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Biotech Science

Is Ethanol the Answer to the Energy Dilemma? 342

n0xin writes "According to Fortune, "The next five years could see ethanol go from a mere sliver of the fuel pie to a major energy solution in a world where the cost of relying on a finite supply of oil is way too high." In an effort to meet fuel-economy standards, automakers already have 5 million ethanol-ready vehicles on the road. Supporters are optomistic that "we can introduce enough ethanol in the U.S. to replace the majority of our petroleum use in cars and light trucks." Are SUVs included in this category?"
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Is Ethanol the Answer to the Energy Dilemma?

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  • Ethanol seems best (Score:5, Insightful)

    by AKAImBatman ( 238306 ) <{akaimbatman} {at} {}> on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:52PM (#14564094) Homepage Journal
    Ethanol would be a lot cheaper than trying to deploy hydrogen. With the hydrogen route, we have to redeploy our entire fuel infrastructure. Which isn't going to happen as long as most people drive gasoline cars. Ethanol, OTOH, can work in a standard gasoline engine with a few modifications, and can be supplied from the existing fueling stations.

    With gas prices being so high, all that's standing in the way of Ethanol is this constant argument over whether or not it's energy positive or not. Of course, this completely ignores the issue that hydrogen isn't energy positive either. You need powerplants upstream to crack hydrogen, just as you'll need upstream energy to supply farming equipment. Even in Ethanol isn't energy positive (which I don't believe for a minute), it's still a better option than hydrogen.

    What we really need for Ethanol to take off is a proper hybrid vehicle [] capable of burning both gasoline, ethanol, and various blends.
  • by TripMaster Monkey ( 862126 ) * on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:53PM (#14564104)

    Ask the corn industry what fuel technology will succeed, and you'll likely hear ethanol.

    You might try reading TFA next time. From TFA:
    Instead of coming exclusively from corn or sugar cane as it has up to now, thanks to biotech breakthroughs, the fuel can be made out of everything from prairie switchgrass and wood chips to corn husks and other agricultural waste.
    You're criticizing ethanol based upon old technology. Cellulosic ethanol doesn't depend upon corn, and is more cost-effective in the bargain.
  • by KiloByte ( 825081 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:54PM (#14564113)
    We'll just turn all of south america and africa into big ethanol farms

    Or, we'll turn most of Russia into a big ethanol farm... oh, wait...
  • by Yonder Way ( 603108 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:57PM (#14564131)
    Part of the reason we're in such a pickle is because we depend so completely on just one fuel source. Haven't we learned that diversity will make us more robust?
  • by TripMaster Monkey ( 862126 ) * on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:59PM (#14564140)

    All the biologists and physicists I've spoken to say no.

    Really? All of them? Care to provide a list of these sources?

    It has a much lower fuel efficency, and it is still non-renewable.

    Wrong and wrong. From Renewable Energy Access []:
    We can't remember how many times we've been asked the question: "But doesn't ethanol require more energy to produce than it contains?" The simple answer is no-most scientific studies, especially those in recent years reflecting modern techniques, do not support this concern. These studies have shown that ethanol has a higher energy content than the fossil energy used in its production. Some studies that contend that ethanol is a net energy loser include (incorrectly) the energy of the sun used to grow a feedstock in ethanol's energy balance, which misses the fundamental point that the sun's energy is free. Furthermore, because crops like switchgrass are perennials, they are not replanted and cultivated every year, avoiding farm-equipment energy. Indeed, if polycultured to imitate the prairies where they grow naturally, they should require no fertilizer, irrigation, or pesticides either. So, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, for every one unit of energy available at the fuel pump, 1.23 units of fossil energy are used to produce gasoline, 0.74 of fossil energy are used to produce corn-based ethanol, and only 0.2 units of fossil energy are used to produce cellulosic ethanol.
  • by BadAnalogyGuy ( 945258 ) <> on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:59PM (#14564141)
    Supporters of biomass fuels are behind bio-diesel. Corn growers are behind ethanol. There's lots of money to be made making ethanol if the market would exist, and it's the corn growers who would reap the rewards.

    Joe HighSchoolQuarterBack working the fry machine at McD's isn't going to be making a fortune in his side business selling used freedom fry oil.
  • by SysKoll ( 48967 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:04PM (#14564180)
    Right. It remains to be seen if the total end-to-end energy balance is positive. Ethanol combustion is not very energetic compared to hydrocarbones, and so you need much more of it to store the same energy as, say, the same volume of gasoline.

    Considering that most agricultural ethanol production processes require energy (to harvest and transport raw biomass, to grind it, to heat and break cellulose, to mix, etc), it's easy to see why you should be very careful with your energy balance, otherwise you might pick a process that won't even break even. The industrial process used to produce wood alcohol (methanol), for example, often consumes way more energy than the final product represents. But in that case, the main concern is total cost, not a positive energy balance.

  • by narftrek ( 549077 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:19PM (#14564276)
    This will get modded Flamebait and/or Troll, especially coming from me, but JEEESUS I have already read five comments griping about this technology not solving X problem, causing Y problem, etc. THIS IS BETTER! One guy complains that it won't fix the greenhouse gas problem--it won't make it any worse. Another complains it's gonna use up all our land. Another complains it's gonna poison the environment with pesticides. Look people, will nothing make you guys happy? The main things this tech will do for us is:

    reduce our dependence on oil (if Iran decides to quit selling us oil our economy isn't gonna spiral into oblivion like it could now)

    it uses trash besides just corn or cane (that's gotta count for something)

    alchohol burns cleaner

    it will use existing infrastructure that hydrogen won't

    We won't have nasty chem plants cranking out far more poisonous fuel cell and/or battery materials

    farmers already get paid subsidies to NOT grow stuff, let's change that

    Tons of pesticides won't necessarily be needed since even if the crop isn't huge or is partially damaged, it can still be used

    The farm tractors can burn thier own product (many farmers already make or use thier own biodiesel)

    I can keep going on about this but I think my point is made. Just because this solution doesn't fix EVERYTHING doesn't mean it should be ignored or scrapped. Stop complaining Greenies. At least science and government are FINALLY listening to your incessant complaining for something to be done about pollution and alt fuels. There will NEVER be a solution made that can perfectly cover all bases but this one beats most of the other proposals out there. This is a solid and viable solution and not just placation like these current hybrid cars. There's something to complain about and a true instance of industry throwing you a bone to shut you up. /rant
  • by bradkittenbrink ( 608877 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:48PM (#14564477) Homepage Journal
    Actually, I think it would probably be slightly better than a closed cycle. Chances are that ethanol production from plant biomass will never be 100% efficient, and always leave at least a little waste carbon. As a result, the carbon dioxide released by burning any amount ethanol should add up to less than the plants used to produce it consumed from the atmosphere.
  • Re:Still doesn't (Score:4, Insightful)

    by c_fel ( 927677 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:13PM (#14564620) Homepage
    That's not the real problem. The big problem is :
    1. The superficy needed to grow the corn ;
    2. The amount of energy corn takes from the ground, resulting in an usable ground in a very little time.

    The solution for our energy abuse is :
    Stop abusing energy.
    Sometimes even logical solutions sound stupid.
  • Re:Still doesn't (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SpaceballsTheUserNam ( 941138 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:14PM (#14564625)
    "Next solution please."

    Ok but you might not like it, Nuclear, fission that is. Really the only (proven) viable option.

    Or coal (or tarsands/gas/other burnable shit), we got tons of that, but no help with the global warming. Geothermal could theoreticaly fit the bill but isn't there yet. Solar and wind power have their niches. There's zero point energy, but the NSA will continue too suppres it. Some form of fussion, but not until its too late. Or something else, unforseen by ME, unlikely.
  • Re:Still doesn't (Score:3, Insightful)

    by codemachine ( 245871 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:18PM (#14564655)
    Part of the problem is that ethanol was hyped up so much before it was able to deliver.

    I know that in this region, it has been pumped up as a great way to diversify our agriculture, and a great way to prove that these feed lots are a good thing rather than a bad one.

    An agriculture economics student that I am related to sought to prove how great ethanol was for her project class. She studied the many variables surrounding the plant that was to be built near here. Despite the fact that she was biased towards it, the economic numbers very plainly showed that what they wanted to do here was a stupid idea. There was no way for it to be economically feasible.

    Of course the price of oil back then wasn't over $60/barrel, so that obviously changes any economic analysis. It doesn't change the fact that ethanol didn't come anywhere close to living up to the hype it had at the time. Things may have changed a bit over the last couple years, but it may take a while to convince people who've been tricked before.
  • by mangu ( 126918 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:23PM (#14564684)
    To produce enough ethanol to sustain the US alone, would require hudreds of thousands of acres of crops.

    Dude, do you have any idea at all of the number of acres of crops in the USA?

    Hydrogen, on the other hand, can be produced readily in a power-plant type fashion.

    Other than in science fiction, where do you have a hydrogen power plant? A hydrogen-powered car? Ethanol has been a *practical* reality for decades. My first car powered by 96% ethanol was a Brazilian 1983 Chevette. At that time, about 90% of all new cars being made in Brazil were powered by ethanol.

    For the last 28 years, every single fuel station in Brazil has had ethanol pumps. Have you ever seen a hydrogen pump in any fuel station anywhere in the world? Apart from straight ethanol, all the gasoline in Brazil contains at least 20% ethanol.

    There has never been a single hydrogen powered car sold commercially anywhere in the world. In Brazil, tens of millions of 92% ethanol powered cars have been sold in the last 30 years, and many more cars powered by 20% ethanol.

    Do you still have any doubt on which fuel can be "produced readily"?

  • Hemp! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by mrchaotica ( 681592 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:38PM (#14564762)
    It also doesn't help ethanol's case that the most efficient crop to produce it is so demonized in the US. Not only does hemp have a higher usable energy content than corn or soybeans, but it freakin' grows as a weed! It ought to win out over corn and soybeans just by the elimination of fertilizer costs alone!

    But no-o, we can't have people growing hemp because it's too similar to marijuana, and we'd have to put even more stoners in jail (who shouldn't even have to be there anyway)!

    It's completely absurd and pathetic.
  • Re:No it's not (Score:4, Insightful)

    by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @11:40PM (#14564777)
    Growing corn takes a lot of pesticide/machinery/etc.. Ethanol is NOT environment-friendly
    Ethanol makes sense if it's a byproduct of something else or produced by a less intensive farming method - Brazil is using it successfully but they can't make enough for everyone without using a lot of oil to make fertilizer and defeating the purpose. Methanol makes more sense from some plant material. Methane makes a lot more sense from waste products.

    Where ethanol has the advantage is that conventional car engines can run well on it without much work and it's easier to ship around. Methane can run in diesel engines without much work - but due to the high sulphur content of US oil there aren't a lot of diesel vehicles currently in the USA and as a gas it makes more sense in fixed installations than vehicles. Biodiesel makes sense so long as it's made out of waste products - specificly growing Canola for it is burning oil to make fertilizer to make biodiesel and is a losing prospect.

    There's no one true energy - even for vehicles. Anyone who says otherwise is selling something or has swallowed a sales pitch.

  • Re:Hemp! (Score:2, Insightful)

    by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @01:16AM (#14565220)
    Why shouldn't they be in jail? Our laws prohibit the use, sale, growing, etc... of a particular plant. If people violate those criminal laws, why shouldn't they be in jail?

    Arguing that the law is unjust is beside the point. The fact remains that growing (selling, using) marijuana is illegal in the United States.

    By that logic alone, the founding fathers should have been hanging on the gallows. And those people who operated the underground railroad as well.

    A stupid law causes comtempt for all laws. If a law is unjust, people have a duty to disobey it. Sometimes it's the only way to dispute something (can you see a national politician touching that issue with a ten foot pole in favor of drug legalization regardless of the facts?)

    BTW, I don't care about drugs' legality one way or the other but I find it ironic that what people do to their own person is suddenly criminal law. Perhaps it's the same sort of hypocrisy that cause us to decry smoking/tobacco as bad as hell for you, have the government sue them for a billion dollars, yet NOT ban the substance but happily tax it's use where that gets used for wholly different purposes.

    Perhaps the government should learn from it's mistake from prohibition and relize you can't legislate morality (where it doesn't hurt others) or successfully ban substances such as these.

    But perhaps it did and keeping up the "war on drugs" has a wholly different purpose/advantages than the initially stated or planned. Like the war on terrorism.

    Well, I'm rambling now - the law and whether you "should" be in jail or two different things. Do you go the exact stated speed limit on every road?

    If not, should you be in jail?
  • by TheSync ( 5291 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @02:46AM (#14565517) Journal
    Desertification is a result of poor farming technology. Rich farmers growing ethanol crops would use high levels of technology to reduce the risk of desertification. It is much more of a problem in poor countries where small farms grow subsistence crops.
  • We'll never know.. (Score:4, Insightful)

    by jcr ( 53032 ) < .ta. .rcj.> on Thursday January 26, 2006 @08:57AM (#14566310) Journal
    If ethanol is a viable fuel, remove all the subsidies and tax manipulation, and it will stand on its own. So far, it's nothing more than a massive corporate-welfare program for Archer Daniels Midland (price fixer to the world).

  • Look around you (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Engineer-Poet ( 795260 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @12:54PM (#14568935) Homepage Journal
    Oil is cheap and plentiful.
    Historically it has been. Historically, the USA was an oil exporter too; that changed when US production peaked in 1970, while consumption continued to rise. Now oil production of the entire world is peaking or about to.

    Historically, most people farmed for a living. If the future was going to be just like history, we wouldn't have history as we know it. Eras end. The era of cheap oil is ending.

    Oil has not increased in price versus inflation.
    Oil prices are near their inflation-adjusted high (during Gulf War I). They will go higher.
    We're not running out and we won't in our lifetimes.
    We haven't run out of oil in East Texas, but production has fallen to 12,000 barrels per day. Prudhoe Bay is producing at less than half its peak. Oil comes out slower and slower as the reservoirs are depleted. "Out of oil" in one sense means the zero point of an asymptotic curve; that will arguably never happen. Out of swing capacity (out of cheap oil) is another thing entirely; we're there today, and you can expect $100/bbl in the near future.

    Just a few years ago, oil was $15/bbl. Then the target price of oil was $20-$30/bbl. Now it's over $60/bbl, and Kuwait's biggest field has peaked at 1.7 mmbbl/day. Mexico's Cantarell field has peaked. Speculation is that Ghawar, S. Arabia's biggest field and biggest in the world, is producing 80% water (due to reckless water injection) and is about to peak.

    If you think oil is going to remain cheap when demand hits a static or slowly shrinking supply (and the historic inelastic short-term demand curve), you've got another thing coming.

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