Archive for Wednesday, October 4, 2006

Ethanol: A better burn?

October 4, 2006


The auto industry is abuzz with the promise of flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs), which are designed to run either on gasoline or a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline called E85.

Our tests of an FFV and our interviews with more than 50 experts on ethanol fuel led us to conclude that - while the mixture does burn cleaner than gas, and with comparable performance - E85 actually hurts fuel economy and may even increase our need for oil.

We put an FFV version of a 2007 Chevrolet Tahoe through tests while running on gasoline - actually, a mix of 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol called E10 that can be used in virtually all vehicles - and E85.

While there was no significant change in acceleration when running on E85, fuel economy dropped in both highway and city driving. But the Tahoe on E85 did emit significantly fewer pollutants.

Fueling the growth in FFVs are generous fuel-economy credits that manufacturers receive for each FFV built. The government assumes that an FFV will run on E85 half the time, and on gasoline the other half.

But the vast majority of FFVs may never run on E85 at all. Only about 800 stations nationwide sell it to the public, so the ramped-up production is just adding more large, fuel-guzzling vehicles to the roads. And that has increased annual U.S. gasoline consumption by about 1 percent, according to a 2005 study by the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists.

Benefits to automakers notwithstanding, there's currently no financial advantage for consumers to buy an FFV. Even if gasoline prices continue to rise, E85 may not become more financially appealing because the price of ethanol likely will go up, too. Then again, there's no inherent downside to buying a flexible-fuel vehicle - they still can run on gasoline, and they don't carry the hefty premiums of a hybrid vehicle.


just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

The latest research shows that it takes 4 gallons of petroleum-based fuels to create 5 gallons of ethanol, and ethanol isn't as good a fuel.

What's more, there isn't enough cropland in the world to meet our energy needs through ethanol.

The only reason it's being pushed is because of the massive agricultural subsidies that create a surplus of corn, and companies like ADM are just looking for new ways to suck off the government teat.

gr 11 years, 4 months ago

I'd like to read the reasearch. Some I've seen has been biased. For example, with ethanol they enter the costs of tractors, semis, etc., but with gasoline, they don't enter the costs for oil rigs, pumping, etc.

gr 11 years, 4 months ago

Bozo, please explain. I agree that big oil is manipulating it, but does your statement stand alone outside of politics?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

"So, you say there isn't enough cropland in the world to meet our energy needs through ethanol?"

Yes, and that's pretty widely accepted among agricultural experts who have studied it.

"Well, are there enough fossil fuel reserves in the world to meet our energy needs through gasoline?"

Most indications are that fossil fuel supplies will begin to decline sometime in the next decade or two, possibly dramatically. But even if all the corn that's produced today for all purposes is turned into ethanol, you'll only get a couple of gallons per month per person. That's not gonna quench our current thirst for gasoline. And what would we eat if we did that?

So, yes, there is very likely an impending energy crisis, but ethanol is at best only a small part of the solution.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

And w/regard to Brazil-- keep in mind that 1) they use much less fuel per capita than we do, and 2) they use sugar cane, which is a much better crop for ethanol than corn, and there is no way we can produce as much sugar cane as they do, given that we are a largely temperate climate.

gr 11 years, 4 months ago

"Anything that requires almost as much input as obtained output is not efficient."

Proof, please.

Some links for what they are worth: (The USDA calculates that production of gasoline results in a net energy loss of 25 percent, and petro-diesel's net loss is 17 percent.) Yes, department of ag supports ag - but is it true?

I really don't know how you'd go about determining the efficiency. If you count the cost of land, working the fields, building the tractors, refining the metal to make the tractors, then you would also need to count drilling oil wells that are dry, other discovery operations, technology and equipment. Soon, it becomes so large a process one is unable to determine what is what. The only reasonable thing I can think is to determine the costs of refining an unit of oil in hand in contrast to an unit of corn in hand. But, I'm not sure that's meaningful. What units do you use - BTUs? Useable BTUs?

What if the real result is that both are losers and ethanol just loses less?

A big question is, why corn? Not the first thing that comes to my mind for producing ethanol. Why not wheat? Why not potatoes, or sugar beets? Corn, for just growing it as a crop, is very energy intensive. And, unless you have high quality soils and timely rains, doesn't produce well. Iowa is a good place. Does Iowa have some push in the ethanol industry?

Also, why do they use fossil fuels for making it? Looks like the most logical thing would have it to be self supportive. However, there is too much political goings on to make it work that way. You get paid back for one and not the other, so you maximize that.


"I mean, for years now they've been cranking out SUV's that get obscene gas mileage."

Why do people target just SUV's? Are they jealous? There are many other vehicles out there which get poor mileage, and some even less. Are vans any different? Do we take an average mpg as one suggested? Any one less is "bad" and anyone more is "good"? What happens if a new car comes out that gets better mileage (6000mpg?), does that mean all the "good" people are now "bad" just overnight? Just classifying ALL who drive SUVs as "bad" isn't really fair when some SUVs get better mileage than some cars.

I don't know, but I think some people are required to drive SUVs due to child seat laws. Whatever happened to station wagons?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

"What would be the overall net result on society... if all those trucks overflowing with corn... were turned away at the gates of the "CORN SYRUP/CORN SWEETENER FACTORY"... and sent down the road a couple more miles to the "ETHANOL PLANT"...???"

As a I already said, it'd get us 2 gallons of ethanol a month per person.

That'll get you a little ways. Are you gonna push your car the rest of the way?

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

I hate to interrupt you while you argue with yourself, Agnostick, but nowhere did I say that I want to continue with the fossil-fueled status quo.

A change in lifestyle, and greater efficiency are very likely the keys to solving the impending energy crisis. But the fact remains that ethanol will not replace fossil fuels as they are now used.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

Yes, it will be a part, but a small part. It's not the slam dunk that companies like ADM are trying scam people into believing just to maintain their govt. subsidies.

ControlFreak 11 years, 4 months ago


I'm impressed how you assume everyone who argues a different perspective MUST be pro-fossile fuel.

Anything that requires almost as much input as obtained output is not efficient. Ethanol could possible assist in reduction of emission, but it won't help with any oil shortages. At least, not unless the technology improves.

ControlFreak 11 years, 4 months ago

So, what you are telling us is that you have no justification for your previous claims?

You just sort of made the assumption that those with different viewpoints must be pro-fossile fuel?

Maybe you should follow your own advice and look "critically at all the research."

By critically I mean objectively, without a pre-formed opinion, not critically as it can't be right because it doesn't agree with what I have already decided.

ASBESTOS 11 years, 4 months ago

In Kansas the limiting factor in ethanol production is THE WATER!! If the state has problems satisfying farmers with irrigation using the drip units, and limiting the newcomers and some cities usage of water, this is going to be short lived.

Water is a key ingredient in Ethanol.

I do support anything that will get us off of oil, I don't however believe that ethanol by itself will do that.

Nuclear for electrical production, and we can shut down all the coal, natural gas, and fuel oil power plants.

USe oil only for the plastics industry, mobile transit with Natural gas for the metro transit buses, and we are gonna have to drill in the gulf and ANWR.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

Nuclear is no panacea. Mining the uranium is a dirty, polluting and energy-intensive business, and there's no real good estimate of how much is left A huge percentage of proven reserves is in places that aren't any more easily accessible or secure than the Middle East is.

There is no way to safely dispose of the waste that's generated, especially if we start making lots more of it. It's a magnet for terrorists, and it needs lots of water, too.

ASBESTOS 11 years, 4 months ago

I would like to know more on these "pebble reactors". Where can I get the info from. PLease no "psuedo-news/scientific" sites. I would like real research or maybe a DOE webpage.


The fireproof one.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

"Anything that requires almost as much input as obtained output is not efficient."

GR replied

"Proof, please."

That's pretty much the definition of inefficient. You can disagree with the definition if you like, but a definition isn't something that you "proove."

To some extent, efficiency really isn't the issue. From an energy input standput, using horses, oxen, and manual labor is way more "efficient" than using fossil-fueled machines and vehicles, because biogical beings can convert a relatively small amount of energy into a lot of production. But because of our and and our animals' physical limitations, we can only do so much work in a certain period of time in a given space.

3 gallons of gasoline contains the same caloric content that the average human consumes in a month. You can go maybe 100 miles with three gallons of gasoline, but a human on foot could easily cover 600 miles on the same number of calories. The car could do it in less than two hours, but the advantage of doing so isn't in its energy efficiency.

So the problem isn't so much one of efficiency. What gasoline and other fossil fuels allow us to do is to throw a lot of energy at our work in a very concentrated fashion. That's because these hydrocarbons contain millions of years worth of stored-up solar energy.

When we try to emulate those products, with say, ethanol, we have to get that solar energy from plants which have captured only contemporary solar energy, which is limited to the number of crops we can devote to fuel, and not to food for ourselves. It also requires a good deal of energy to convert that biomass to a portable, combustible liquid, such as ethanol or biodiesel.

Right now, we are using primarily, corn which requires a huge amount of fossil fuels to raise it, harvest it, and convert it to ethanol. This does very little to reduce our use of oil.

In Brazil, they produce ethanol mostly from sugar cane. They are able to do so without much fossil fuel input-- the various byproducts of sugar cane fuel the disillation process. But they are still limited in how much fuel they can produce by the amount of crop land they can devote to it before they begin to put food production at risk. Since they use a lot less energy per capita than we do, it's less risky for them than it would be for us.

And why corn? Simply because of the government price supports that encourage planting so much of it that there is a surplus of it.

just_another_bozo_on_this_bus 11 years, 4 months ago

One more thing.

Fossil fuels are like using a cannon for a door knocker. Very effective, but it wastes a lot of energy, and you have to replace the door fairly often, and we may be running out of doors.

We need to power our world with something more appropriate to the task that doesn't destroy it in the process.

mgembol 11 years, 4 months ago

The transportation sector uses most of our imported oil. That's gotta stop. Choices are battery vehicles, hydrogen, or ethanol/biofuels. They're all just ways to store energy produced elsewhere. Problem with hydrogen is that it occupies an enormous volume, so it has to be stored in high-pressure tanks or in exotic adsorption materials like platinum. Problem with batteries is that they are made from lead, cadmium, arsenic, and other metals toxic to the environment and destructive in mining.

A neat realization: ethanol is a perfect way to deliver hydrogen. The carbon atoms come from the atmosphere, so the atmosphere is a free recycling system for used carbon atoms: burn ethanol to produce water vapor and CO2, and plants will recover the CO2 and use it again. We need to split our thinking into "green" CO2 from biofuels and "black" CO2 from fossil fuels.

We could meet the entire US energy demand, electric and transportation, with a few thousand square miles of wasteland using solar PV cells, but ethanol would take much more, and valuable cropland at that, plus irrigation water and fertilizers made from fossil fuels. There's plenty of solar PV surface area available: rooftops, rights of way for roads, pipelines, and transmission lines, over-subsidized crop land, fallow land, the land occupied by power plants and coal mines as retired, and active cropland for shade-tolerant crops. Put my money on solar PV and hydrogen as the ultimate combination.

Nanosolar in San Jose is building a plant to produce 430-MW of thin-film solar PV per year at competitive prices. That's enought to replace a big fossil power plant every 2 years. The price will come down over time, and the efficiency will go up. Just build more of those factories and we can replace the entire fossil fuel demand. First, the daytime electric peak, then the transportation load, then, then the daytime baseload, and then, using storage, the nighttime demand. The technology is there, the price is there. Just a matter of rolling out enough production plants and we can meet any timetable. Impossible to build 40 solar PV plants a year? BS. We're doing it with ethanol plants.

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