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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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  • by halcyon1234 ( 834388 ) <> on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:53PM (#14564099) Journal
    Of all the asanine things I've seen on Ask Slashdot...

    Isn't this something better solved with a quick Wikipedia search [] and a quick Google query []?

    All the biologists and physicists I've spoken to say no. It's a fuel source, yes, but not a viable replacement for oil. It has a much lower fuel efficency, and it is still non-renewable. It might solve SOME of the pollution problems, but that's still a "might". It won't solve the growing energy need, and it won't solve the issue of non-renewability.

    If you're looking forward towards a sustainable, rewnewable, efficient fuel source, they should be looking at wind, solar, nuclear, or hydrogen, to name a few.

  • Re:Still doesn't (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:53PM (#14564103)
    Nothing is going to help reduce global warming unless we use non CO2 energy generation to precipitate CO2 out of the atmosphere. Even if the US and Europe ceased emissions, China and India who are going through a massive industrialization would quickly 'compensate.' If you want results, make a lot of new nuclear plants and a lot CO2 removal devices (perhaps a calcite pool?).

    One other option: nuclear winter cancels global warming. It is up to YOU (yes, you!) to decide whether this is a good idea or not.
  • As a North Dakotan (Score:4, Interesting)

    by alexwcovington ( 855979 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @09:57PM (#14564129) Journal
    I'm proud to say I drive my 1993 Mercury Topaz on 40% ethanol. Hand mixed by yours truly with a fly-by-night flip of the regular and E85 pumps. And it runs GREAT.
  • Cost? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by xanthines-R-yummy ( 635710 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:00PM (#14564153) Homepage Journal
    The article says that attitude is the major barrier, but I still think it's cost right now. This page [] is obviously out of date (although the girl is still cute!), but I think it still makes the point that gasoline is still a pretty cheap liquid by comparison. Oil is around $1.20 per gallon right now. I'd be lucky if I could find a cup of coffee for that price! Ethanol is still expensive and will be until the demand is high enough to start using it. Sure, mass-production plants have yet to be built... but those things aren't cheap, either. I feel like (no basis in fact!) the price of oil/gasoline is going to have to increase much, much further for ethanol to be a realistic alternative. Just my 2 cents.
  • Re:No (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Fatchap ( 752787 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:02PM (#14564164)
    In that case why does the EU pay farmers to set aside their fields rather than grow things that contribute to the surplus? Why is surplus food routed to Africa (lowering the price for whatever domestic produced grain there is)?

    Perhaps there just needs to be a change in focus, especially if you can ferment the non edible parts of food crops for fuel (such as the stalks on grain crops) and waste vegetable matter it could be a win win.
  • Re:No it's not (Score:3, Interesting)

    by hsoft ( 742011 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:29PM (#14564337) Homepage
    Well, I didn't know. I guess I should have RTFA. However, I have hard time believing that culture like switchgrass would not require fertilizer. Prairies don't require fertilizers because grass dies and decay right there and animals eating it defecate and die and decay right there, thus keeping the eco-system intact. However, take that prairie, cut all the grass, produce ethanol and burn it. Do it for a couple of years, and without fertilizers, you shouldn't have any more grass growing there.

    Of course, I'm not an expert and could be wrong, but this is what my common sense tells me.
  • Re:No (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Bing Tsher E ( 943915 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:30PM (#14564348) Journal
    Shipping food to Africa and the third world is a form of economic warfare. It deflates the price of grain and food products in the places where it is shipped, and thus discourages the people in those countries from growing more of their own food. It creates an economic dependence in said countries for regular shipments from the 'benevolent' countries who contribute the food.

    Would *you* want to plant a crop of corn if it were likely that people from another country were going to dump their surplus crop into your market? You'd likely find yourself harvesting a crop worth less than your expense in producing it.

    These issues are complex, and the rich countries 'just shipping in food' make the issue worse in many regards.

  • by benjamindees ( 441808 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:32PM (#14564353) Homepage
    Here is a very detailed report [] on cellulosic ethanol. In terms of efficiency, it has nothing on biodiesel and is less efficient than methanol. But there is already a market, and little in the way of regulatory hurdles.
  • by Herger ( 48454 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:38PM (#14564390) Homepage

    IIRC ethanol can be blended into regular fuel up to 15% and be used in cars already on the road in the USA, while an 85% ethanol/15% gasoline (E85) can be used in "flex-fuel" vehicles that can be purchased from most manufacturers on request. It's only a stopgap, because ethanol is currently expensive to produce. This may change with biotech to improve fermentation, as well as a shift in US trade policy to facilitate the import of sugar cane, a much better starting material for fermentation (or just import the ethanol!)

    Still, I believe the biggest limitation is, even assuming moderate improvements in conservation and efficiency, there isn't enough land available to produce the corn/beets/sugarcane needed. Plus, the biggest consumers are commercial (i.e., diesel) vehicles -- we might be better off investing in carbon-neutral catalytic solutions like Changing World Technologies [] or AlphaKat [], which can use a wide variety of biomass as input and produce diesel fuel.

  • Re:Still doesn't (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Rei ( 128717 ) on Wednesday January 25, 2006 @10:40PM (#14564409) Homepage
    Yes, we all know that Pimentel (and whatever recently graduated grad student or two he can grab up) is an anti-ethanol crusader. We also know that he's almost alone in his claims that ethanol is a net energy loser. Lastly, we also know that whenever he says it, news sources gobble it up, because it's "controversy".

    It's also wrong.

    First off, lets start with the fact that even if a fuel were a net energy loser, it's irrelevant. Ethanol converts a source of energy that you can't put into your gas tank into one that you can. Usually that's natural gas, but sometimes it's agricultural waste or even waste heat from other processes or power plants. The nazis converted coal to oil with horrible efficiency (using far more energy's worth of coal than they got out in gasoline), but it powered their war machine.

    Ignoring that, it's not even close to a net energy loser. Everyone's studies except Pimentel comes up with this fact. Why does Pimentel get such different numbers from everyone else? He rigs the game. Instead of assuming, logically, that if ethanol demand increases, people will build more modern plants, he uses the efficiency numbers of plants from the '70s. He uses the world's worst efficiency numbers on fertilizer production. He assumes that all corn that would go toward the ethanol production comes from irrigated land (very little corn is irrigated). Some people defend this last point, saying that the corn would require new land, and any land that it would have to grow on that wouldn't need to be irrigated is already in use. This is incorrect; the corn would take the place of plants that can tolerate drier conditions, which would move into the more arid land. Overall, total irrigation use would increase, but is is incorrect to pretend that it would increase by the amount as if you had to irrigate all of the newly needed corn.

    In short, Pimentel cheats to get his bad result. And he is routinely criticized for doing so. Find me an anti-ethanol study that doesn't have his name on it, and I might care.

    By the way, part of the reason why ethanol is so expensive has nothing to do with energy balances, or even its production costs: it's transportation. You can't ship ethanol in much of our current oil pipeline infrastructure.

    My main complaint about ethanol is simply the land issue. More farmland=More deforestation. Especially in tropical countries, this is a major issue.
  • Re:No it's not (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TykeClone ( 668449 ) * <> on Thursday January 26, 2006 @12:03AM (#14564890) Homepage Journal
    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.

    Corn -> Ethanol + distillers grain

    distillers grain fed to animals -> "fertilizer" + meat

    "Fertilizer" + corn ground -> more corn

  • by johansalk ( 818687 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @12:12AM (#14564931)
    Desertification is a mounting threat to many regions around the world due to soil exhaustion. I can only imagine that large-scale ethanol farming would add to this problem.
  • by rolfwind ( 528248 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @12:35AM (#14565052)
    There has never been a single hydrogen powered car sold commercially anywhere in the world.

    BMW would like to disagree with you: 0531/press016915.html [] l []

    I believe, ethanol, can be, at best a transitional fuel, what with the human population increasing, the future will have less land available for such uses as a fuel crop.

    I heard of hydrogen cars (non-production) in the '60s already. If fusion ever comes online, 0% land is needed, and there would be plenty of energy for electrolysis, or perhaps the more efficient steam electrolysis. Even if fusion doesn't pan out, solar energy could be harnessed for that purpose (I'm not talking about purely solar photaic cells, but a hybrid system of a parabolic dish design.) Afterall, collectively, millions of acres of roofs are being unused everyday!
  • Seaweed (Score:2, Interesting)

    by mattite ( 526549 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @03:32AM (#14565617)
    Why not use kelp (seaweed)? Doesn't that stuff grow around a foot a day? Since this new process can use cellulose, and has a net energy gain, just grow kelp in the middle of the ocean. I can think of a few benefits:

    - Current agriculture remains unaffected, thereby also unaffecting most food supplies.
    - Kelp is a weed that grows without any special help: just make sure it gets enough sunlight.
    - Kelp grows in the ocean where, last time I checked, few people (if any) live. No issues with taking up land.
    - Maybe some genius can think of a way to create an off-shore kelp platform.
    - The ocean covers roughly 2/3 of the planet's surface, so there's plenty of room for harvesting.

    The only problem is that I do not know what the impact on the marine ecosystem would be. However, if the harvesting is done far out in the middle of the ocean, I can't imagine there would be significant harm. If there is a way to calculate this out, we might just find that there may not even be a need to reduce consumption.
  • by hummassa ( 157160 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @08:26AM (#14566207) Homepage Journal
    The real question is: is there hydrogen in the pumps anywhere you know? If you buy this BMW you mentioned, where will you fuel it? Down here, there is ethanol in the pumps in 100% of the gas stations over a country that is larger than continental USofA, meaning you can travel the equivalent of the Route 66 and never get without fuel. Got it?
  • by The Fun Guy ( 21791 ) on Thursday January 26, 2006 @10:09AM (#14566760) Homepage Journal
    But look at the citation for the data on that table: Energy and the U.S. Economy: A Biophysical Perspective Cutler J. Cleveland; Robert Costanza; Charles A. S. Hall; Robert Kaufmann Science, New Series, Vol. 225, No. 4665 (Aug. 31, 1984), 890-897.

    Technology has advanced a long way since 1984, particularly in the area of enzymology to break down chemically resistant carbon in plant tissues, like cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin. Brazil's ethanol program relies heavily on conversion of sugar; to make ethanol economically competitive in the US, we would need to rely on conversion of cross-linked starch and long-chain polymers. The phenolics in lignin would be a feedstock for industrial chemistry. Here's some more general info [].

    The USDA's Crop Conversion Science and Engineering Research Unit [] is all about developing new tools to increase the efficiency of extracting usable energy from plant products. Here are a few examples:

    Aqueous Enzymatic Extraction of Corn Oil and Value-Added Products from Corn Germ Produced in New Generation Dry-Grind Ethanol Processes []

    Economic Competitiveness of Renewable Fuels Derived from Grains and Related Biomass []

    Enzyme-Based Technologies for Milling Grains and Producing Biobased Products and Fuels []

    Full disclosure: I don't work for these guys, and I have no financial interest in bio-based fuels (other than the usual "No Blood For Oil" thing). I just think that what they're doing is cool.
  • with the human population increasing, the future will have less land available for such uses as a fuel crop.

    Wrong. Natality decreases faster than mortality, so that the trend is population stabilisation. Absent major cultural shifts, we would see even a decrease. Japan has already started to shrink, and Europe won't be long.

"No, no, I don't mind being called the smartest man in the world. I just wish it wasn't this one." -- Adrian Veidt/Ozymandias, WATCHMEN