needs, people still want to be able to drive across the country. Until a rapid recharge option is widely available at gas stations some hybrid alternative will be needed and the concept being developed by GM, the Volt, a series plug-in hybrid that uses a small ICE exclusively to recharge the batteries when needed but the plug-in charge would be enough to handle 40 miles of driving without any fuel use, could be an ideal transitiion vehicle model. Those cars can run off of E85 or gas or diesel or biodiesel or be configured with fuel cells. But most of their energy expenditure under most usages would be off of the grid. GM swears they are serious about getting this car to the market at an affordable price point within a few years. The main burden of battery research, btw, has been bourne by the computer industry. Electric car manufacturers are reaping the benefits without having to put too much into primary research investments.

Now ethanol isn’t as bad as all that. Its just not all that good. It is indeed less net carbon emitting than gas, but not by much. It is still much more net carbon emittting than electric, even coal fired. Yes, cellulosic ethanol production is a high research priority and would be able to use non-food plants and plant portions and plants that grow on land marginally suited for food crops. But the benefits from efficiently using non-food biomass to directly genrate power would be huge (not even counting the potential for plug-in and plug-in hybrid cars) and yet few utilities are seriously gearing up to use it.

I am not an ethanol person, but I work (somewhat tangentially) in the corn business, so I’ve had my crash course in ethanol. Let’s look at some numbers.

  • If you take ALL the corn grown in the United States in 2006 for everything, it adds up to about $34 billion. That may be big money, but it isn’t anywhere near Mobil/Exxon money ($9.8 billion NET income in just the first quarter of 2007).

  • The oil companies hate ethanol. They grudgingly accept its useas a fuel oxygenator, but not as an alternative fuel.

  • The federal governments gives gasoline blenders a 51 cent per gallon credit for blending ethanol into gasoline. That’s the only federal subsidy (obviously some state and local governments have paid big handout to the ethanol industry to build plants in their regions, but that’s another issue.) Who are gasoline blenders? The oil refineries.

  • The U.S. is already producing more ethanol than Brazil, so the ability to get more from that country is pretty limited.

  • Why use corn? Because it’s more than 60% carbohydrate and corn loves to be turned into alcohol. And some of the remaining 40% can be used as a high-protein animal feed, which takes some of the demand off the corn-as-feed channel.

  • Why not use cellulose? Because first you have to break down the cellulose to get to the cabohydrates. That’s a long process, and clearly more expensive. Cellulosic companies have been saying “any day now” for about the last 5 years, and it’s still “any day now.” Also, cellulosic materials don’t have nearly the levels of carboyhdrates in them as corn or sugar cane. They’re going to have to bring a LOT of biomass (stems and leaves) to make as much ethanol as they can get right now from corn or cane.

  • Are we diverting food for fuel? No. Food-grade corn has always sold for more than the feed-grade corn used for ethanol. If a farmer can make more money growing the food-grade stuff, he isn’t going to switch to the cheaper stuff.

  • Does producing ethanol use more energy than we get out of it? Depends on who you want to believe. The older studies say it’s a loser, but the processes have become more energy efficient. The best current studies I’ve seen say there’s a small net energy gain in ethanol. Not a huge gain, but positive nonetheless.

  • Why bother with biofuels at all? Because the entire world is dependent on a storable, liquid source of energy. It’s not just cars and buses, it’s powerplants, furnaces and boilers, generators, plastics and a lot of other stuff I don’t even know about. There’s a 100 year old, multi-kajillion dollar infrastructure already in place. The more of that which can be replaced by alternative fuels, the longer the supply of oil will last for the needs for which there is no alternative.

Can we please stop with the “it requires more energy to make than it provides” argument? While technically true, it’s grossly misleading.

No matter where it comes from, ALL forms of energy come from a source that requires more energy to create than provides. That’s basic physics, kids.

Can it? The argument’s perfectly valid if straw is a useful livestock food - that’s just what we should be using livestock for - but I thought it was nearly worthless as animal feed.

They’re not talking about energy in a theoretical physics sense, they’re talking about it in a real world fuel-usage sense. It takes (for example) 1.1 units of oil to create 1 unit of ethanol fuel, so converting to ethanol does not reduce your use of fossil fuel, it increases it. Converting to ethanol is not “carbon neutral”, it does not reduce CO2 emissions, because the conversion itself forces us to use more fossil fuel than we otherwise would have.

If, OTOH, you got 1.1 units of ethanol from 1 unit of oil, then converting will reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. There’s no reason to think this is impossible, the energy of ethanol is supposed to be coming from the Sun, not from the fossil fuels used to process it.

Some other facts to consider:

Ethanol yields 35% less energy per gallon than gasoline.

There is only so much farmland in the U.S. Diverting some to produce ethanol limits the land than can be planted for other crops, thus raising the price of those crops. If there is a continued push for ethanol, it is likely that land will start being converted to farmland. That means cutting down forests. How environmentally friendly is that?

Ethanol from sugar, as they do in Brazil, isn’t too realistic in the U.S. In fact, the only reason the U.S. has a sugar-growing industry is because of government price supports. Also, growing sugar cane in Florida is pretty environmentally destructive.

There is some debate, but there is plausible evidence that producing a gallon of ethanol (with the planting, harvesting, processing, and transportation of corn) burns more fuel than that gallon produces. At the minimum, a gallon of ethanol only produces a little more energy than is consumed in producing it.