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Ethanol More Trouble Than It's Worth? 986

Posted by Hemos
from the and-don't-even-get-me-start-on-methanol-young-man dept.
call -151 writes "Yahoo reports this story by researchers from Cornell and Berkeley who show what a number of people had suspected- it takes significantly more energy (at least 29%) more energy to produce ethanol than it yields. Since ethanol production plants don't use ethanol themselves for their own energy needs (with presumably negible delivery costs) this has been widely suspected but not so bluntly stated: "Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, the economy, or the environment." Ethanol producers dispute the study, predictably, which deducts the multi-billion US dollar subsidy. It's not clear how this compares with this earlier Union of Concerned Scientists article that claims that the yield from corn kernels is net 50% positive- and the UCS is usually quite unbiased on these things."
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Ethanol More Trouble Than It's Worth?

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  • ethanol from corn (Score:5, Informative)

    by BoldAC (735721) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:22AM (#13093241)
    Yeah, producing ethanol from corn does produce more energy...

    However, growing other plant materials (from waste or whatever) is much more efficent.

    Ethanol will work... just not from corn.

    Did anybody think the transition would be easy?
  • CORN Ethanol (Score:5, Informative)

    by Fnkmaster (89084) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:25AM (#13093270)
    The whole point of ethanol is that there are far better ways of producing fuel-use ethanol than corn fermentation, which has been debated for years in terms of its energy efficiency.

    The enthusiasm for ethanol by real scientists is from the very promising means for producing ethanol from cellulose-based feedstocks, in other words from cheap plentiful surplus materials. While this wasn't cost-effective as an energy alternative when gas cost 80 cents a gallon, at 2.25-2.50 a gallon, cellulosic ethanol is quite competitive on a dollar-per-mile basis, and it can extract energy from cheap, easy to grow feedstocks or waste-cellulose material that would otherwise end up in municipal garbage dumps.
  • by jimcooncat (605197) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:26AM (#13093284)
    These guys say they have a production facilities with uses no outside energy. http://www.iogen.ca/ [iogen.ca]
  • by peter303 (12292) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:28AM (#13093301)
    Ethonal only has the 60% of the energy by volume as does gasoline. I definately notice the lower mileage in winter - about 10% on a 15% mix. And I still have to pay full price for this inferior product.
  • Re:Duh (Score:5, Informative)

    by fean (212516) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:32AM (#13093357) Homepage
    I'm from an Aggro state, and he's entirely correct...

    The whole point of Ethanol is that by using Ethanol, we can use more of the corn produced in the US, therby having to export less. Also, by using Ethanol, we can import less oil. Even if it takes 29% more energy to produce Ethanol than it returns, What it doesn't say is that a LOT of Ethanol produced in the Aggro states run on power grids that get most of their power from dams/windmills.

    We support the Agriculture by buying up all of the left-over crop of corn/soy from last year, we make it into a fuel to dilute the gas we import from the Middle East... Ethanol is much more valuable than left over corn/soy... and without it, small farmers in the midwest would go bankrupt...

  • by Myrv (305480) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:33AM (#13093362)

    Slashdot has covered this before and I will repost my comment from back then:

    While production of ethanol can be inefficient rarely does it result in a net energy loss. Several different studies show anywhere from a 38% net gain in energy to over 100% depending on methods use. The generally cited claim of a net energy loss from producing ethanol all seem to come from only one paper written by David Pimental [the author of the paper quoted in this article]. To support his claims he seems to have taken a worst pratices view for every step in the production process, a realworld combination found in less than 5% of current ethanol production. The more comphrensive studies I've been able to find show a slight, albeit not stellar, net gain in energy. The most recent (2002) by Michigan State shows a net gain of 0.56 MJ/MJ of input for corn based ethanol production. If one looks at Cellulose based ethonal production, studies show almost a 2.5 net energy gain and it is easier on the environment since it requires less maintenance and fewer fertilizers.

    For reference this site has some good links, including a rebuttal of the Pimental paper (as well as showing the Pimental article).

    www.econet.sk.ca/pages/issues/ethanolinfone tenergybalance.htm [econet.sk.ca]
  • Because of protectionist trade policies that benefit ADM, sugar in the US costs 10x what it does in the rest of the world. That is why in the early 1980s the soft drink manufacturers started to put corn syrup in your Coke instead of cane sugar. This caused riots on the Philippines, since we bought a lot of sugar from them.

    Corn syrup is an inferior product but it can be had cheaply in the USA because of the massive subsidies paid to ADM.

    Have a Coke anywhere else in the world and it will taste good. Coke in the USA is undrinkable unless you can buy Passover Coke (once a year in certain markets) or Mexican Coke (in a glass bottle, yum) both of which have real sugar.

    Also note that you can get REAL Dr Pepper from www.dublindrpepper.com

  • Re:Meaningless (Score:2, Informative)

    by crudeawakening (867472) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:35AM (#13093387)
    Crude oil is stored energy from millions of years ago. Humans get more energy out than WE put in, therefore oil (and refined gasoline) is an energy source for us. The problem with ethanol is that other forms of stored energy (natural gas power plant usually) have to be transfered to ethanol and that causes a loss of energy (as there always is when energy changes forms).
  • by RobertB-DC (622190) * on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:37AM (#13093416) Homepage Journal
    According to the very active Biodiesel forum [tdiclub.com] at TDIClub.com, this study isn't worth the electrons you're viewing it with. One poster notes, "This Cornell fellow brings this up about once a year. Do a search on this site and see the FUD."

    I run Biodiesel in my New Beetle TDI engine when I can, so I'm biased, but I agree with my fellow TDI'ers. When the study says "It takes 27 percent more energy to turn soybeans into biodiesel fuel," there's no comparison being made against the alternative. How much energy does it take to pump crude oil out of the ground? How much energy is burned loading it onto a tanker, and then refining it into useful products?

    How much energy will be used to clean up the hazardous chemicals required to turn prehistoric ferns into internal combustion fuel? How many gallons of gasoline were burned in the funeral procession for the 15 workers killed near Houston [chron.com] when a tank of benzene exploded this year? By comparison, you can make Biodiesel in a converted water heater [liferesear...versal.com], with lye and methanol (hazardous chemicals, but available at any hardware store).

    And I won't even touch the issue of how many soldiers must die to ensure the continued flow of addictive foreign petroleum...
  • by Mr. Underbridge (666784) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:44AM (#13093478)
    Weve got sound based fusion reactors nearing break-even, AND we have what could be an easy way to generate hydrogen from water using sodium. Now, with this in mind, tell me why ethanol is needed?

    1) No fusion method has actually broken even on this planet, and even if it did, it's tabletop. Not a car. It would probably be 30+ years away from actual use.

    2) That sodium crap is *definitely* an energy loser, as sodium metal isn't just sitting around and takes a lot of energy to reduce to its metallic form from the ionic form in which it's actually found. It's also just basically reversing the reaction that generates sodium in the first place. Talking about getting energy from that is like talking about the relative merits of a perpetual motion machine.

    3) Ethanol burns in cars. Now. With actual internal-combustion engines that exist.

    The relative ethanol break-even is important to a degree, but it (or something like it) is needed now to get more oxygen in fuels which helps prevent incomplete combustion (read: air pollution). MTBE (methyl t-butyl ether) was used previously, but is worse than ethanol in groundwater. Ethanol is worse for aerosol formation in the atmosphere I've heard (ie, more smog), and is a bit more expensive. We use ethanol these days instead of MTBE thanks to ex-Sen Daschle, protecting his state's corn lobby.

    Bottom line? We have to use ethanol, or something like ethanol, to clean up gasoline if not for a fuel. We also need something realistic to bridge the gap between fosil fuels and the further-out alternative fuels.

  • by Firethorn (177587) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:45AM (#13093495) Homepage Journal
    Now, I've lived in the Cornhusker state, but I have to agree with you. Corn has always seemed to be a bit of a low-yeilder for ethanol compared to other crops.

    Now, corn can be grown further north than sugarcane, so that might be a factor. Of course, if we could break ourselves of our sugar habit, we'd be able to fuel many vehicles off the saved sugar.

    On a different point, a couple of seed/hybridization/GM companies are looking into making corn varieties designed for maximum ethanol production. They're predicting something like a 25% increase in about five years.

    Oh, and my prediction:

    Ethanol fuel cells. How would you like to get more milage out of ethanol than we do with today's vehicles with gasoline? We don't have to burn ethanol the traditional way, and it'd reduce what pollution ethanol has.

    I think that the main problem with the increased pollution is that they haven't spent the research and tuning efforts into reducing it, and most ethanol cars today are adaptions of gasoline cars. Don't forget that ethanol also reduces or eliminates many other pollutants from gasoline, it's only in a couple that it increases.
  • by Thud457 (234763) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:47AM (#13093521) Homepage Journal
    "Have a Coke anywhere else in the world and it will taste good. Coke in the USA is undrinkable unless you can buy Passover Coke (once a year in certain markets) or Mexican Coke (in a glass bottle, yum) [B]both of which have real sugar.[/B]"

    Thank you for the useful information, JH!


    Don't forget that there are many people that believe the switch to high-fructose corn sysrup in soft drinks played a major part in the explosion of obesity in the US. (They claim that HFT is much more easily absorbed by the body than refined sugar.)

  • by HerculesMO (693085) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:48AM (#13093534)
    If the US was a nuclear based country. It's amazing to me to see how many 'environmentalists' are up in arms about this when in fact, the nuclear reactors are more safe than ever. Slashdot previously reported on this [slashdot.org].

    Sadly, the words of "Chernobyl" are so well rehearsed by this community that they fail to realize the fact that Chernobyl was running at 130% capacity at the time -- a situtation which does not happen in current reactors due partially to the government regulations, partially to the IAEA, and partially to political pressures. That, and it's fucking common sense for crying out loud! Nuclear scientists and engineers know what they are working with now more than ever.

    Modern day physicists if asked honestly, know that the answer lies in atomic energies for our future. It is cheap, clean, produces no greenhouse gases, and leave a microbe of waste as compared to a petroleum based economy. If the US and its politics weren't so oil hungry and to boot -- money hungry, they would be investing in the fusion experiement that is now going to be located in France. Granted it probably won't produce much power to boot... but it would be 100% clean and without any radioactive waste. The implications for potential power are huge, unfortunately most US lobbyists have convinced our government to turn their back on the future and concern themselves with just strengthening a limited fuel.

    Sorry for the tirade, but I hate to see talks about biodiesel and ethanol (which is actually really cool, it produces higher octane numbers than gasoline!), and the arguement the author makes without bringing up our energy situtation that makes this point oh, so relevant.

  • Re:Bah (Score:5, Informative)

    by AKAImBatman (238306) * <akaimbatman@@@gmail...com> on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:49AM (#13093540) Homepage Journal
    I don't think I've ever heard anything about ADM price fixing.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archer_Daniels_Midlan d [wikipedia.org]

    In 1996, ADM was the subject of the largest price fixing investigation in history. Senior ADM executives were indicted on criminal charges for engaging in price-fixing in the international lysine market, and the company was fined $100 million, the largest antitrust fine ever.

    ADM has been criticized for having a board of directors that does not serve stockholder interests. Business Week has singled ADM out as being one of the worst-governed corporations in the US for three years in a row: 1998, 1999 and 2000. Specifically, the publication charged, ADM had a board packed full of management's incompetent cronies.
  • by LordAlpha (247426) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:50AM (#13093550)
    Read here [mre.gov.br], here [tierramerica.net] and here [washingtonpost.com].

    Read about Pimentel here: http://www.pacificviews.org/archives/000653.html [pacificviews.org]

    Read about both here: http://www.ilcorn.org/Ethanol/Tribune_/tribune_.ht ml [ilcorn.org]
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:51AM (#13093562)
    Ethanol production in the next 1-2 years will vastly change. There are new companies currently in the process of building facilities that manufacturer Ethanol cleaner, quicker, and more efficiently. These figures will change drastically. This is an argument for the present and does not reflect the sweeping change that is occurring in the ethanol energy market. So everyone chill.
  • by Ihlosi (895663) on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:52AM (#13093568)
    Why ethanol? (basically the same alcohol from the drinks). I thought that it is methanol that should be cheaper and more vehicle-efficiency-friendly.

    It is also much more poisonous (and you can bet that some dumbass is going to try and drink the stuff) and dangerous (Methanol flames are invisible).
  • Cellulosic ethanol (Score:2, Informative)

    by alex_guy_CA (748887) <`alex' `at' `schoenfeldt.com'> on Monday July 18, 2005 @10:58AM (#13093628) Homepage
    New ethanol production methods use the entire plant and are much more efficient. It is called "Cellulosic ethanol" Here is an excerpt from an interview on the subject: (found here) http://www.loe.org/shows/shows.htm?programID=05-P1 3-00018#feature2/ [loe.org] or a link to the audio of the interview here http://www.loe.org/shows/shows.htm?programID=05-P1 3-00018/ [loe.org]

    GELLERMAN: And in the '70s when they had the oil shock prices then in the long gas lines. Ethanol was in the news and people were using it. So, what's new here is that, instead of making it from corn, now we can make it from other things.

    COLEMAN: Correct. There's a term called cellulosic ethanol and the end product is the same. However, cellulosic ethanol comes from the leaves, stems and stalks of the plants instead of just the fruits and the seeds. So if today's ethanol producers grow corn to harvest a corn kernel, tomorrow's producers may be choosing from rice, wheat, oat, barley, straw, switch grass. Some companies even want to make it out of urbanized waste streams and municipal waste and even stale beer.

  • by ddraigcymraeg (670617) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:05AM (#13093708)
    Taking into account the free energy from the sun in order to grow the crops IS misleading the public. check out the explanation of the study here: http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/uc_s cientist_says_ethanol_uses_m.htm [berkeley.edu] Then their methods of harnessing the ethanol are'nt the most efficient either. Unfortunately the public will be mislead time and again over the use of non-fossil fuel alternatives. Wish politics would stay out of science.
  • Re:Bah (Score:3, Informative)

    by afidel (530433) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:14AM (#13093839)
    Ground level Ozone is BAD, it makes it much harder to breathe and can cause asthmatic's to have severe attacks, often leading to death. The ozone produced as part of fuel consumption rarely makes it into the upper atmosphere where it would help to filter UV rays. Almost all of the air quality alerts where I live are due to elevated ozone levels, not high particulate counts.
  • Re:Bah (Score:2, Informative)

    by kleinux (320571) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:15AM (#13093843) Homepage
    We need more Ozone way up in the sky. Near earth it is bad as it creates smog. A link for you: http://science.howstuffworks.com/ozone-pollution.h tm [howstuffworks.com]
  • by bhima (46039) <Bhima,Pandava&gmail,com> on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:17AM (#13093880) Journal
    Biodiesel is made from vegetable oil and with the use of a catalyst glycerine and methyl esters are produced and separated out. Biodiesel can be used in any compression ignition engine (which is why it's called what it is called) and typically comes in a mix of 20% Biodiesel 80% Dino-diesel.

    Ethanol is the waste product from various yeasts which consume either sugars or cellulose, which is later distilled. Ethanol is more suited to spark ignition engines which I suppose why it gets the attention it does in the US. If memory serves gasohol is 5-10% ethanol. For what it's worth I use Biodiesel almost exclusively in my car.

  • by BenjyD (316700) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:19AM (#13093906)
    Any truly renewable energy source, ethanol included, is at worst CO2 neutral. Growing crops absorb CO2, which is then emitted when you burn them as ethanol.

    The problem here is that the production process for the ethanol is apparently inefficient, so the shortfall in energy is made up using non-renewable resources: it is overall non-renewable. If you could decrease the energy requirement for producing the ethanol so it was less than the energy content of the ethanol produced, the entire thing would be self-sufficient and you would produce no net CO2.
  • by pqdave (470411) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:20AM (#13093914)
    We aren't worried about total energy here, but 'replacement energy'. This study says that it currently takes 129 miles worth of petrochemical energy to create 100 miles of ethanol, *in addition* to the solar energy stored in the ethanol. Until that ratio is below 1:1, every gallon of ethanol is using more petroleum than just using the petroleum directly would.
  • Re:Bah (Score:4, Informative)

    by bobdinkel (530885) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:27AM (#13093990)
    There was also a really insteresting story [thislife.org] involving ADM corruption on This American Life. Worth checking out.
  • Re:Hydrogen energy? (Score:3, Informative)

    by WolfWithoutAClause (162946) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:29AM (#13094005) Homepage
    What is this recurring BS about hydrogen energy? Hydrogen is only a medium for storing/transporting energy - it does not generate any more energy than used to produce it.

    That's true of ethanol as well though; there's no significant natural source of ethanol. We make it from sugars which ultimately come from sunlight.

  • by Bigboote66 (166717) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:29AM (#13094012)
    Don't forget that there are many people that believe the switch to high-fructose corn sysrup in soft drinks played a major part in the explosion of obesity in the US. (They claim that HFT is much more easily absorbed by the body than refined sugar.)

    They're also wrong. There is really very little difference between cane sugar & high fructose corn syrup. From The Straight Dope [straightdope.com]:
    Whatever chemical differences there may be between fructose and glucose, the difference between HFCS and traditional sugar is slight. Both sweeteners contain both compounds, and in roughly similar amounts--table sugar is 50 percent fructose and 50 percent glucose, whereas the most common form of HFCS is 55 percent fructose and 45 percent glucose.
    Such a small difference isn't going to cause an obesity epidemic, unless you're consuming gallons of soda each day.

    -BbT
  • I would love to see a study of the complete environmental impact of cane derived ethanol. Nobody ever mentions the burning of the cane fields before harvesting. I lived in a city surrounded by cane fields and you could tell a difference in the air quality when they started buring. That was before the ash started falling out of the sky...

    In any case, cane is a better crop to use to produce alcohol but the conditions to grow it effectively don't exist in the US. The fact that it works for Brazil says almost nothing about whether corn should work for the US. Also, note that Brazil has dropped its subsidies of ethanol while the US pumps billions into corn each year.

  • by mjr1007 (899179) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:31AM (#13094033)
    Actually emailed Pimental several weeks ago when the story first came out. Wow Slashdot is really slow these days. He emailed back a copy of the report. I found it to be detailed to the point of anal. He even included the energy for the people working and the manufacture of the machines used.

    I don't know if I would say he always took the worse possible approach to things but it certainly was unoptimized. Two areas really stood out.

    Fertilizer and Distilling.

    It seems that if there ever was an application for genetic engineering then the production of fuel would be a relatively harmless one. Soy eliminates the need for nitrogen fertilizer so splicing in the correct gene for affixing nitrogen to the soil would be a big win.

    Distilling can be done using waste heat from power plants. Seem like it would be a free energy source.

    Finally, the leftover mash should have some value for animal feed.

    Just my 0.02 USD worth
  • by El Puerco Loco (31491) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:33AM (#13094061)
    The half life of U-235 is 704 million years. Tf it had a short enough half life to be gone in 150 years it would be gone already. The planet hasn't received any new supplies of uranium since it coalesced from interstellar dust four billion years ago. Hell, even if you believe the earth is flat and was created by the Almighty 6000 years ago like it says in the Bible, it would be gone already with a half life that short.

    We may use it up in 150 years, but there are ways around that too, like fast breeder reactors, which can produce more fuel than they consume.
  • by blaksaga (720779) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:37AM (#13094103)
    The American Coalition for Ethanol states that gasoline has an energy balance of only 85%. In other words, it takes more energy to produce gasoline than it contains. Proponents of ethanol production say that if we can use a harmful fossil fuel at a net energy loss, we can certainly use a renewable source of liquid fuel that is less harmful to the environment and better for the domestic economy.
  • Re:Meaningless (Score:3, Informative)

    by ThosLives (686517) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:37AM (#13094116) Journal
    But they can't even come close to meeting our electricity needs (with the exception of nuclear).

    This is a big problem in my mind: rather than focusing on how to use less energy and address the root cause of the issue, we're spending all kinds of effort on how to provide more energy and perpetuate the "more more more!" mindset.

    Think about that 60 watt lightbulb (or collection of lightbulbs) over your head. Do an interesting experiment and see how long you can sustain a 60W output on an excersize bike, or treadmill, or whatever. (Here's a hint: 60W is lifting 44.25 pounds 1 foot in one second. How many times would you like to do that in a hour?)

    If a million people switched all the lightbulbs in their houses from 60W incandescents to those new 15W fluorescents, you'd do more for reducing operating pollution (I don't know how they compare in terms of production and disposal) and strain on the power grids than coming up with a new fuel. And this could happen today, in the span of about 10 hours, assuming there is a large enough supply in retail stores.

  • Re:dodge! parry! (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:43AM (#13094186)
    If you want to make it work, tell universities not to sponsor flawed studies that say it's not worthwhile. Any guesses as to who funded this ?

    Using it as an addative in gasoline is a bit stupid, seeing as you have to get rid of all the water in it before you can mix it. Someone should take them on a tour 'round Brazil.
  • PDF of Study (Score:1, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:54AM (#13094343)
    http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/patzek/CRPS41 6-Patzek-Web.pdf [berkeley.edu]

    Could some learned person translate this mix of scientific data and social/political commentary into something solid?
  • by CapsaicinBoy (208973) on Monday July 18, 2005 @11:58AM (#13094410)
    Just be aware that Pimentel releases this "finding" every other summer, Looking at the dates below, he's a month ahead of schedule this year.

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/01/8.23.01/P imentel-ethanol.html [cornell.edu]

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/03/8.14.03/P imentel-ethanol.html [cornell.edu]

    http://www.news.cornell.edu/stories/July05/ethanol .toocostly.ssl.html [cornell.edu]

    I can't speak to this newest report, but Pimental's work has been repeatedly critiqued, and one of the main compliants it that he uses out of date numbers for yield and conversion efficiency:

    http://www.mda.state.mn.us/ethanol/balance.html [state.mn.us]

    http://www.usda.gov/oce/oepnu/aer-814.pdf [usda.gov]

    http://journeytoforever.org/ethanol_rooster.html [journeytoforever.org]

    http://www.ncga.com/public_policy/PDF/03_28_05Argo nneNatlLabEthanolStudy.pdf [ncga.com]

    http://www.ethanol-gec.org/corn_eth.htm [ethanol-gec.org]

    All that having been said, Pimental is right that soy and corn alone cannot replace our petroleum addiction. You can read more about this in the archives at TDIclub.com.

    http://forums.tdiclub.com/showflat.php?Cat=0&Board =UBB14&Number=946804&Searchpage=1&Main=941398&Word s=%2Bethanol+%2Bmoney+DrStink&topic=&Search=true#P ost946804 [tdiclub.com]
  • by TheSync (5291) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:01PM (#13094455) Journal
    There are significant differences between simple sugar based ethanol production and cellulosic ethanol production (based on genetically engineered cellulase enzymes). Iogen [iogen.ca] has opened up a pilot plant for such cellulosic ethanol a year ago.

    In terms of total carbon burden, converting cellulosic biomass to fuel is a benefit, because otherwise this agricultural waste material would be burned off by farmers in the fields, with the energy released going to no work and most of the carbon going into the atmosphere. By capturing the energy for doing work, it reduces total carbon emmissions. Moreover, the waste material is also a fuel used in the production of cellulosic ethanol, reducing the amount of fossil fuels required for its production.

    It is silly to grow an energy-intensive food crop to make ethanol, but it makes sense to use existing agricultural waste streams to do so.
  • Re:Duh (Score:3, Informative)

    by patowic (27414) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:02PM (#13094466)
    Henry Ford's original designs were intended to run on home-brew alcohol. Ethanol may be less of an energy gain to produce than gasoline, but it's only a loser if you're using petrochemicals to produce it. As others have noted, using wind and solar to accelerate the process greatly reduces the worries about wasting energy. Think of how much energy is wasted every day, as solar energy heats up parking lots.

    You can design an ethanol plant adjacent to a hog farm. The waste material from producing ethanol feeds the hogs. The excess heat from the hog barn can be scavenged and used to further fuel fermentation. The liquid sewage produced by the hogs will produce methane. Then, after you've scavenged the methane, the liquid sewage is spread on the field as fertilizer.

    Another distinct advantage of ethanol is that it _can_ be produced on a very small scale. A farmer can power his tractors using a portion of his corn crop. He can actually produce his fuel on-site, if he so wishes.

    Eco-crazies? subsidize voters in agro states? I live in an agro state, and I can tell you that corn and soybean subsidies are nowhere near as large as the tobacco subsidies -- yet, we can't produce anything approaching a power gain out of tobacco.

    The eco-crazies I know oppose ethanol just as much as gasoline, because it's still a combustion process, and it still pollutes (just not very much).

    Your post strikes me as a bit of a troll.

    Ethanol is a real solution in that it gets us a highly portable form of energy. Is it as dense an energy transport as gasoline? No.

    But it can be used to keep existing infrastructure running. I have heard that converting a fuel-injected engine to ethanol is as simple as altering the programming, but I do not know for sure.

    There are some other advantages to ethanol, in that large scale fuel spills aren't nearly as toxic as petrochemical spills.

    Also, trying drinking a glass of gasoline to get a buzz sometime. It does make me wonder if a fuel can full of ethanol counts as an 'open container'.
  • by peter303 (12292) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:02PM (#13094471)
    If you say make a factual observation that disagrees with the preconcieved notions of some Slashdotters, then you get modded down. Too bad some people are so closed-minded.
    I get 36 MPG in the summer and 32 MPG in the winter months when 15% ethonal is mandated in my state. That is almost entirely accounted for by energy density calculations. Maybe winter driving or engine tuning accounts for a small amount of it.
  • by peter303 (12292) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:12PM (#13094593)
    Brazil went whole-hog promoting ethonal and finds the latest oil price shock not impacting [nwsource.com] its economy that much. 25% mixture is regulated, though its about 40% in practice. Brazil has huge agricultural resources suitable for producing large amounts of ethonal. So even if its takes a fair amount of energy overhead to produce ethonal, they are doing it with aboundant, cheap ethonal energy.
  • by Grendel Drago (41496) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:16PM (#13094650) Homepage
    See here [energysavingnow.com]. Brazil has had their "Proalcool" program for the last thirty years, and it's just coming to fruition now. They use a less energy-intensive process, with sugarcane instead of corn, and doing so, they've managed massive cuts in their oil imports. That's not really something you can fake.

    Corn may be a bad source of ethanol, and Archer Daniels Midland may be liquid evil poured into a suit, but that doesn't mean other folks can't do it right.

    See a rather good writeup of the issue [ucr.edu].

    --grendel drago
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:27PM (#13094775)
    The ethanol powered cars in Brazil work fine, but the ethanol fuel is about 15% less mileage per gallon. Also, in cooler climates, in temperatures less than 55F/15C, the cars have to be equipped with a supplementary gasoline fuel tank for starting purposes. In addition, the ethanol cars have to be designed with special coatings for the fuel line and carburation, as the ethanol is slightly corrosive.

    Nowadays, there is little difference in driving ethanol or petroleum powered cars, although in the past they were prone to misfiring and hesitancy.

    As for pollution, the ethanol cars give off a distinct, lingering, sweet sugary smell. I am not sure what's in it, but it's kind of nice in a tropical morning. Whenever I smell something like it I am always reminded of my time in Brazil.

    A very practical solution for somwhere like Brazil with vast space for sugar cane plantations, but not having much natural oil resource.

  • Re:dodge! parry! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rei (128717) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:28PM (#13094783) Homepage
    this *fact* is brought to you by the letter P, as in physics

    No, this "fact" is brought to you by the letter "P", as in "Pimental". Pimental is an an anti-ethanol crusader. Every last study since the 1970s that has said that ethanol is net-negative has either been authored or coauthored by him. I can't locate a single "net negative" conducted without his involvement, amid the many "net positive"s.

    All of his previous papers have been widely criticized on relying on grossly outdate information. Using modern information, about a dozen studies have been conducted by widely varied researchers; each come up with between 30-70% net positive, with the higher numbers relying on more modern technology, and the lower on "average" technology. I can only assume that Pimental's latest is more of the same as his previous. His second paper simply reused the data in his first, despite it being outdated the first time.

    This is, by the way, a discussion of ethanol from corn, as opposed to ethanol from sugarcane which is more efficient (see Brazil).

    Now, even if ethanol *was* energy negative, that's still irrelevant. Everything in the universe is energy negative; we only change forms of energy to produce the work that we want. For example, during WWII, the Nazis made large amounts of oil from coal. It took a lot of energy from coal to produce the oil at the time; by the sort of calculations discussed here, it was a "net negative". Yet, it powered the Nazi war machine.

    What matters is if you're making something that allows you to get work done. If you power ethanol production from burning ag waste (common to do so at least partly, for heating), coal power, nuclear power, etc, you're making something that you can burn in your car from something that you couldn't - you're producing something that can get work done. Nobody is advocating burning oil or ethanol to produce ethanol here, just like the Nazis didn't burn oil to power coal liquifaction.

    But, this is all a tangent: only in Pimental's little world of outdated farming energy consumption data and ethanol production efficiencies is ethanol "net negative".
  • by Politburo (640618) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:48PM (#13095026)
    I don't know enough about the situation you describe to say for sure, but it's certainly possible that the "only petroleum based chemicals" was MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether), which is way worse than ethanol because it leeches out of the shitty USTs used by service stations and gets into the groundwater. Ethanolized gasoline is usually only 5-10% ethanol.. so ethanol is not a "big ingredient" in the gas.

    There is currently a lawsuit from several States pending against MTBE manufacturers because they knew about MTBE's ability to contaminate groundwater but lied to the governments and claimed it would not.

    However, MTBE blends are not "much cleaner" than ethanol blends. Also, iirc (and i work in environmental air regulations), the federal government does not have the authority to specify what methods the States will use to meet air quality goals, unless there is a pressing health and safety issue. I question your story and would like you to provide a source.
  • by Snaffler (311068) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:50PM (#13095053)
    You know, it isn't that hard to find the real numbers behind these studies. Here are the production and cost figures for a real live plant:

    For a small 40 million gallon ethanol/year plant, the BTU inputs are 2 trillion BTUs per year for natural gas, electricity, and corn. The output in BTUs is 3 trillion BTUs. In order to push the numbers into negative territory, the ethanol critics have to generate more than 1 trillion BTUs of additional energy costs. I have not read the Berkeley study, but I bet it includes the food that the employees eat, the cost of generating the paper in the books they read, and all sorts of other absurd numbers.
    Here is the actual data for a brand-new (2005) 40 million gallon ethanol plant that uses 15 million bushels of corn per year:

    Inputs:

    Natural Gas:
    4,000 Mcf per day of gas at a cost of $3.95 per Mcf

    Natural gas: 1,028,000 BTU/MCF = 1,496,768,000,000 BTU inputs for natural gas

    Electricity:
    30,000,000 kilowatt hours per year for an estimated price of $.040 per kilowatt- hour

    High estimate: 8,962 Btu per KWH

    Low estimate: 3,416 BTU per KWH

    Taking the low estimate, 102,480,000,000 BTU

    Corn:
    339,196,122,625 BTU for fertilizer (122 bushels per acre, 15 million bushels, 124 pounds of nitrogen per acre, 22,159 BTU/lb for fertilizer)

    Total inputs:
    Input BTU: 1,998,444,122,625 Input total
    Outputs:
    40 million gallons of ethanol, 128,000 tons of distillers grains and 115,500 tons of raw carbon dioxide gas.
    LHV: Low heat value--76,000 Btu per gallon of ethanol.
    HHV: High heat value--83,961 Btu per gallon of ethanol.
    Low: 76,000 x 40,000,000 = 3,040,000,000,000 BTU
    Surplus:
    1,041,555,877,375 BTU
  • by kilodelta (843627) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:56PM (#13095114) Homepage
    ADM (Archer-Daniels-Midland) is one of the larger producers of corn in the United States. More so than is necessary for livestock feed and human feed.

    So they were faced with what to do with all that excess corn. Ship it to starving nations? Nah. Lets make alcohol from it and sell it as the best thing since sliced bread. While they were at it they created MTBE and we know what a cluster that was.

    They'd be better off putting the corn through TDP. At least they'd get oil out the other side.
  • by Jdodge99 (695972) on Monday July 18, 2005 @12:56PM (#13095120)
    The study I read (from Berkeley) about 9 months ago admitted it's rather narrow scope (corn, soybean crop, current mass production process) It made a couple of semi-sweeping claims -- but generally limited itself to criticism of throwing money at the people who were generating ethanol in stupid ways. (Note this reading was prompted by the West Wing ethanol as pork-barrel politics) The numbers used were ridiculously rough -- the margin of error would be much greater than their results. They ESTIMATED the energy production costs of producing fertilizer. Now to me, a real world check on whether a gallon of pesticide took 5 gallons of gasoline to produce is to check and see how much they're selling for . . . simple eh? (I know of and could find no significant tax incentives / government bribes for producing pesticide) So -- given that pesticide companies pay workers, make profits etc -- you cannot (honestly) conclude a gallon of pesticide took five gallons to produce if 5 gallons of gas costs anything close to the price the company is charging for a gallon of gas. Is pesticide well over $10 / gallon -- nope. At least some of their numbers are garbage -- remember GIGO -- Garbage In Garbage Out. I really would like to see an HONEST study of ethanol -- based on this (highly biased and speculative) study -- there are some significant inefficiencies in our current subsidized production. One problem I suspect is the need to avoid making human consumable alcohol. There are a couple of sites describing how you can brew your own E85 (small scale) for under $2.00 / gal. The author notes that you are limited by law to certain volumes of production despite it not being safe to drink. Are our blue laws ruining the efficiency of ethanol production? Did you know that denatured alcohol (sold as a cooking fuel) has been intentionally poisoned to prevent ingestion?
  • Re:dodge! parry! (Score:5, Informative)

    by Rei (128717) on Monday July 18, 2005 @01:05PM (#13095191) Homepage
    do you have anything other than the author's name

    Yes. Every study not conducted by him that I have ever located. Need links? I can also link you to critiques of his previous work if you would like, and to how he ignored the critiques and used the exact same numbers again.

    Want examples? Pimental assumes that all corn is irrigated (only 16% is, and that corn is rarely used for ethanol production - and Pimental even notes this, but assumes all corn is irrigated anyways!). He ignored life-cycle analysis standards. He includes one-time energy charges such as farming equipment and ethanol plant production, ignoring that oil companies have similar scale one-time energy charges for oil rigs and refineries. Pimental used energy calculations for fertilizer production from the UN's data for worldwide average costs, while the USDA and others use the energy cost of US fertilizer production (these are widely different numbers - a 2.5-fold difference). He uses 1979 ethanol plant efficiency, ignoring the huge process improvements made since (which halve the energy cost per gallon). Etc. He makes no attempt, whatsoever, to be balanced, and repeats the same inaccurate representation over and over.

    my point was that with oil nature has done most of the work

    You're ignoring the issue: You can't burn ag waste in your car. You can't burn coal in your car. You can't burn nuclear in your car. You *can* burn ethanol in your car. Even if it were energy-negative, which it's not close to being, you'd still be converting a non-car-usable source to a car-usable source.

    But we are using oil and natural gas to do something that does the work of oil and natural gas!

    False. Over half of our country's electricity comes from coal, and another 20% from nuclear, plus about 10% from renewables. Electricty generation from oil (you can't burn natural gas in most cars) was a mere 3.2% of our national electricity in 1999 (natural gas was just over 15%).

    *Furthermore*, almost all ethanol production plants utilize on-site heat production, using electricity only for things like the mashers. Heat is the big energy cost for ethanol production. Typically either coal, ag-waste, or both are burned (occasionally, natural gas is used). When was the last time you shoved coal or agricultural waste into your car?

    stop attacking the messenger

    When the guy repeatedly uses 1979 ethanol plant efficiencies (we're twice as efficient nowadays), pretends that all of our corn is irrigated (only 16% is), uses worldwide energy costs for fertilizer production instead of US costs (a 2.5fold difference), and other gross distortions, then repeats them after being corrected, there's good reason to call him "dishonest".
  • Re:dodge! parry! (Score:3, Informative)

    by N3WBI3 (595976) on Monday July 18, 2005 @01:21PM (#13095353) Homepage
    Did I ever say we get more energy out of oil than goes into it? no I said we get more out then *we* put into it. (the *we* was there because I understand this rather basic point youre trying to make).

    Nature put more enery into a volume of oil than it did into the same corn, and it put it into a form which is easier to process.

  • by neildiamond (610251) on Monday July 18, 2005 @01:35PM (#13095550)
    Actually on my webstie, beconnected.org [beconnected.org] I interviewed both sides of the debate. Pimental does leave out the animal feed. However, up to that point, many of the pro and con studies do have similar numbers. I don't know the answer to this, but how much more animal feed would you get if you didn't spend time, $, and fossil energy to create ethanol in the first place?

    A lot of Pimental rebutters also like to say X will be done to improve plants to Y efficiency, but much of it is pie in the sky. None of these numbers have really changed since I last reported on this so I think that's the answer.

    Also, pimental doesn't find biodiesel to be an energy loser like corn-based ethanol. (You didn't say that, but someone else did.) Biodiesel (including some of the veggie car types of things) is something we really ought to look into more. Sadly, the US govt wants to practically do away with diesel cars by 2007. We'll be saving the environment by burning more fossil fuels! Go Congress!

    Don't get me started on how manly people think they are in big trucks and SUVs (burning reg gas) that can't even drive standard transmissions. You you are soooo manly, though even my grandma could drive your stupid-looking Dodge Dakota. Standard transmissions often give you an MPG or three AND more power, more control, less brake wear/ability to stop more or less w/out breaks if needed, BETTER off-road/bad conditions/snow driving AND are easier/cheaper to repair than automatic transmissions. But yes, Hummers with auto transmissions are certainly manlier.

    Oh and diesels have better torque and are better on gas. That's great for city and off-road driving, but try to find an SUV with standard trans, diesel and 4WD/AWD. Good luck. Only the biggest vehicles come with anything like that. You can't find a normal sized car or small SUV with those options. Why? I guess it is more important to burn more fuel as that must somehow be better for the earth. Also, why are we not looking at diesel hybrid engines with standard trans? Same answer I suppose.

    Sorry, back on topic...

    Cellulosic ethanol (which is different than corn-based ethanol) is only really being produced by Biogen a company in Canada. I went there and interviewed the director of the plant as well. The plant is experimental. I assume they will build a new larger plant in the future, but cellulosic ethanol so minute that it is not really even a factor when you go to the pump these days. I hope it will be in the future.
  • Re:Last I checked... (Score:3, Informative)

    by cagle_.25 (715952) on Monday July 18, 2005 @01:52PM (#13095762) Journal
    Indirectly, he's correct. Low boiling points are correlated with higher vapor pressures, which are a measure of the rate of evaporation of a substance.

    The evaporation process is the primary reason for the "cool" feeling on the skin, because the heat of vaporization is carried away by the gaseous ethanol as it leaves. Hence: lower boiling point --> cooler feeling.

    Here are the numbers:

    Skin temp: ~30 C.

    vapor pressure of water @ 30 C: 32mmHg

    Heat of vap. of water: 41 kJ/mol

    vapor pressure of ethanol @ 30 C: 78mmHg

    Heat of vap. of ethanol: 37 kJ/mol .

    So, since mmHg are proportional to moles evaporated, the relative heat removal of ethanol to water is (37)(78)/((41)(32)) = 2.2.

  • by anaesthetica (596507) on Monday July 18, 2005 @02:34PM (#13096224) Homepage Journal
    What is the taste difference between Coca-Cola and Pepsi?

    Standard colas are usually flavoured with an orange-lemon-lime behind the vanilla, coca and kola tastes. Coke is more orange-biased while Pepsi is more lemon-flavoured. Also, the sugar and carbonation is different, with Pepsi being sweeter and a little flatter.

    From: Cola Fountain FAQ [lycos.co.uk]

  • by multiplexo (27356) on Monday July 18, 2005 @02:35PM (#13096241) Journal
    Dude. Everything produces greenhouse gases. Did you somehow think that the materials used in windmills or solar cells were magically deposited on earth by generous, eco-friendly aliens? Hate to bum your eco-high, they were dug out of the ground and refined the same damned sources of energy used to refine uranium.

    As far as there having been plenty of nuclear accidents so fucking what. We've had plenty of airplane accidents, including a non-accident that killed 2752 people, more people than killed in every nuclear accident that ever happened, yet despite that people still fly, including the eco-weasels who bitch about nuclear power and greenhouse warming, flying to their international conferences on greenhouse gas spewing jet aircraft.

    Further problems with nuclear include the unsolved problem of waste disposal,

    How to dispose of nuclear waste. Reprocess waste to recover long lived fissionable isotopes that can be used in power reactors. Take shorter lived, hotter isotopes and bury underground for 1000 years (which is manageable with today's technology, the fucking pyramids have lasted for 5000 years) and let it cool down. Problem solved.

    the high cost of producing nuclear power (it's actually much more expensive than many renewables),

    Factored in all of the subsidies renewables receive? No, you haven't. If you did they come off much worse and nuclear comes off much better.

    nuclear weapons proliferation,

    Bad guys are going to get WMDs regardless of whether or not nuclear power is used.

    and of course apart from the Three Mile Island meltdown (26 years ago) and the criticality accident at the uranium reprocessing facility in Tokai-mura (just 6 years ago), there have been plenty of other nuclear accidents.

    Plenty of plane accidents too, yet despite that people are still flying, including environmentalists.

    Oh, and as far as uranium running out, yeah right. Fuel costs are a minor cost in the cost of a nuclear plant, increase the fuel cost by a factor of 10 and you still aren't impacting operations.

  • by Red Flayer (890720) on Monday July 18, 2005 @02:41PM (#13096304) Journal
    Your ideas definitely have merit, especially reducing or eliminating subsidization of highway systems.

    However, I think there are a couple of things that have possible been overlooked.

    1) If private companies are to fund infrastructure creation, how is right-of-way for land use determined? This goes back to the issue of seizure of private land for public benefit.

    2) There is a huge barrier to entry for companies that would want to enter the mass transit market, simply because more extensive infrastructure is needed before the public would choose to use the system. In addition, the operating costs are likely higher. Given today's corporate environment (c'mon, fix those numbers this quarter!!!), I'm not sure how many companies would choose to enter a market that would take years to get a decent (if any) return on investment.

    3) The environmental costs of different systems are basically neglected. Environmental quality is a public good that is hard to assign values to. Would the government bill these companies for the pollutants they produce? Or for noise or light pollution?

    4) Federal highway subsidies definitely affect fuel use, but they were a product of the auto industry lobbying the Eisenhower (and others) administration. If both the federal and state governments were to stop, the automakers and fuel companies would need to pick up the slack. I believe this would lead to a collapse of the economy.

    I think the best way to handle this would be to preferentially subsidize more environmentally friendly programs, such as train and bus lines. This has the added advantage of allowing the market to steer growth to preferred areas -- for example, near train stations. Over time, the mass transit industry could take most of the market share from the auto industry, but slowly enough to mediate some of the economic problems.

  • by ph43drus (12754) on Monday July 18, 2005 @04:10PM (#13097374)
    Sadly, the words of "Chernobyl" are so well rehearsed by this community that they fail to realize the fact that Chernobyl was running at 130% capacity at the time -- a situtation which does not happen in current reactors due partially to the government regulations, partially to the IAEA, and partially to political pressures. That, and it's fucking common sense for crying out loud! Nuclear scientists and engineers know what they are working with now more than ever.

    That and Chernobyl was a stupid design. It had a positive void-coefficient (if the cooling water got too hot and boiled, this would act as a positive feedback into the system and cause the reactor to run-away), and they had more graphite moderator on the bottom of the control rods.

    Essentially, the reactor started to run away and boil its water, causing it to overheat more and boil more water, and so on. When they slammed the control rods, the reacto first saw the graphite spacers at the bottom which added moderator to the system, which increased the available thermal neutrons in the reactor, causing the reactor to go full-on supercritical in the period between when the bottom of the spacers hit and when the control rods got fully inserted into the reactor. Once the thing is supercritical, there really isn't any way the control rods are going to help (at least, not enough).

    US, Canadian and European reactors are designed to have negative void coefficients (boiling water causes the reactor to slow down), or they are gas cooled and have no void coefficient (coolant boiling isn't a problem because it is already a gas). And nobody, I mean nobody, puts spacers made of the same material as the moderator on the bottom of the fuel rods anymore (all the RBMK reactors got their spacers changed out after Chernobyl).

    Modern fission reactors are much more reliable. They dump less radioactivity into the atmosphere than coal plants, and the nuclear industry is much safer (because of tighter regulations) than the coal and oil industry. A lot more people die ever year to bring you coal generated electricity than nuclear generated electricity, even scaling for supply percentages (50% of US electricity is coal based, whereas nuke is in the 7% range).

    Jeff
  • by un4given (114183) <bvoltz@nOSpaM.gmail.com> on Monday July 18, 2005 @04:24PM (#13097532)
    I really feel for the obese kids though. It is not their fault. So even if you won't address the problem yourself, PLEASE don't condone it in your children. Kids will grow up plenty happy if all they ever drink is milk juice and water.

    Maybe, maybe not. Let's look at some facts:

    All figures approximate and based on 8oz portions

    Water = 0 calories
    Cola = 105 calories
    Milk = 150 calories
    Apple juice = 120 calories
    Grape juice = 145 calories
  • Re:Hydrogen energy? (Score:2, Informative)

    by swelke (252267) on Monday July 18, 2005 @04:54PM (#13097806) Homepage Journal
    Oddly enough, producing a storable fuel from solar/wind energy would be quite a good thing. One of the big problems introduced by technologies like solar and wind power is that they tend to produce a lot of variation in the level of power being supplied (as solar only works during daylight, and wind only works when the wind is blowing). The big mainline power production technologies (especially coal-burning plants) can easily produce all the time, but it can take days to change their output level very much. This means that technologies that change their power level a couple of times a day put a lot of stress on the system.

    I would think that adding industries to the electrical power grid that draw power only during certain times (and coordinating them so that they only draw power when there's extra available) would be helpful for evening out the load. I once heard mention of the idea of hydroelectric power plants pumping water to the uphill side of the dam during these kinds of time (gravity is a conservative force, so the only losses are from mechanical inefficiencies, ie friction). Manufacturing hydrogen or ethanol via electric power during these times could be a good use for the extra capacity, but would necessarily involve turning these expensive machines off when there is not extra capacity. Whether it's actually a good idea depends on the cost of the hydrogen/ethanol production facilities and the marginal profit on the fuel they're making.

    While you're ranting about the "Hydrogen Economy", science fiction authors always seem to get this wrong about antimatter too. Last I checked, astronomers are pretty sure there's no (or at least no substantial amount of) antimatter in this galaxy, so antimatter should only be used as an energy storage technology, not an outright power source. I read a book once that involved large-scale antimatter production based on solar power panels on the moon, with the antimatter being used to fuel interstellar slower-than-light spacecraft, but I can't remember the name. Any help anybody?
  • Re:Duh (Score:3, Informative)

    by mestreBimba (449437) on Monday July 18, 2005 @05:05PM (#13097898) Homepage
    Duh exactly, as in you must not understand what "half life" means. It means that 50% of a given mass decays.... not the whole things..... so there is 50% less u-238 on the planet after 4.5 billion years. It all doesn't just turn into cold leftovers.

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