Better To Burn Than To Brew Ethanol

Coming on the heals of the EPA and CARB decisions, to include all production emissions when evaluating biofuels, a new study from the Carnegie Institution's Department of Global Ecology says that it may be better to burn crops than turn them into biofuels. The UN has reported that world food prices are rising due to competition with government subsidized biofuel programs. Combined with new concerns over nitrous oxide production from agricultural crops, this may signal the death of America's foolish foray into crop based ethanol.

Writing in the online edition of Science, researchers report that the best use of biomass is to convert it to electricity, rather than ethanol. They calculate that, compared with ethanol used for internal combustion engines, bioelectricity used for battery-powered vehicles delivers more miles of transportation per acre of crops. As we previously reported, the amount of nitrous oxide released by farming biofuel crops such as corn or rape offsets any advantage offered by reduced emissions of CO2. Directly burning biomass to make heat for electrical generation provides double the greenhouse gas offsets compared with turning it into ethanol.

The catch, of course, is having electric vehicles (such as plugin hybrids) to use the electricity. According to the paper's abstract:

Biomass could power either internal combustion or electric vehicles, but the relative land-use efficiency of these two energy pathways is not well quantified. Here, we show that bioelectricity outperforms ethanol across a range of feedstocks, conversion technologies, and vehicle classes. Bioelectricity produces an average 81% more transportation kilometers and 108% more emissions offsets per unit area cropland than cellulosic ethanol. These results suggest that alternative bioenergy pathways have large differences in how efficiently they use the available land to achieve transportation and climate goals.

The numbers cannot be denied. “It's a relatively obvious question once you ask it, but nobody had really asked it before,” says Dr. Chris Field, director of the Department of Global Ecology at the Carnegie Institution and the study's co-author. “The kinds of motivations that have driven people to think about developing ethanol as a vehicle fuel have been somewhat different from those that have been motivating people to think about battery electric vehicles, but the overlap is in the area of maximizing efficiency and minimizing adverse impacts on climate.”

Field, who is also a professor of biology at Stanford University and a senior fellow at Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, is part of a research team that includes lead author Elliott Campbell of the University of California, and David Lobell of Stanford's Program on Food Security and the Environment. Using publicly available data on vehicle efficiencies from the US Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations, the researchers analyzed total life-cycle energy and emissions costs for both bioelectricity and ethanol technologies. The life-cycle analysis took into account not only the energy produced by each technology, but also the energy consumed in producing the vehicles and fuels.

There are other applications that need electrical power and the idea of burning biomass, wood in particular, has been catching on in Europe and the US. A number of wood-burning power plants have been built or are being proposed in New England, encouraged by government incentives and environmentalists who are pushing wood and other sources of biomass as a renewable, eco-friendly substitute for fossil fuels. Not long ago, the Economist reported that Public Service of New Hampshire, the state’s largest electric utility, successfully tested a novel fuel mixture for one of its electricity-generating boilers: coal mixed with cocoa-bean shells.

The test used 36,000 pounds (16,400kg) of bean shells, which came from Europe by way of Lindt USA. A subsidiary of Lindt & Sprüngli of Switzerland, Lindt USA operates a plant in nearby Stratham. The shells, which have a thermal value similar to that of wood, were mixed with coal in a 1-to-33 ratio and reportedly burned nicely. From coco bean shells to forest thinings, burning biomass for co-generation (producing both electricity and heat) is taking off. But like wind farms and massive solar arrays, wood-burning plants can spark fierce local opposition.

On a more personal scale, some people are even using corn burning furnaces to heat their homes. I have an Aunt and Uncle who heat their Pennsylvanian farm house with corn. They report that the house stays cozy and the corn furnace burns cleaner than oil. Two reasons corn is so attractive as a heat source are that dry shelled corn is easily handled and supplies are plentiful in farm country. Shelled corn also has a high heat energy per unit weight. Here's how shelled corn measures up to other solid fuels.

Shelled Corn 7000 BTU/lb (16,200 kJ/kg) at 15% Moisture Content
Straw 6550 BTU/lb (15,200 kJ/kg)
Air Dried Corn Stover 7540 BTU/lb (17,500 kJ/kg)
Air Dried Wood 8000 BTU/lb (18,500 kJ/kg) Air Dried

As can be see from this table, shelled corn has heat energy close to that of wood. Unfortunately, the price of corn has been rising due to demand from the heavily subsidized corn based ethanol industry, and there lies the rub—the biggest impediments to using biomass effectively are government funded renewable energy programs.

The analysis is clear: while cellulose is less harmful than corn, burning either to make electricity is better than turning them into biofuel. So why are the Obama Administration and members of the US Congress still strongly backing subsidies for corn based ethanol? Politics, pure and simple. They claim to be green but it is concern over votes that matter, votes and the heeding the voices of lobbyists like Democrat insider Wesley Clark. So the politicians continue to pander and the lobbyists lie, but the science is becoming clearer and clearer: when it comes to corn, it is better to burn than to brew ethanol.

Be safe, enjoy the interglacial and stay skeptical.

I like it!

Well, these sort of bio fuel demands will be good for home brew shop owners like me, who will suddenly find themselves with tonnes of fuel in their stock cupboards!

The technology (works better

The technology (works better with genetic engineering) begins to exist to transform cellulose, including from lawn, into ethanol.

But then, have a look at the lawn surface needed to move your car. This is the very basic limitation to biofuels. With very productive plants like corn, Earth has too little area to grow biofuels at the pace we burn fuels.

It may sound a bit surprising as we use to praise food more than grass or wood or algae, but wheat or maize or sugar cane actually produce more organic material over identical areas and time than grass or woods do. Look at a field, it's densely packed with organic material (and even: food) thigh-high or shoulder-high, year after year. Other plants can't compete.

So the idea would rather be to take advantage of Earth's areas that are bigger and aren't used to grow food. Very interesting trials involve growing selected algae in the Ocean and extract oil from them. Or grow algae in deserts, feeding them with seawater (California, Neguev, Atacama, Namib... are all near the Ocean). In some cases, algae would be in transparent containers, reducing water needs.

This certainly doesn't preclude making use of taking advantage of existing plant waste like mown lawn or wood chips, and much research is invested in it - but don't hope to fulfill all Mankind's needs with it.

By the way, heating houses with wood chips is another way of extracting value from waste. Perfectly efficient, simpler than converting to ethanol, and though not very widespread.

Other proposal: collect all mown lawn to feed cows, and eat youself the spared soya and maize. Or transform them into ethanol.


The Great Ethanol Scam

Now, on top of everything else that's bad about ethanol, comes a new warning from Ed Wallace at Business Week, who says "Not only is ethanol proving to be a dud as a fuel substitute but there is increasing evidence that it is destroying engines in large numbers." Quoting from the article:

First, the primary job of the Environmental Protection Agency is, dare it be said, to protect our environment. Yet using ethanol actually creates more smog than using regular gas, and the EPA's own attorneys had to admit that fact in front of the justices presiding over the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in 1995 (API v. EPA).

Second, truly independent studies on ethanol, such as those written by Tad Patzek of Berkeley and David Pimentel of Cornell, show that ethanol is a net energy loser. Other studies suggest there is a small net energy gain from it.

Third, all fuels laced with ethanol reduce the vehicle's fuel efficiency, and the E85 blend drops gas mileage between 30% and 40%, depending on whether you use the EPA's fuel mileage standards ( or those of the Dept. of Energy.

Fourth, forget what biofuels have done to the price of foodstuffs worldwide over the past three years; the science seems to suggest that using ethanol increases global warming emissions over the use of straight gasoline. Just these issues should have kept ethanol from being brought back for its fourth run in American history.

If that is not enough, it seems that putting ethanol in your engine is a really bad idea. Ethanol ruins fuel pumps, melts plastic parts and causes severe carbon buildup. Repairs can cost $1000 or more. And ethanol lobbyist, ex-general Wesley Clark wants the Congress to mandate an increase from 10% to 15%. People, we need to wake up soon, and drive these duplicitous eco-busybodies back to the fringes of society they came from. Global warming won't kill off mankind, but these fools won't stop until we are living in caves.

The EPA's assessment

The EPA's assessment mentioned in this article is open for 60 days for public comment. It is interesting to note that, on the day of the announcement, Secretary of Energy Steven Chu announced that $786 million in stimulus funding for advanced biofuels and expansion of commercial biorefineries. Looks like the left hand of the Obama Administration doesn't know what the right hand is doing.

IEEE Spectrum has published

IEEE Spectrum has published an online article covering the same report titled Burning Biomass to Charge Electric Vehicles Beats Fueling Cars with Ethanol. They quote J. Elliott Campbell as saying there is no level of efficiency for converting biomass to ethanol achievable in the near future where bioelectricity-powered EVs don’t win.