By on February 5, 2010


First President Obama said the Senate may forego passing cap-and-trade, by far the most critical piece of the energy legislation that’s brewing on Capitol Hill. And now, the Environmental Protection Agency is suddenly pushing snake-oil, uh, corn-based ethanol in the latest iteration of the renewable fuel standard [proposed rule PDF], claiming that its substitution for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This contradicts an earlier renewable fuel standard iteration, and most studies of the matter, including a 2008 study in Science, which found that “corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings [as per typical life-cycle studies], nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years.” [Ed: for more on the corn ethanol sham check out TTAC's E85BOTD archives]


The Washington Post quoted EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson saying she was “confident” that “we weren’t dumbing down the standard to favor any particular industry or…outcome.” Of course any increase in corn ethanol mandates is pretty, well, dumb, and it’s a safe bet that Obama, who nixed gas tax relief during that summer of pricey petrol in ‘08, knows better than this. But then this is the same guy who during primary season ditched his Chrysler 300C muscle car after the press outed him, following his speech castigating the D3 for building bigger, faster cars. For all the changes in Washington over the last year, one thing hasn’t changed: when it comes to the renewable fuel standard, politics still trump science.

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46 Comments on “E85 Boondoggle Of The Day: Obama’s Corny Ethanol Science...”


  • avatar
    ash78

    If we learn anything from the mass marketing of E85, it’s that America’s science and math programs are sorely lacking. In fact, I think the E85 push is actually a ruse by the NEA, not so much the corn lobby–those guys are doing just fine making our butts bigger with HFCS :D

  • avatar
    gslippy

    E85 and ethanol may be a boondoggle, but cap-and-trade would have bankrupted the country at several levels. Market forces will eventually sort out E85.

    • 0 avatar
      Robbie

      On the contrary, cap-and-trade is way to go if you want to lower emissions while doing the least damage to the US economy. It will cause the industries who can do it the easiest and cheapest to lower emissions.
      How will market forces ever sort out E85? This is a colossal government subsidy program that creates bad gasoline and costs taxpayers a fortune. Where are the market forces there?

  • avatar
    Mr Carpenter

    Not necessarily, gslippy; when you maneuver the markets and try to control things from above as the Soviet (dis) Union did, it doesn’t end well.

    If logic were at play, we’d be getting our own oil out of under the United States (apparently we have some of the largest new oil finds in the world under the Dakotas and west), using garbage and offal to make synthetic oil (as someone else has previously posted here, see http://www.changingworldtech.com) and also would be making Butanol from sugar beets, which can grow in our climate (again, see http://www.butanol.com and search for what BP is doing in the UK and Ireland with Butanol from beets).

    But politics and logic rarely cross paths.

    BUT I’ll add this. Never mind what politicians say. What do they do?

    Do we have inflation? Yes. They want it there.

    Do we have fake money controlled by bankers? Yes. They want it there.

    Do we have a fascist system (i.e. the combination of private industry and policits) in place? Yes. They want it there.

    Do we have a loss of civil rights of the population, ongoing? Yes. They want it there.

    I’m sure most of the B&B “get it” but not all do…. which mystifies me.
    But then those who don’t are in the majority so what can I say?

    • 0 avatar
      gslippy

      I agree with everything you’ve said. I’m just cautiously optimistic that the gov’t can’t force E85 to gain traction if people don’t buy it.

    • 0 avatar
      OMG_Shoes

      Hold up a sec. Butanol’s U.S. booster is obviously gaining P.R. experience, but he has major deficits in his education, knowledge, and credibility (not to mention his spelling and grammar, both of which are lousy).

      The butanol you mention is certainly very interesting. The process science holds up at least as far as my knowledge can assess it. And the assertion is correct that ethanol’s big problem is its incompatibility with existing gasoline vehicles, which generally cannot practically or practicably be modified after manufacture to tolerate more than about 10-15% alcohol in their fuel.

      Nevertheless, the process inventor’s website, which you linked and is also linked from this article, contains glaring and fundamental errors that call the guy’s credibility into very serious question. For instance, on this page (archived for permanence), we find the following:

      “Butanol can safely and effectively replace gasoline, diesel and jet fuels but as with any other new fuel (ethanol, biodiesel, soy diesel, methanol, natural gas or liquid propane) Butanol will be put through similar testing.”

      The first part of this sentence is nonsensical on its face unless we’re very liberal with our understanding of the term “replace”. The three fuels mentioned have very different physical and combustion characteristics, so unless there are different variants of butanol that aren’t mentioned, the notion of a single-substance replacement for all three fuels is dubious. The second part of this sentence is a nonsequitur and doesn’t parse.

      “Butanol can replace gasoline with possible minimal changes to timing and carburetor jetting.”

      Carburetor jetting? Um, not in North America for nigh on 2 decades now. Virtually all cars have been fuel injected since that time. A small point? Perhaps, but does the inventor really understand what he’s talking about…? It’s possible he’s a chemistry-type guy, and not really an engines-type guy, and that’s fine, but…!

      “Other Butanol properties will have to be considered since its vapor pressure is 13.5 times lower than gasoline (0.33 psi to 4.5 for gasoline), meaning that the ignition of Butanol in the cylinder occurs a little later. In other words, combustion properties with Butanol are different and it should be ignited slightly later than with gasoline.”

      Major contradictions here. A fuel’s vapor pressure has very little to do with the readiness and speed with which it combusts in an engine’s combustion chamber. Volatility would be closer, but still off the mark. Nevertheless, let’s assume that he meant lower volatility or (much more properly) higher octane rating and slower burning, since that is the least-improbable understanding of this garberated statement. That would call for earlier ignition (more spark advance) for use of such a fuel in a spark-ignition engine, not later ignition.

      “Butanol was found to have a significant torque advantage at low rpm over that of gasoline or gasoline plus ethanol. In one testing program, a 1982, 61 cu.in, Harley Davidson motorcycle, running on Butanol, developed 25 horsepower and produced 75 foot pounds of torque. By comparison, a 2004 Harley Davidson 88 cu.in., twin cam cycle running on gasoline developed 50 horsepower but exhibited the same 75 foot pounds of torque (1.5:1 vs. 0.5:1 3 times more torque to horsepower, with 70% less displacement). That means that Butanol when added to gasoline acts as a torque multiplier, which still has to be proven in the next round of experiments. This suggests that when Butanol is added to gasoline, you should be able to climb a hill without having to downshift.”

      Oohboy. Lots of problems here. Comparing a 1982 motorcycle to a 2004 motorcycle with a wholly different engine tells us absolutely nothing about the fuel. What were the results of the comparison between gasoline and butanol in each of the two motorcycles? Also, there is no such thing as a “twin cam cycle engine”. Also, there is no such thing as a fuel that “acts as a torque multiplier”. As for climbing hills without downshifting, these “test results” suggest absolutely nothing of the sort.

      In the 2nd article linked in this post, the inventor says “With gas, my Buick gets about 18 miles per gallon. With butanol, we’re getting 25 or 26.”

      OK, so that’s a claimed forty-two percent(!!) improvement in fuel economy. Problem is, that doesn’t jibe with the fact that a gallon of gasoline contains about 115,000 BTU of energy, while a gallon of butanol contains about 104,500 BTU of energy. For any given vehicle in any given configuration, the energy content per unit volume of the fuel is directly and inexorably linked to fuel economy. It takes a certain amount of work to push a given mass with given air and rolling resistance at a given velocity along a given road. The amount of energy required to do that work can be calculated and can’t be changed. There is no such thing as free energy; all of the energy to do all of the work must come from the fuel. Therefore, it’s quite simple: If the energy density of the fuel is reduced, the volume of fuel consumed to do the work will increase proportionally. Half the energy content per gallon, twice as many gallons burned, and so forth.

      Now, as mentioned above, absolutely nothing has been said about the octane rating of butanol, but what is said and the general properties of alcohols suggest it is probably quite high relative to gasoline. If that be the case, then engines can be modified (as with higher compression and more spark advance) to take advantage of this. But a forty-two percent mileage increase in an unmodified 1992 Buick smells more like snake oil than butanol.

      I really hope these contradictions and eyebrow raisers are due to the inventor’s poor understanding of how engines work (or, better, his simply being inarticulate). I really hope it’s all true and the economies of scale come together to give us all fully-compatible, ultra-low-polluting, ultra-high-octane fuel for existing cars. But…!

  • avatar
    YellowDuck

    Funny how the link to “a 2008 study in Science” actually takes you to an opinion piece in a completely different journal….

    The lifecycle CO2 balance of grain ethanol is very dependent on the type of energy used to run the ethanol plant. Done properly (i.e., using something other than coal), the carbon balance can be pretty good. Also, modern corn production practices can actually enhance soil organic matter (and therefore carbon sequestration), so corn production need not lead to enhanced CO2 emissions from the soil. Again, it all depends how you do it.

    But anyway, keep in mind the REAL reason the US is interested in grain ethanol – and it is not a “dumb” reason at all. Although it takes a fair bit of energy to grow the corn and, especially, convert it to ethanol, most of that energy is in a form other than petroleum. The liquid petroleum replacement value of ethanol is about 8:1. So, the real potential benefit is the ability to take plentiful domestic energy supplies such as coal and natural gas (rather than imported pethroleum) and convert those into a liquid petroleum fuel replacement. The modest net energy production and reductions in net CO2 emissions are just gravy.

    • 0 avatar
      crash sled

      If curtailing petroleum imports is the issue, then rather than forcing an inefficient and costly ethanol solution, we should take the simpler and cheaper path… and drill domestically.

      Battery technology seems to be topped out right now, and our grandchildren will likely all be carried to the cemetery in internal combustion-powered hearses, clearly. Maybe the hearses will be some form of hybrid, and maybe the hearses’ ICE will simply be a stationary gen set powering elec motors, but that vehicle will still have an ICE on-board.

      That said, let’s get to the best and cheapest solution for fueling those ICEs, since we’ll be using them for a number of decades more, at least. Ethanol isn’t that solution, not for emissions, not for efficiency, not for economics, not for much beyond politics, as far as I can see.

  • avatar
    NickR

    The one catch is that corn requires water to grow and in many places where corn is grown presently that has proven to be a fairly scarce commodity.

  • avatar
    ClutchCarGo

    Politics trumps science not just in energy policy but in every aspect that politics touches, e.g. evolution/creationism/intelligent design. And we can expect even more warping of science and economics now that corporations are free to buy the legislature and judiciary needed to maximize profits.

    The only good thing that I can see about ethanol fuel supports is that it builds into our systems a tolerance for bio-fuel. Once the technology advances to allow the economical production of ethanol from non-food sources like cellulose, the infrastructure will be ready for the switch from petroleum.

  • avatar
    jkross22

    Votes and money, votes and money. Science? Who needs science?

  • avatar
    imag

    Oh come on people. This isn’t new – every president in recent memory has oversubsidized the corn industry. It’s not bad science; it’s the fact that the Iowa primary has huge power in the presidential race, and the fact that these subsidies are a small thing for them to do to guarantee votes from certain midwestern states. They literally could not get elected without them. That means we are selecting for presidents who will compromise and hand the corn-growing states their money.

    It sucks, but in this case I blame the midwesterners, not the politicians, for strongarming their BS crops into the mix. And I blame the people who try, every time, to act like the politicians don’t get the science behind it. They know exactly what they’re doing, and we, the people, make them do it.

    • 0 avatar
      George B

      Three words: Caribbean Basin Initiative. If Brazilian sugar cane ethanol gets its final processing in a country of the Caribbean Basin Initiative, it avoids the 54 cent per gallon tariff that protects corn ethanol. Unfortunately there is also a quota limit that needs to be eliminated. However, if corn ethanol can be driven out of business by less expensive ethanol imports, the whole presidential primary politics corn ethanol issue goes away and ethanol can sink or swim on its own merits.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ethanol_fuel_in_Brazil#Exports

  • avatar
    bmoredlj

    Please correct me if I’m mistaken on any of these points, but E85 requires more resources to produce, burns less efficiently, decreases both performance and fuel economy of the vehicles that use it. The industrial agriculture used to produce our corn is highly detrimental to the ecosystem due to its lack of biodiversity and depletes soil nutrition. It’s agriculture gone too far, but unfortunately the U.S. needs it to stay fed and happy.

    If all this is indeed true, Obama really is shunning science for politics. The masses believe E85 is green, and he’s just perpetuating that belief because it’s easy. But corn is not the answer to everything. It is tasty, though.

    • 0 avatar
      FromBrazil

      All you said is true, however performance increases slightly w/ ethanol. It all has to do w/ current production models, but cars in Brazil are all basically flex engines (capable of burning gas and ethanol) and hp output is always greater when running on ethanol than gas. Anything between 1 hp and 8 hp. Now, on a user level what I notice is that the car runs smoother and quieter on gas than ethanol. But it decidely feels faster and accelerates better while just on ethanol.

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    ClutchCarGo wrote:

    “Once the technology advances to allow the economical production of ethanol from non-food sources like cellulose, the infrastructure will be ready for the switch from petroleum. ”

    Don’t you mean “If the technology advances…”?

    I’m not saying it won’t. But after this many years (ethanol has been out for many years), we haven’t really made it economical yet. The subsidies are still there; that’s my evidence.

    Of course, part of the blame for that is that US lawmakers don’t put expiration dates on legislation. And part of the blame for that is that the votors don’t put expiration dates on their lawmakers. And part of the blame for that is a creaky and obsolete education system that began its own spoilage back in the 1960′s.

    • 0 avatar
      ClutchCarGo

      From the legitimate science reporting I’ve seen, we’ll have cellulosic ethanol on a large scale soon. There are already pilot projects running, and given the economic incentives to make it work I expect to see major players like BP and ADM getting rolling in the next few years. And I fully expect to see comparable gov’t subsidies as exist for corn based ethanol given the political muscle that big corporations can flex. It remains to be seen whether cellulosic ethanol has nasty by-products and side effects (where did you take the cellulose from and what do you do with all the leftover cellulose mash when you’re done?), but I’m sure those issues will be put aside in the name of energy independence. And profits.

  • avatar
    shaker

    If we deplete the midwest aquifer to fuel our vehicles, we are truly greedy, short-sighted fools.

    I would call on Obama to have a backbone here, and “just say no” to Cargill and ADM.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    The Oglalla acquifer is history, not much to say about that. It will likely be gone within the century, and ethanol will merely speed up that process.

    If curtailing petroleum imports is the issue, then rather than forcing an inefficient and costly ethanol solution, we should take the simpler and cheaper path… and drill domestically.

    Battery technology seems to be topped out right now, and our grandchildren will likely all be carried to the cemetery in internal combustion-powered hearses, clearly. Maybe the hearses will be some form of hybrid, and maybe the hearses’ ICE will simply be a stationary gen set powering elec motors, but that vehicle will still have an ICE on-board.

    That said, let’s get to the best and cheapest solution for fueling those ICEs, since we’ll be using them for a number of decades more, at least. Ethanol isn’t that solution, not for emissions, not for efficiency, not for economics, not for much beyond politics, as far as I can see.

  • avatar

    @yellowduck: why don’t you read that “opinion piece.” Then you’ll see that it’s a very detailed analysis, not an “opinion piece,” and that your second paragraph is wrong. As for your third graph, if you try to fuel the nation’s cars on corn squeezings, you will run out of arable land for crops, fast ,and the price of food will shoot through the roof. If you really wanted to use coal and natural gas to run cars–and the former would be an incredibly polluting way to do so, even assuming that global warming is a bunch of hooey, which I don’t, and that decent batteries are at least 20 years in the future, which I suspect is probable–better to convert the coal to synfuel (which I don’t advocate) and use the natural gas directly.

    As for cellulosic ethanol, it’s got a ways to go yet. (click on “a 2008 study” (which is described in detail–two of them actually–in the article the link takes you to).)

  • avatar

    Here’s the link for Prez O getting outed on the Chrysler 300C
    http://www.thetruthaboutcars.com/the-candidates-choice/

  • avatar

    @crashsled: I haven’t heard that we have significant quantities of oil. All the buzz on significant sources in N. America points to the Canadian tar sands. Far better than major drilling here is to work on technologies to make cars more efficient, which will stretch out whatever oil supplies there happen to be. Quite a bit can probably be done to make ICE more efficient. I wrote about one example here: http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1964884

  • avatar
    97escort

    Neither the post nor any of the comments mention Peak Oil.

    Peak Oil is real. Follow the developments at

    http://www.theoildrum.com/ and learn.

    I regularly defend ethanol from all the false statements made in this post and comments over there so I won’t even try here.

    Ethanol is part of the solution to the Peak Oil dilemma whether you like it or not. It is not going away.

    • 0 avatar
      Truckducken

      Peak oil’s been just a decade or so away for my whole lifetime…while it’s bound to happen eventually, please check out this alternative viewpoint: Squeezing More Oil

      Meanwhile, +1 to the comment above noting that ethanol’s negative impact on fuel economy makes the whole exercise a big circle jerk. I can watch my car’s MPG drop 10% when I run 10% ethanol. But I like my fuel injectors too much to run the experiment very often.

      This mandate is pure Midwestern electoral politics, to the detriment of the air, the soil, the poor, and the whole idea of scientific integrity.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    DH, you’re not paying attention, because we have significant domestic petroleum available, and more discovered daily. Some mentioned above by others in the Datotas, some offshore, and the shale, of course, and then the well known and politically hot-button field up in Alaska. That’s not including the tar sands, which are domestic sources, for all intents and purposes. We’ve got plenty of petroleum, if we want to pull it out, if imports are deemed to be the “problem”.

    I’m always intrigued by potential efficiencies in powertrain technology, and the one you mentioned in your article is definitely intriguing. However, in terms of timing, I’d suggest you take a look at the timelines historically laid down re: fuel injection, VVT, GTDI, catalytic conversion, diesel particulate capture and treatment (this one appears favorable to your cause, at first blush, but Ford’s flamethrower Super Duty indicates a premature deployment), etc. Most of these concepts involved some decades of work, not just years, to implement (and we paid dearly before and during deployment). None brought on anything like a 25% cut/increase in anything (emissions, yes, we made a huge dent here, but emissions ain’t fuel economy), as you’re predicting for this new ethanol spray concept. These concepts got hammered into the mix, with all the attendant costs and inefficiencies. They are not “25%-ers”, by any stretch, and your idea likely isn’t either, until we see something besides MIT benchwork, which benchwork by defiition puts this concept a considerable ways out in the future.

    Look at hybrids. They cost plenty (much of it government cost), are not economical, and are only deployed because… well… I don’t know why they’re deployed. Nice research and development project, good to have a few test mule workhorses out there, but beyond that it’s a loser and the public knows it.

    Unless you’re willing to eat some extra cost, you’ll be driving an ICE vehicle for the rest of your life, and I highly doubt your last vehicle will have a fuel economy rating 25% beyond the one you’re driving today (and much of any increase will come through weight and materials changes, and elimination of mechanical systems and drivetrain, not through changes in the combustion process), and I’ll take your bet on that if you’re willing. No magic bullet here, never has been, and responsible public policy must be wrapped around the realities of automotive engineering, which have always proven to be incremental in nature. Let’s make sure our mainline public policy reflects that reality.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    Less than 2% of the American population is directly involved in farming, so it’s natural there are many misunderstandings.

    Corn is a C4 photosynthesis pathway annual grass. As such, it has high water utilization and photosynthetic efficiency. It produces more long-term storable food at less input than any plant in the mid-latitudes. That’s why it’s been a preferred crop in the Western Hemisphere for 5,000 years. In the American Midwest, it is normally grown in rotation with soybeans, a high protein legume. The vast majority is dryland, that is, non-irrigated. The preferred agronomic methodology today is to use minimum or no till to reduce soil disturbance and retain as much “trash” in the soil as possible.

    The Nixon administration removed production controls and put American farmers on a maximum production program, with the idea that the entire non-domestically needed production could be exported. That didn’t always happen, resulting in large piles of unsold corn rotting on the ground. Ethanol production was introduced as a new value adding process to use up that unsold grain. It converts unwanted feedstock into a desirable, marketable commodity. Every year there are also large quantities of hail and storage damaged corn, much of it contaminated by aflatoxin, that cannot be used as food but can be turned into ethanol. Corn ethanol will not go away. It is the pressure relief valve of Midwestern agriculture.

    The 2008 Science study referred to in the article dealt with the impact of breaking up land in permanent cover and converting it into annual agriculture, not with land that is already in production. There is very little new land being plowed down in the major corn growing areas of the world. A problem with the study is that if its predictions are true, we should have seen a “signal” of this land conversion process in the atmospheric record of the last half of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th when millions of square miles were put to the plow in Russia, North America, Argentina, Brazil and Australia. The only signal in the record comes from the burning of coal.

    E85 has lower energy content than gasoline, but gasoline has lower energy content than diesel, and that fact usually gets little attention. Minnesota State University, Mankato, however, has discovered an interesting synergistic effect. A gasoline-ethanol mix of 20 to 30% results in fuel economy equal or greater than straight gasoline in engines not specifically designed for higher ethanol content. This effect is not present at lower or higher percentages.

    Cellulosic biofuel production is certainly the way to go. Annuals are essentially weeds and require soil disturbance and high fertility and management. Perennial grasses are low fertility, low maintenance crops. Perennials have the potential of producing four times the biomass at one-tenth the input of annuals. I’m a retired native grass seed producer, and switchgrass was one of my cash crops. However, crop selection for farmers is not a simple process. It is dependent on climate, soils, production hardware and expertise, availability of nearby markets, the peculiarities of the farm program, and cash flow. In many ways, farmers are trapped by factors beyond their control. They are in a high risk, low return business and have to operate very cautiously.

    • 0 avatar
      OMG_Shoes

      @fred schumacher:
      “A gasoline-ethanol mix of 20 to 30% results in fuel economy equal or greater than straight gasoline in engines not specifically designed for higher ethanol content. This effect is not present at lower or higher percentages.”

      Mm. So there’s a special kind of magic that manifests when you dilute gasoline with no less than 20 and no more than 30 percent alcohol. What miracle occurs, exactly, to create this something-for-nothing effect? Sorry, but without some pretty substantial corroboration, this result has to be regarded as anomalous, erroneous, or bought-and-paid-for.

    • 0 avatar
      FromBrazil

      —-Minnesota State University, Mankato, however, has discovered an interesting synergistic effect. A gasoline-ethanol mix of 20 to 30% results in fuel economy equal or greater than straight gasoline in engines not specifically designed for higher ethanol content. This effect is not present at lower or higher percentages.—-

      Well this might be true in academia, but in the real world, Brazilian gasoline, crappy as it may be, already receives ethanol into its composition at anywhere between 20 to 30%. And as a rule you get 30% less mileage if you fill up w/ 100% ethanol in the tank than the “baptized” gasoline. (as a personal experience my car gets 75% of the mileage on ethanol than it would get w/ gasoline).

      Now granted, the engines down here are made to get gasoline w/ a minimum of 20% ethanol to 100% ethanol (pretty much the opposite of you said) – except for Renault which can really rum from 100% pure gas to 100% pure ethanol -. And there’s a reason for this. It’s that the computer regulates the ignition point according to how much of which fuel is present (that’s why you can get some bucking when you change fuels as the computer makes a new reading and adjusts the car likewise). But you can’t change the compression ratio and that must always be a compromise as an engine built exclusevely to run on ethanol can have a higher rate that would kill any gasoline-oriented engine.

      Likewise, all car maker engineers came out promising that the new flex engines (a bit of a misnomer as that wold only be true if you could change the compression ratio) would be as economical as their previous gasoline-exclusive engine. The real world has proven that a lie. In the lab there’s no reason as to why, but in the real world, everybody who changes from a gasoline only engine to the new flex fuel engine sees a marked drop in mileage (even in the same models). Maybe the technology will get better, but from where I’m standing ethanol, all else aside, always means less mileage.

  • avatar

    Crash Sled,

    Show me some numbers on oil reserves in the US, in comparison with how much oil we use in a year, and if they are solid and add up, I’ll believe it. As for ICE, I probably will be driving them in my last car because I prefer ICE. More personality. I suspect R&D for better fuel economy ***may*** happen faster than it used to, because the urgency is greater. I do expect my last car will have at least 25% greater fuel economy, and probably double (I get a little over 30 in my Accord on the road–it was better when the car was newer) probably from a variety of factors, lighter weight, better ICE, and other improvements.

    @97escort: Cellulosic etoh ***may*** turn out to be a partial solution. Corn etoh would compete with food, and it requires a lot of petroleum, both to grow the corn and to produce the etoh, so I don’t expect it to go far.

  • avatar
    Roxer

    Forgive my ignorance in this subject, but according to this data:

    http://ehp.niehs.nih.gov/members/2008/116-6/carbonlg.jpg

    Is it not more effecient to use Palm Biodiesel? Seems like the carbon debt is much more feasible than corn ethanol. In that case it would seem apparent why the US would want to keep gasoline on the roads (and why NA has no diesel engines). The money would be kept out of the continent!

  • avatar
    crash sled

    DH, no offense, but I’m not really looking to argue uselessly over what is generally considered to be reality, that we have plenty of crude available domestically, as that is a well-established point. The numbers for oil reserves are out there, and if you were truly interested you could track them down. Check the above guys’ links for the “peak oil” argument… you’ll get both sides I’m sure. I’ll spit something off the top of my head, just to be sociable.

    We use about 20mbpd last time I checked it pre-recession, and import 12mbpd or so, to include the Canadian and Mexican imports, which are all but domestic as you must be aware, particularly the Canadian import fraction, which will rise drastically over the next generation, as you should also know (We’d go shale if they reneged, but they won’t).

    The ANWR deposits alone were hundreds of billions of barrels if I recall. That’s one field, which I then calculated to provide 5% of our needs over a minimum 40-50 year span, or something like that. That’s using current withdrawal methodologies, and these will likely evolve even faster than the ICE combustion concepts you’re discussing here, which have been relatively static it seems to me, until the IT geeks got involved a number of years ago. Fire is fire, you know. And geotechnical understandings have evolved drastically, you know, even as the real evolution in ICE has been calibration and control of the process, not within the process itself. As little as 40 years ago, 10 feet of water made drilling a no-go. The process was incapable, then. Today? They’ll be drilling the Marianas Trench before long, if there’s oil there.

    Our total economic energy efficiency, as measured by $GDP/BTU used, has doubled over the last 30 years (even though auto fuel economy has only barely moved). We’ll make up what we need, as we need it, and no need to force technology into places where it’s not implementation ready, or even required or economical. If energy costs rise, we’ll do what we have to do in response, just as we’ve done these last 30 years… “peak oil” is not a concern and will work itself out, as will our automobiles, if we let it.

    Yes, you’ll be driving an ICE vehicle, but it’s more than just personal preference. It’s cost. It’s common sense. That’s what we should be driving for, always. There’s no “urgency” driving all this, unless you create one artificially. There is only common sense.

  • avatar

    Fred Schumacher: The 2008 Science study referred to in the article dealt with the impact of breaking up land in permanent cover and converting it into annual agriculture, not with land that is already in production. There is very little new land being plowed down in the major corn growing areas of the world. A problem with the study is that if its predictions are true, we should have seen a “signal” of this land conversion process in the atmospheric record of the last half of the 19th century and first quarter of the 20th when millions of square miles were put to the plow in Russia, North America, Argentina, Brazil and Australia. The only signal in the record comes from the burning of coal.

    In fact one of the studies found a 48 year (I think) carbon debt for cropland that had lain fallow for 15 years.

    Re the last sentence: what signal? And did anyone look for it?

  • avatar

    crash sled: 5% of oil over 40-50 year–and my recollection is that’s more of a maximum–is enough to prolong the party for two, or two and a half years.

    You and I probably disagree over the urgency of reducing GHG, but I don’t see any point in arguing that one. I would also be concerned about peak oil if I weren’t concerned about climate disruption.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    ANWR is only 1 (one) field, DH, and that’s not including the technology improvements that will likely increase (double? triple?) the crude from that one field. At the time, the USGS survey I read to come up with those numbers was decades old, so the “hundreds of billions” of barrels I mentioned was based upon that decades old technology. It’s more today, as I’m sure you’d agree.

    You’re right, there’s no need to argue the global warming issue, as it’s (finally) being properly sorted out as we speak, as we introduce something called the scientific method to those who’ve dominated the debate to this point. And yes, it’s been a debate, and nothing like science. Debate has given us the hybrids nobody wants, and debate has also given us the global warming scare, and “peak oil”. In all these cases, it’s time to shed the chicken littlism, and return to basic principles, and common sense.

    Enojoy your ICE vehicle, and I hope your ICE snowblower is functioning today, you’ll need it!

  • avatar
    ZoomZoom

    Yeah, I don’t subscribe to global warming. My frost-killed tropical garden is my evidence.

    As for “peak oil,” I think it has an unfortunate name. But it does make sense that at some point, our finite earth will run out of this finite resource.

    Who knows when this will happen. One thing is sure. The world doubles its consumption with each generation. It stands to reason that we’ll run out very suddenly. And then most of our pollution will stop. As will our ability to grow food and purify water.

    The ensuing rapid depopulation will not be fun to witness, though. I hope I’m not around for that day!

    • 0 avatar
      OMG_Shoes

      “Global warming” is properly called climate change, and it is occurring regardless of whether you subscribe to it or not. Your frost-killed tropical garden is evidence of the weather, not the climate.

  • avatar
    crash sled

    ZZ, I disagree thqt we’ll suddenly run out of oil. It’ll be a drawn out process, much like the Oglalla acquifer I mentioned earlier, which will likely drop to irrecoverable levels over the next century or less. Slowly, over time, the pumps used to drain that acquifer will require greater and greater amounts of energy to draw up the water. It will get more and more expensive, and consumers will slowly fall away, seek other sources, or simply stop using. That process has been well underway for some time now. Will the lower Midwest turn back into Hemingway’s dust bowl? I doubt it, but those lovely green fields will likely be gone, and move back here to idled crop land here in the Great Lakes!

    And so with crude oil, we’ll see a similar process. As the price rises, we’ll go back to abandoned fields and draw up more and more out of previously depleted fields. But it will cost, and this cost will drive folks over to other energy sources.

    I can’t foresee the apocalypse that you mention. We’ll manage this process, same as we always have managed our energy requirements, and we’ll likely see some efficiency improvements, if not of the scale of the last 30 years. Build nukes and churn out electricity, and pump it into those crummy lithium ion car batteries, if we must, and haven’t come up with an improvement by then, but presumably well will as it’s 100+ years away. Watch the price, it’s what will tell.

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    Re: Minnesota State University, Mankato study of E20 to E30

    I learned this at a presentation given by MSU Auto Science professor Bruce Jones a year ago. He’s not completely sure what is going on, but it apparently has to do with ethanol’s high octane (around 108) that allows for more spark advance and more efficient burn. An engine specifically designed for ethanol could run higher compression ratios, which would increase efficiency, or higher turbo boost creating a virtual higher compression ratio. You get something when you increase efficiency. Note that Wartsila marine diesel engines now run over 50% thermal efficiency, same as fuel cells.

    Re: signal of 19th century land breakup for farming.

    An indication of the 2008 study on the effect of land breakup on GHG emissions should be seen in the huge conversion of grasslands into farmland a century ago (including the Midwest corn belt). If the effect is as powerful as claimed, temperatures should have risen more than they did. But when atmospheric data is looked at, the only “signal” that comes through is the increase of CO2 directly connected to the increased use of coal. I don’t know of any scientist that has yet tested the 2008 study by correlating it to atmospheric history.

    Farmers are quite interested in carbon sequestration. After all, this could be a new revenue stream for them. Modern farming methods try to retain as much organic matter in the soil as possible. That is why you’ll be hard pressed to find a moldboard plow in use any more. Perennial grass biomass crops would be even bigger sequesterers of carbon. Studies at University of Illinois, Urbana Champaign show a sequestration rate of four tons of carbon per acre per year on their Miscanthus giganteus fields, without any fertilizer or irrigation water input.

    • 0 avatar
      FromBrazil

      Mr. Schumacher, not to doubt you or the professor it seems that a turbo would create a virtually higher compression rate? Did I understand correctly?Ok, I would buy that, and it makes sense. Theoretically.

      Now, adding a little turbo (say 0.8 bar and that would add what? 100 USD to the price of a mass produced car?) to a 1.0L engine that burns both fuels seems like a very “simple” solution for a very hard compromise that must be made. Again, don’t you think that Bosch and Magnetti Marelli, the two major suppliers of the fuel management systems to Brazilian and other car makers that make engines that run on both fuels would have hit on that? Maybe not, but there would seem to be some glitch here, as fuel economy (second to price) is the main selling point down here. Again, I think if this was feasible and costs were low, the makers down here would jump at it as it would give them a very major selling point.

      As the ex-president of Citroen Brazil, Sérgio Habib said, “flex cars are like ducks. They don’t fly well, they don’t run well, they don’t swim well.” What he meant is that they’re a major compromise. If you want max economy stick to gas or diesel. If you want more performance or “greeness” stick to ethanol. But it is a big stretch (at least until now) to say you can have it all. Ethanol means higher consumption.

  • avatar
    Robbie

    As far as I can see (I am a Ph.D. Economist), the ethanol subsidies are completely irrational. Using taxpayer money to produce ethanol domestically – instead of buying cheap oil on the world market – is only sensible if we should face a situation of possible supply disruption. Does it make economic sense to grow broccoli expensively in your back yard when you could buy it cheaply at Walmart?

    There is a world market for oil out there, with diverse suppliers and producers who are economically dependent on the buyers. The risk of supply disruption is zero. What is going on here is that a strong agricultural subsidy lobby is cashing in on irrational xenophobia brought about by 9/11.

    • 0 avatar
      ihatetrees

      As far as I can see (I am a Ph.D. Economist), the ethanol subsidies are completely irrational. Using taxpayer money to produce ethanol domestically – instead of buying cheap oil on the world market – is only sensible if we should face a situation of possible supply disruption.

      From my school daze, I remember a debate about whether “Free Trade” was hurting the US. Many economics students refused to attend – likening it to debating whether the earth was flat.

      On the other hand, I’m sympathetic to a floor price for imported oil into the US in order to encourage domestic production. Supply could be an issue – although you make a good point about oil suppliers needing our markets perhaps more than we need theirs. The ‘welfare states’ of the middle eastern oil countries are under some strain.

  • avatar

    >>>If the effect is as powerful as claimed, temperatures should have risen more than they did. But when atmospheric data is looked at, the only “signal” that comes through is the increase of CO2 directly connected to the increased use of coal. I don’t know of any scientist that has yet tested the 2008 study by correlating it to atmospheric history.

    I don’t see how they could distinguish co2 increases due to coal from those due to conversion of farmlands.

  • avatar
    vento97

    claiming that its substitution for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

    Translation: It’s substitution for gasoline will INCREASE the taxpayer money giveaway to the corporate corn lobby boondoggle (Monsanto, ADM, and others)..

  • avatar
    fred schumacher

    I seem to have started a minor firestorm here, but that is good. I frequently find myself having to explain agriculture from the Neolithic Revolution 10,000 year ago to the present. If there are any other farmers out there, please join in.

    The ethanol subsidy is given to blenders, not farmers. Farmer subsidies consist of target price support, if commodity prices are below a set point, subsidized crop insurance, and disaster aid. None of these are connected to ethanol, per se. They are available for “Program Crops,” such as corn, wheat, soybeans, barley, and a few others.

    For farmers, ethanol is a marketing, not production, decision. It is only one of many outlets for selling a crop.

    Other primary outlets are the local grain elevator, livestock feeding operation, feed mills, and processing plants. Putting corn through a hog or through an ethanol plant is the same thing: it’s value added processing. The residues of ethanol processing also have value. In fact, distillers grains, the high protein solid matter left over, is a highly valuable cattle feed, better than raw corn, and provides 60% of the total cattle feed value of the unprocessed corn. That makes ethanol processing a two-for.

    Since most corn is grown in a year by year rotation with soybeans, and since the world demand for soybeans is huge, stopping an ethanol subsidy to blenders will not change corn acreages substantially. Growing beans on beans or corn on corn is a high risk methodology, inviting plant diseases and insect infestation. It can be done for one year but cannot be maintained.

    Present agricultural subsidies go back to the Nixon Administration and are a result of the decision by the federal government to actively reduce grain prices to encourage export trade. In return, farmers are partially supported through periods of very low prices.

    The primary mechanism to accomplish this is the Commodity Credit Corporation loan rate, which establishes the value of a commodity as collateral for an operating loan and operates as a farmers’ minimum wage. CCC loan rates have steadily dropped, in constant dollars. If the federal minimum wage were to have kept pace with the CCC loan rate, it would now be at around $2 an hour. The primary subsidy flow in agriculture has been from farmer to consumer, through low commodity prices, with a much smaller backflow from government to farmer.

    Note: high grain prices of a few years ago, the result of out of control commodity trading by entities not materially involved in commodities (made possible by the Enron Exemption), were not as high as average prices, when measured in constant dollars, in the two decades prior to the Nixon Administration. This shows the power of the CCC loan rate.

    As regards the green house gas emissions effect of plowing up grasslands, I think part of the problem in the discrepancy between lab studies and historical atmospheric data is that only the top six inches of soil is turned over and used for farming. However, the carbon sequestering layer underneath perennial grasses extends six to twelve feet. That stays essentially undisturbed, and the carbon remains tied up. Underground carbon storage is very stable. I agree that farming does increase production of shorter lived greenhouse gasses such as nitrous oxide and methane, but that would be the case whether the crop is consumed as food or fuel.

    Modern farming methods work toward retaining as high as possible a quantity of organic matter in the soil, through minimum and no till methodologies. It now takes only 50 pounds of diesel fuel to produce 10,000 pounds of corn (of course there are other energy requirements in addition). The amount of organic matter remaining in the actively farmed area of soil is dependent on climate and soil type. I’ve farmed on both sand and silty clay and the difference is astounding.

    We have had several recent events of large scale grassland conversion to farmland: the mid-20th century New Lands project in Kazakhstan and Western Siberia; plowdown of Soil Bank lands in the U.S. during the Nixon years; conversion of the Sertao in Brazil to soybean production in the last decade. We should be able to “ground proof” the lab data to these historical events. This would make an excellent dissertation research topic.

    While the rain forest gets a lot of attention, the largest GHG release happening right now is being nearly totally ignored, and that is the breakdown of boreal forest soils in Siberia and Canada due to scarification and exposure to sunlight as a result of logging. The largest terrestrial carbon sink on the planet is boreal soils (not trees), which sequester carbon through anoxia and acidity. Logging is allowing oxygen to enter and also methane to be released.

    I’d like to add one more note regarding automotive ethanol use here in Minnesota. There are now many stations (mostly in rural areas and operated by cooperatives) with pumps that allow custom blending of ethanol/gas mixtures. It would be interesting to gather real world data on blends other than E10 or E85. Sounds like a great grad student thesis. Any takers?


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