Corn-Based Ethanol: Is This a Solution?

Many people have high hopes for ethanol made from corn--that it will prevent future gasoline shortages, prevent global warming, be a wonderful investment, and improve the income of farmers, among other things. Other observers raise a whole host of concerns including scalability, impact on the environment, and impact on food prices. Why is there such a huge disparity in views? What is the real promise for corn ethanol? Many questions and answers under the fold.

1. Why don't we see more stations selling E85 (85% ethanol/15% gasoline mixture)?

In 2006, about 20% of the US corn crop was used to produce ethanol. Even with this huge share of the corn crop, US corn-based ethanol amounted to only about 3.5% of the US gasoline supply by volume, and 2.4% of the supply by energy contribution.

Gasoline with and without ethanol

Even if all the corn-based ethanol that was produced were used as E85, there would not be many gasoline stations selling E85. In fact, only a very small portion of the corn ethanol that is produced is used to make E85 -- the remainder is used as a fuel additive, in concentrations up to 10% of the gasoline.

2. Why is so much ethanol used as a gasoline additive?

There are two reasons:

a. E85 isn't very popular. The fuel is quite corrosive, and only a small percentage of cars that have been specially manufactured (or adapted) can use it. E85 is also quite expensive for the energy it provides. It is often priced similarly to gasoline, but gets about 25% worse mileage.

b. MTBE is being phased out, and ethanol can be used as a substitute. Until recently, methyl tertiary-butyl ether (MTBE) was used as a gasoline additive, to raise octane of gasoline and to make fuel burn more cleanly. MTBE does not biodegrade and often gets into the ground water, where it gives a bad taste and smell. Furthermore, laboratory tests suggest it may cause cancer. MTBE was banned in some states, and is being phased out in other states because of liability concerns.

Ethanol can be used as a substitute for MTBE. The amount of ethanol needed as an MTBE substitute is huge -- roughly equal to the 5 billion gallons of corn based ethanol produced in 2006. With so much ethanol used as a substitute for MTBE, there is very little left over for E85. One advantage of using ethanol as an additive is that in concentrations up to 10%, it can be used in any car without modification.

3. How does ethanol compare to MTBE as a gasoline additive?

Ethanol is clearly better than MTBE in one regard -- Ethanol biodegrades well, so there is no issue with it contaminating the ground water.

In other regards, ethanol's score is mixed. Ethanol makes gasoline somewhat cleaner burning, so it helps oil companies meet emission standards.

There are several areas in which ethanol is not as good as MTBE:

a. Ethanol, when blended with gasoline, tends to evaporate in summer, causing smog. This tendency can be partly overcome by modifying the gasoline base to which it is added.

b. Ethanol needs to be shipped separately from gasoline. Because of its corrosive nature and tendency to combine with water, ethanol needs a separate truck/barge/train shipping system (or a dedicated pipeline, but this would be very expensive). MTBE can simply be added to gasoline at the refinery, and shipped by pipeline.

c. MTBE acted as a US-produced non-petroleum gasoline extender. While it may seem strange, ethanol is not as good as MTBE in this role. MTBE (made from natural gas) was relatively plentiful, and could be added in quantities up to 15% to gasoline as required. Ethanol is less available, and can only be mixed to a concentration of 10% of gasoline. Adjustments must also be made to the gasoline base, in order to minimize ethanol smog problems.

4. What kind of impacts did the US Energy Information Administration (EIA) expect when oil companies phased out MTBE and increased the use of ethanol as an additive?

The EIA expected that phasing out MTBE and substituting ethanol would tend to decrease the amount of gasoline available and raise prices, as discussed in this report. It would also somewhat negatively impact air quality.

Currently, most ethanol is used between the months of May and September. It seems likely that the use of ethanol during this time-period contributes to the higher gasoline prices experienced in recent summers.

5. To what extent can the production of corn-based ethanol be increased?

We are currently using 20% of the corn produced in the United States to produce ethanol. Under the most optimistic scenarios, this amount could be tripled, to the equivalent of 60% of our 2006 corn production. At this production level, corn-based ethanol would replace about 10% of the volume (or about 7.2% of the energy content) of the US gasoline supply. This is still not very much, and there are serious questions whether this optimistic production level can in fact be reached.

If this level of production can be reached, the full amount of corn-based ethanol produced could be used as a fuel additive (as the 10% level), with no ethanol left over for E85.

6. What impact does corn-based ethanol have on global warming gasses?

Many people believe that using ethanol from corn would greatly reduce the emission of gasses implicated in global warming. This belief is based on the observation that if a corn plant grew, and then was burned, without any fossil fuel inputs or fertilizer, there would be no net gain in global warming gasses. This is because the carbon dioxide released in the burning of the plant would be offset by the carbon dioxide absorbed by the plant while the plant was growing.

This simplistic model is not correct for the production of corn-based ethanol because fossil fuels are used in the growing of corn and the production of ethanol, and these contribute to global warming gasses. Nitrogen used in fertilizer also tends to produce nitrous oxide, which is 300 times as potent a global warming gas as carbon dioxide.

There are also secondary impacts -- for example, increasing US corn production is likely to result in less US soybean production. If this occurs, Brazil, the largest producer of soybeans, is likely to increase its soybean production. Space for this increased Brazilian production is likely to be obtained by cutting down rain forests, which will tend to increase global warming gasses.

One review of the impact of ethanol on global warming gasses found "ambiguous" indications, with some studies indicating small increases, and others indicating small decreases. The authors' best estimate was a 13% decrease relative to the emissions made by gasoline. This implies that burning ethanol still contributes to global warming gasses -- but to a slightly smaller extent than gasoline.

7. What other biological/ environmental impacts does the production of corn-based ethanol have?

Huge use of water. Approximately 4 gallons of water are used for every gallon of ethanol produced. Water use is much greater if irrigation is required. If ethanol production is in an arid region, non-renewable aquifers may be drawn down.

Increased soil erosion. Even when corn is grown using the latest “no till” methods on flat land, there is some soil erosion. The amount of erosion increases if land in hilly or low-lying areas is tilled. Since soil regenerates very slowly, soil loss is a serious concern.

More fertilizer use. Nitrogen fertilizer use is associated with increased global warming gasses and its run-off causes "dead" areas in the sea. Nitrogen fertilizer is made from natural gas, which is is in declining supply in North America. In the future, we will depend more and more on foreign imports of nitrogen fertilizer.

More herbicide and pesticide use. Causes pollution problems. Also, since these are made from oil and natural gas, future supply is likely to depend on imports.

8. To what extent does the use of corn-based ethanol reduce fossil fuel use?

Studies vary in the extent to which the extent to which corn-based ethanol can be expected to reduce fossil fuel use, depending on how the corn is grown, and the "boundaries" considered in the analyses. Some studies show that more fossil fuel energy is used in the production of ethanol than is provided in the ethanol produced. Other studies show a small net gain - typically about 20% of the fossil fuel inputs. Thus, the ratio of energy output to fossil fuel input is about 1.2 to 1.0.

One concern is that this net gain is much lower than for many other liquid fuel sources. For oil produced from wells, typically 15 gallons of oil are produced for each gallon of fossil fuel used in production. For ethanol from sugar cane produced in Brazil, the net energy gain is about 8 or 9 to 1. For most types of biodiesel, the net gain is about 2.0 and 3.0 to 1.0. Thus, even when the best planting areas are available, ethanol from corn appears to be inefficient compared to other liquid fuels.

9. Does it matter whether there is a net energy loss in the production of corn-based ethanol -– that is, it takes more fossil fuel energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol itself produces?

Some argue that we need liquid fuels, and we have large amounts of coal and natural gas, so it does not matter if we use an inefficient way of converting these fuels to a liquid form. Thus, having a net energy loss is the production of corn-based ethanol is OK.

This argument is wrong for two reasons. First, our fossil fuels are much more limited than most people believe. Natural gas is in especially short supply. If we use large amount of natural gas for ethanol production, we risk shortages for other purposes, including electrical production and home heating. We also drive up the price of natural gas.

Second, using large amounts of fossil fuels to produce ethanol is likely to exacerbate global warming. One argument for using ethanol is that it (hopefully) reduces fossil fuel use, and thus produces less carbon dioxide, which contributes to global warming. If instead of decreasing fossil fuel use, it really increases fossil fuel use, the effect is reversed – more carbon dioxide is produced, rather than less.

10. To what extent does corn-based ethanol replace imported foreign oil?

As discussed above, ethanol in the quantity produced today is almost exclusively a replacement for MTBE. MTBE is made from natural gas, and was primarily US produced. Thus, what we are doing is replacing one US produced item with a more expensive US produced item. Since some diesel fuel is used in the production of ethanol, one might argue that we may even be slightly increasing our use of foreign oil.

11. What economic impact does corn-based ethanol have?

Since at this point we are replacing one US-made product (MTBE) with a more expensive US-made product performing a similar function, the basic impact is inflationary. We are reducing the amount of corn available for export abroad, so we are most likely making our balance of payments worse. It is not clear that there is any savings on the amount of petroleum needed to be imported from overseas.

The price of corn, and in fact many food products, is expected to increase with the greater use of corn ethanol. This tends to raise the income of farmers. Costs to farmers are also expected to rise, as the price of land rises and the cost of other inputs, such as fertilizer and fuel oil, rise. Consumers are likely to have to pay more for food products, so this transfers more of their wealth to those producing food.

The overall effect is expected to be a slightly lower standard of living for Americans, because a less efficient approach is being used to produce a fuel additive. Resources which might have been used for goods with higher value to consumers are now being devoted to ethanol production. There will be some transfer of wealth among groups, with farmers and ethanol producers perhaps being winners.

12. Is there a possibility of a better economic outcome, if the production of corn-based ethanol is greatly expanded?

It is not clear that corn production can be greatly expanded, without harmful impacts. At this point, nearly all of the land that can reasonably be used for corn without undesirable impacts is already being used for that purpose. To increase corn production, one or more of the following approaches are likely:

Grow corn on land that needs to be irrigated. Result: more fossil fuel energy used than obtained from ethanol; may deplete aquifers.

Grow corn on hill sides, or on other areas subject to erosion. Result: soil loss; not sustainable.

Grow corn without crop rotation. Result: much more fertilizer used; more fossil fuel energy used than obtained from ethanol. Soybean production shifted overseas, resulting in increased imports of soybeans.

Even if expansion of corn production is accomplished, it is not clear that it can be maintained for long. The amount of natural gas available is expected to decline in the next few years, making fertilizer less available, and reducing the fuel available for producing ethanol.

If ethanol expansion occurs, transportation of the ethanol is also a question. Existing train/rail/barge systems are being strained with the current volume of ethanol. Significant investment in infrastructure may be needed if much larger volumes of ethanol are produced.

13. There are a number of new approaches to producing corn-based ethanol, using more renewable energy in the production of ethanol (such as methane from waste products or wind energy). What role do these efforts play in corn-based ethanol's future?

These efforts are to be applauded. To the extent that they are successful, they can perhaps be substituted for some of the natural gas and coal used in producing ethanol today. The use of the renewable fuels in ethanol production will tend to give corn-based ethanol a more positive energy balance and will reduce the use of fossil fuels. Some of these efforts may prove to be cost-effective as well.

It is not clear that these new methods will have a significant impact on the total amount of ethanol that will produced. Current ethanol production seems to be guided by a government plan to increase production to the maximum amount which can produced. This maximum amount apprars to be governed by factors such as the amount of corn that can be grown and the amount of transportation that is available for the final product. Whether or not it is economic to produce fuel in this way does not seem to enter into the decision.

14. What do recent analyses say about expanding ethanol production?

There recently have been two major studies looking at the question of expanding biofuels, one by the Congressional Research Service for Congress and one by the United Nations. Both urge caution in the expansion of biofuels because of the likelihood of unintended consequences. The Congressional Research Service Report looked specifically at the issue of ethanol from corn; the UN report report looked at biofuels more generally.

One concern raised in the Congressional Research Service Report is that corn-based ethanol is likely to be quite variable in supply, depending upon the weather. Thus, if we expand corn-based ethanol production, we will be exchanging the variability associated with foreign oil with the variability associated with weather.

15. Is there any reason why corn-based ethanol should continue to receive tax subsidies?

No. Corn-based ethanol does not appear to have any particular advantage over other biofuels, and it is questionable whether it can be significantly expanded without adverse consequences. If other types of biofuels make more economic sense, they should be given a level playing field. Corn-ethanol will continue to be produced if it makes economic sense, without tax subsidies. The subsidies in place currently benefit the corporations that produce ethanol, with little benefit for individual farmers.

One potential disadvantage of removing tax subsidies is that this may tend to raise the price of gasoline at the pump. If higher prices encourage consumers to conserve fuel and companies to explore other types of biofuels, the higher prices may in fact be an advantage.

To Learn More

Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, "Ethanol and Biofuels: Agriculture, Infrastructure and Market Restraints Related to Expanded Production"

Supply Impacts of an MTBE Ban, US Energy Information Agency

Refining 101: Summer Gasoline, Robert Rapier on

Discussion Questions

1. Read the section in Robert Rapier's Refining 101 article about Senator Diane Feinstein's campaign to limit ethanol blending in California, because of smog problems. Would you side with Senator Feinstein or the Environmental Protection Agency? Why?

2. How would the market be different today, if, instead of providing subsidies only for corn ethanol, subsidies had been provided over the years for any type of biofuel, including potato based ethanol, diesel from soybeans, and any other type of biofuel considered?

3. How would the market be different today, if no subsidies had been provided for any type of biofuel?

4. Does it ever make sense for the government to select one "winner", such as corn ethanol, for subsidies?

5. Suppose the government taxes gasoline, but not biofuels. What is likely to happen to government revenue if gasoline production declines and biofuel use increases? Would this make public officials happy or unhappy? Is there any way of avoiding this problem?

This is a good review, thanks Gail. The only thing I would add is that there is another potential change coming in the economics, since there is work going on to improve the yield of corn per acre, with numbers that go to more than double current yields being quoted (ethanol conference in St Louis last year).

there is work going on to improve the yield of corn per acre, with numbers that go to more than double current yields being quoted

I find this very hard to believe - my biology professor told me (I cant get him on phone this am) that some of modern crops , especially corn, are approaching maximum theoretical yields. Im sure we could increase the yield, but a doubling sounds farfetched - any corn geneticists in the room?

Not a corn geneticist, just a corn producer. A generation ago the corn yield contest winners were producing 200 bushel corn, good corn ground was raising 100 bu/acre, and the national average was probably 80 bushel per acre.

Today, the contest winners are raising 400 bushel corn, good corn ground is raising 200 bu/acre, and the national average is about 150 bushel per acre.

Also, I have heard that corn has been pushed as high as 800 in the lab..

Ethanol is not the silver bullet to peak oil, probably no more than a couple of B.B.'s, but the amount of disinformation and negative press on this site is astounding. I realize there is a ton of knowledge here, but very little with much connection to agriculture, or life "down on the farm".

In general, water issues are very, very real, but they have nothing to do with ethanol and everything to do with landowners having long-term water rights to a supply that is rapidly shrinking -- the transition back to dryland production will happen, and result in less corn.. ethanol or not..

The soil erosion, conservatoin issues are severly overblown. Sure, there is some farmers who are poor stewards of the land, but they increasingly are the ones exicing farming. Most successful farmers realize the land is their livelihood and take very good care of it.. (Witness the rise in no-till where appropriate... with no government mandate telling us we HAD to.)

Most reasonable senario -- the areas of the country with productive land resources will be energy AND food exporters as fossil fuels tighten -- although that may not be ethanol!

do you know the incremental yield on irrigated crops vs dry land farming, on average?

irrigation was a big part of the paper a colleague and I have pending publication called "Burning Water - The Energy Return on Water Invested" - using irrigated water numbers, the best biofuels required 10 times the water input as the most water intensive fossil fuel. But I couldnt find much data on large scale dryland farming, that also included fertilizers, pesticides, etc.

I don't know about an average. Clearly, there are quite a few places where the yield would be zero without irrigation, and can be quite good with irrigation.

I found this Colorado USDA publication. It says that in 2005 in Colorado, the average yield of irrigated corn was 184.0 bushels per acre, while the average yield of the dryland corn was 38.5 bushels per acre.

That is right – corn crop yields have been rising at 2 percent annually for decades. And Monsanto has the gene guys on it now. Meanwhile, farm inputs per output have been shrinking for decades. In other words, much like manufacturing, we are getting more and more out of farmers all the time.
The E3 guys say they are targeting 5-1 positive energy returns, by burning cattle dung and corn stalks to make ethanol. The leftover distillers grain is fed to the cows. If crop yields keep rising, it is reasonable to expect high single digit positive energy returns (say, 7 to 1) from ethanol, within 10 years, from the best ethanol plants. (I still say pig-potato plantsare next, as there are a lot more calories per acre of potatoes than corn, and pigs convert to meat faster than cows).
I wish for a better crop than corn, but we have 26 corn state Senators. Given the remarkable ability of US farmers to glut any market, ethanol seems okay. Remember, corn crop yields are up 40 percent in the last 20 years. Much acreage was left fallow. If yields rise another 40 percent in the next 20 years, and just 20 percent more acreage is put into production, we get 1.2 x 1.4= 68 percent hike in corn output, using roughly the same amount of land we did in 1980.
Not so bad, and farmers actually make money for a change.

Meanwhile, farm inputs per output have been shrinking for decades.

Benjamin, that's a broad statement that you should back up with some hard data. I made a quick plot of US fertilizer consumption vs corn yield for the years 1961 to 2002 and, at a glance, the two are pretty well correlated. I didn't have the best of data. All I had was gross fertilizer consumption -- in other words, not specifically what was applied to corn. The data though, don't seem to support your contention that unit input per unit output is shrinking.

What my plot does show is that until the early eighties, US fertilizer usage was rising more rapidly than avg per ac corn yield, but since that time the two look to be more closely correlated.

Keep in mind, too, that when talking of putting idled agricultural lands back into production, any farmer is not going to take his best land out of production. If he/she takes land out of production, it will be the marginal land -- that which yields less output per unit input than the best land.

Right on. What industrial farmers call "soil." is really just dirt. it is a dead medium in which crops are essentially grown hydroponically w/ fertilizer. Genetics only increases the ability of the crop to utilize more nutrients but not increase the "efficiency" of the crop. There is no way to get something for nothing in this game. THis whole type of farming has no future long-term.

Good point. Even if the soil doesn't erode via physical removal (ie. soil erosion), it still erodes by consumption of organic material by the plant or microbes, etc. Fertilizer does not add organic material to the soil.

I see this clearly on my own land between the areas previously used to grow wheat and pasture. The cultivated area is dead and reduced to clay, you could use it to build adobe style buildings; whereas the uncultivated areas are loose, dark and crumbly in comparison. Modern farming methods have destroyed the topsoil, fait accompli, for anyone looking it is black and white, no yes, buts or perhaps.

Modern farming destroys the soil. Producing biofuels destroys the soil without producing food, which is doubly destructive. It is possibly the most stupid thing humans have ever done, in a long list of really stupid things.

I have absolutely no qualms about the production and use of biodiesel done in a sustainable way. This also absolutely negates any possible argument for their mass production or use to lessen the impact of Peak Oil. It simply isn't scalable and isn't a solution to oil unavailability in regards to the current economic system.

As far as I'm concerned, we don't need new technology, new energy sources or social systems. We just need common sense, we need to use what we have sensibly and we need to get rid of the nonsense that is unnecessary. If this cannot be achieved by society as a whole, then the individual must go it alone without society.

Triumvirate of collapse - Economy, Ecosystem, Energy

Consider the effect on the soil of growing perennial grasses instead, with all the non-CHO elements returned to the soil after processing the cut grass.

Dear Peak Oil Tarzan;

I am intimidated by your moniker, but here is a link:

It shows farm output per input rising about three times since 1948.

I do not know how the USDA calculates everything. But, it makes sense. Farming is a form of manufacturing, and output per worker and unit of energy has been rising for decades as well in manufacturing.

In all, this is good news. We can expect farm output per input to rise for many decades hence, if the past six decades are a clue. This is especially good for ethanol and biofuels, which I contend is still an infant industry.

We have been growing jatropha for oil just a few years. Algae still just a hope, not a reality. Corn ethanol output only got serious in last two years – and only now are the new generation ethanol plants being brought on line which promise 5-1 positive energy returns.

It is reasonable to hope that, even with the so-so crop of corn, we can acheive very high single-digit ernergy returns in 10-20 years (7 to 1 , or 8 to 1).

As crop yields are rising 2 percent a year, and if PHEVs come on, this may move us huge steps to a post-fossil economy, long before we run out of oil. I think we can acheive Peak Demand for fossil oil a good 10-20 years before Peak Oil.

Last year, world crude demand grew by only 0.9 percent, after growing 3.1 percent in 2004, and then 1.8 percent in 2005. Check with EIA, these are hard stats.

One more year like the previous three, and we are at Peak Demand.

It may be game over for the fossil boys, any day soon.

The problem is, crude prices may collapse, wiping out the alternative fuel industry for another 20 years.

Benjamin, thanks for the link -- there's a lot to chew on and I'd rather not reply without studying the data presented here.

One thing I would like to know: "Productivity" does not -- to me anyway -- imply anything about output per unit of fossil fuel inputs. It is not argued by anyone that a single farmer, today, is able to produce many times what he/she could have a generation ago. But it is also not argued that much of this increase in "productivity" owes to substitution of mechanization and agri-chemicals. Ask any farmer what would happen if he/she had to give up the machinery and agri-chemicals and return to "the old ways" and they will tell you that half of the population would starve.

I wouldn't be surprised to learn that minimum tillage, improved crop varieties, and more judicious use of fertilizers and agri-chemicals had helped farmers increase the margin between inputs and outputs, but I'm not sure there aren't other factors at play, as well. For instance, I would presume that removing a lot of marginal lands from production over the last twenty years or so (via programs like the USDA's CRP) have also made the numbers look better as the less productive land was idled.

Thanks for the link.

P.S. -- sorry you find the name POT "intimidating." It was a joke.


Actually, when I reviewed the chart, I see farm productivity is up "only" 2.47 times 1948 levels, not three, but going the right direction.

I keep reading that "progressive" farming works, but few seem to do it. I don't know why. Culture can be a strong influence. Some say Europeans were wiped out on Greenland 700 years ago (when it got colder) as they refused to take on an Eskimo lifestyle. They preferred to die than to eat whalemeat etc.

I do know there is a terrific network of ag schools, ag journals, websites even coffee shops, and farmers are smart. I think they will adapt. After years of snorting, they are beginning to believe in turning animal dung into fuel, for example.

I share your concern about how much fuel farmers use. Can they do with less? Can they go to ethanol-based tractors etc? Or can they make their own energy? I don't know.

I prefer to be optimistic. Farmers have great networks of information.

And Monsanto has the gene guys on it now.


And, given how much you want to project you know something on the topic. feel free to talk about the water issue.


Monsanto put out press releases a few years back, heralding new corn strains selected for ethanol. My layman's understanding was that the better corn was the result of simple selective breeding. Going forward, I gather they intend to introduce corn which is somehow the result of genetic research.

Water? I know nothing about water, except that I drink it. But, if we can build a an oil pipeline all the way across Alaska, why can't we build a pipeline from Lake Superior (a practically infinite source) to the Midwest or wherever water is needed? My layman's understanding is that the water in Lake Superior is good.

"Lake Superior (a practically infinite source)"

Last I looked Lake Superior had definite boundaries, depth, and watershed making it a finite resource just like everything else humans have depleted. Lets drain it to keep the fountains at the casinos going, the golf courses green, and ethanol to run our wasteful lifestyle.

After we drain Lake Superior dry, we will go after Lake Michigan next. Chicago has it way too easy anyway. Still three more lakes to go after that.

Seriously, I doubt we could even dent water levels at Lake Superior. That is why I used used the word "practically."

I am surprised more people are not considering using Great Lakes water for Midwest farmers. Seems like a solution to me. Must be a reason it won't work.

Aby water and pipe guys out there? Would it be prohibitively expensive to pipe Lake S. water to Midwest?

What if we made Paris Hilton pay for it?

I am surprised more people are not considering using Great Lakes water for Midwest farmers.

Because there are MANY state laws AND international law saying "no".

Towns 30 miles away on the other side of the watershed can't get the water, why should 'midwest farmers'?

Well, my layman's understanding is that the Great Lakes are terribly polluted. Mostly as a result of humans' use of the water drainage system to double as the sewage drainage system. Water from Lake Ontario, for example, is grey, and requires you to shower after exiting, for risk of skin irritation.

Furthermore, if you drained the Great Lakes you'd lose valuble shipping lanes, not to mention environmental damage.

Also, you'd still have to treat the water for human consumption, no getting around that, no matter how clean your lake water is.

The record 2004 corn harvest was about 11.8 billion bushels.  If we can boost that by 68% and get 3.0 gallons/bushel out of it, that's an increment of 24 billion gallons of ethanol.  This is about 1/6 the volume and a mere 1/9 the energy of US gasoline consumption, even if you assume that there are no offsetting energy inputs whatsoever.

Ethanol from corn is a scam on the taxpayer, no more.

The only serious solution is to move away from chemical (and especially liquid) fuels for transportation.  The most feasible replacement is electricity, which can power perhaps 80% of light-duty vehicle mileage and 100% of rail energy requirements and already has infrastructure installed and paid for.

Even with your fabulous "Monsanto gene guys", the net energy densities don't even compare. A field of bushels of corn and a barrel of oil as about as far apart as geological time can have it. Ethanol is another "guppy" of a subsidized swindle, easily belittled by far more strategically adventurist role as the worlds' remaining superpower willingly able to start wars, which, of course, revolve around oil and the propaganda to keep everything-okay-all-the-time except mushrooms clouds are out to get you if you don't go along with our policy! Tricky world, the media is. Ethanol makes gasoline slightly pricier while hardly at all pinching on the fat ass of oil demand. Don't get me wrong about the price of gasoline, I don't own a car and live in a unsustainable urban environment which at least has good, comprehensive public transit. I've accepted that the price of gas is going to go up, just pick your political, military or geological duck, reasons and beliefs abound. Or stick your head in the ground like a cornucopian, so be it. Ethanol is just another non-starter, Federal Ponzi scheme while subsidizing farmers and higher gas prices--but they're gonna go up anyway so thank your wasteful federal spending! Meanwhile, lie to the public and make them feel good, a la the corporatist praising mentality that Benjamin Cole flaps on about all day and all night...The absurdity quickly presents itself as conservatives bemoaning government intervention and subsidy, aka pork--but ah, oh my how quickly they'll run to it when the best crop to grow by farmers in the US is corn (sugar cane only grows in tropical climates--lets tear down the fucking Amazon, yay forward-bound progress!), particularly when the government is paying you to produce a commodity we use for everything from feeding it to cows to make cheeseburgers to chicken for--yummy!--chicken tenders... Again, don't get me wrong, I think *all* politicians sound like such dumbfucks, it is truly astounding. The amount of contradiction and nonsensical rationalization that spews forth from politicians, lobbyists, corporations, et al ad infinitum is just too fucking much to actually address. It's like trying to understand a creationist if you're an intelligent, well educated, scientifically literate individual. That's why they win by default. Rapid fire nonsense can never be adequately responded too, and there is much of it--and many people get taken in... Until next time, thaa thaya, tha, thaaaaat's all folks!

You don't have a car? And you are in a non-urban environment? Really? Cool. But do you have a horse, or mule? I am not asking these questions to be snotty. I really want to know. You are on the Internet, so I assume you have electricity. From solar panels, or are you on the grid?
For 10 years I lived w/o a TV. Now I live in an Airstream trailer, but my wife wanted a TV. I walk to work, but I have a car. 1986 Isuzu Trooper. I get carp sometimes out of the LA River, and grow vegetables.
Check out what China is doing in Indonesia with jatropha. A $5 billion, 2.47 million ace jatropha plantation. When up and running, it is hoped it will produce just under 60 mby (year). That is about 2 days US consumption, From one plantation. Which will never be depleted.
Personally, I think we have to go to PHEVs and biofuels. We can make enough biofuels, if we use PHEVs. We are just learning now how to make biofuels. But I am sure my fellow man will get better and better at it.
I deeply respect and admire scientists and engineers who can solve riddles for the betterment of the rest of us.
I hope we can make a more prosperous and cleaner world. I don't hope it –– I know we can. I can see it. The technologies being created in the last 20 years are marvelous.
I agree that many Westerners live a wasteful lifestyle. But when you need serious medical care, or to talk on the Internet, or the telephone, or see a terrific art performance on TV, or have a varied diet all year long, or go to a wonderful library full of books, or fly an jet to Thailand, think about wha happened to allow you to take advantage of these modern inventions.
It is pretty easy to snipe from the sidelines. It is a lot harder to actually solve problems.

For 10 years I lived w/o a TV. Now I live in an Airstream trailer, but my wife wanted a TV. I walk to work, but I have a car. 1986 Isuzu Trooper. I get carp sometimes out of the LA River, and grow vegetables.

Hothgor, your cover story gets even more ridiculous.
In addition to your 1972 Airstream trailer and vegtable patch next door to your factory in downtown LA
You eat carp out of the LA River!?!

give me a break

Genetically Modified plants may have ugly side effects.


Farmers never, ever make money and they never will. Just ask them (or check their tax returns). But, when you group any category of Americans - doctors, lawyers, CPA's, dentists, etc (let's leave out NY investment bankers and hedge fund managers) they are by far the wealthiest group. Please do not throw me into the briar patch and please, never make me farm.

Precisely... The only way farmers make money is if they are heavily subsidized--and mostly even then it isn't the small/mid-level farmers that are *really* reaping the benefits, although a rising tide does lift even the little boats a little... It's for the large part the argibusiness giants which benefit from the subsidy--as they are the ones that can really bank all the politicians.

The FDA and monsanta have had a revolving door during the Bush Admin, but I'm sure it is/was little different under DLC democrats.

Nate, you might find this Lester Brown publication useful.

From the linked article

"USDA plant scientist Thomas R. Sinclair observes that advances in our understanding of plant physiology let scientists quantify crop yield potentials quite precisely. He notes that “except for a few options which allow small increases in the yield ceiling, the physiological limit to crop yields may well have been reached under experimental conditions.” For farmers who are using the highest-yielding varieties that plant breeders can provide, along with the agronomic inputs and practices needed to realize their genetic potential, there may be few options left to raise land productivity."

Jon Freise

Analyze Not Fantasize -D. Meadows

I'd like to see the analysis. I tend to be a little skeptical about big increases in yields for several reasons:

1. We are talking about planting on more marginal land and doing less crop rotation.

2. Natural gas prices are rising, and can be expected to rise more in the next few years. Fertilizer is therefore likely to become more expensive (and possibly less available).

3. Irrigation may become more of an issue. Aquifers in the Southwest are depleting. Available water limits are being reached in other states as well - where river water is used, some states, like Georgia, are getting "maxed out".

4. Peak oil is likely to result in problems of all types - including monetary - that may indirectly affect farming.

That's the problem with going to too many conferences, it is hard to find the exact quote from my rather messy notes. But one I found was by Martha Schlicher at the "Life Sciences and Society" meeting in Columbia in March, where using "improved agronomics and transgenic crops" the current increase in yield per acre is growing at 3 bu/acre/year with no reason to anticipate this not continuing. They anticipate going from an average yield of 114 bu/acre in 1995 to 190 by 2015. Concurrently they can increase the ethanol yield going from 285 gal/acre to 475 by increasing corn production, and then further raising this to 618 gal/acre by using different hybrids.

(Incidentally she also noted that whereas corn has a 1-2 day fermentation it takes 7 days for cellulosic, which I didn't know).

I heard higher numbers at the ethanol conference in St Louis, that went up to 900 gal/acre based on plants currently in development. At the Columbia meeting Dr Ganesh Kishore of Dupont stated that they have been able to achieve 450 bu/acre ultimately anticipating being able to get up to 1,000 gal/acre of ethanol, though this may have included some cellulosic (my notes aren't that good).

Heading Out,

From your ...

"improved agronomics and transgenic crops" the current increase in yield per acre is growing at 3 bu/acre/year with no reason to anticipate this not continuing. They anticipate going from an average yield of 114 bu/acre in 1995 to 190 by 2015.

... do you have any information about increases in fertilizer use with the new hybrids. I would find it hard to believe that the increase would be a result of increased photosynthesis efficiency, am I wrong there?

And then,

Concurrently they can increase the ethanol yield going from 285 gal/acre to 475 by increasing corn production

did they say how this increased production was to be done, maybe take it out highway 61 and leave it on bleachers out in the sun...sorry but old neural pathways die hard.

Gail, great work and lots of it, for all readers.

There was some debate about the issue of fertilizers at the Columbia meeting, but since the most advanced crops (in terms of both yield per acre and gallons per bushel) are still being developed in the labs I don't have the parameters that they are being bred for. It is reasonable to assume, though, that they will be looking to provide more drought-resistance and other favorable features, but I really don't know. The increase in corn production is coming from creating better varieties, I believe. But here I am functioning more as reporter than expert since this is not really a field I know huge amounts about. So I am glad to yield the floor to those who farm and know more about it.

Benjamin and Gail:
Most irrigation pumps in Texas use natural gas to fuel the pumps, and I presume elsewhere in the US also as it is less expensive that electricity for pumping, and I assume diesel too in places because the fuel is portable.
the farmers must also use seed corn purchased from a big seed company, corn hybrids don't breed true so the farmer can't just dedicate part of his crop for seed.
Ground water sources are often quite high in salts, and irrigation can salt up the topsoil so that the yields decreease.
Calling Airdale! Do you know wher to get data on irrigation vs. dry land farmin and also hybrid seed costs

Not only will ground water salt up land, but river water can too, over time. Think of how the Dead Sea got salted up. River water flows in, like boiler feed water, and it can only evapourate out, like a poorly maintained boiler. Result? The small amount of salt salts up the Dead Sea or a boiler. Boilers have to be periodically drained to get salt out or at least have some water purposely leak out at the bottom. With irrigation, you have runoff as the analogue.

Even with runoff from irrigation, the land slowly gets salted up anyways enough to make it useless for agriculture eventually.

There is one corn product we can dedicate to ethanol production and improve health at the same time. Turn the high fructose corn syrup into ethanol instead of use it to pollute the food supply with unnecessary calories. Replace it in the food with Splenda. Better to use it to feed the Ford Explorers than make everyone into 2-legged Ford Explorers!

Petrol prices high enough yet? Just wait!

There is still open pollinated corn available, so you can save part of your crop for next year's seed. The yield is somewhat lower than the hybrids but the grain quality is far superior.


Is there really some solid evidence that the aquifers in the SW are depleting? I do know that everyone says that. And do not cite the farmers who have talked the IRS into giving them a depletion allowance for their water use.

Record Crops - Best Case analysis

A max of 350 bushels an acre (1 bushel ~56 pds)

So 8888 kg/acre at current max production rates

1 acre = 4046.85642 meters^2

Therefore we end up with 2.19kgCorn/m^2


says 1 bushel gives us 2.7 gallons of ethanol, and 18 pds animal feed, so at 350*2.7=975Gallons/acre and 350*18=6300pds animal feed/acre.

Which converted are, 3562.1L/Acre and 2857.05kg/acre

or more conviently Ethanol 0.8802155L/m^2 and Feed 0.70599kg/m^2

Density of ethanol 0.789 grams per cubic centimeter
energy density of ethanol is 30.54MJ/kg

Thus we end up with 2.18KgCorn/m^2 being turned into

.557 Kg Ethanol/m^2


0.7059 Kg Feed/m^2

Feed probably has a caloric value near 4Cal/gram or (lets push this to 6 for fun)

One Calorie is approximately equal to 4.1868 kilojoules.

so we end up with 6*1000*4186.8 for the # of joules in the feed per kg which is .... 25.12MJ/Kg

So now we end up with

11.82 to 17.7322 MJ/(m^2*year) FEED(4Cal/Gram to 6 Cal/Gram)
16.99964 MJ/(m^2*year) ETHANOL

Convert to watts by knowing that 1j/s is 1 Watt. (31 556 926 seconds in a year)

Wow are we ever fucked here boys.

Power output from the record farms is between 0.913297 W/m^2 and 0.1.1 W/m^2. This is power which goes to the economy for other uses (transportation, ect.).
(Average solar insolation is probably above 100W/m^2 for the entire USA, currently available commercial PV cells get ~15% efficiency... rougly 15 time higher than the entire farm setup here.)

Now looking back at the 2.19kgCorn/m^2

(heating value of shelled corn 15% moisture = 16,200 kJ/kg i'll give it a 50% boost, so 24MJ/Kg.

2.19*24=48.4MJ/(m^2*year) which is roughly 1.5 W/m^2.

So again, even PV panels (which deliver high quality power in the form of electricity) outperform corn.

HOWEVER talking about efficiency of the plants and doubling that seems possible. (most plants are ~7% efficient at building biomass) A doubling of the efficiency of corn is likely, but there will be a tradeoff. (QUALITY,COST,TIME pick one, lose hardyness to grow faster? pick a more expensive crop to grow)


Power output from the record farms is between 0.913297 W/m^2 and 0.1.1 W/m^2. Solar insolation is above 100W/m^2, and PV is ~15% efficient.

Even 5% efficient panels in place of current corn crops would be better than current practices.

This analysis should be saved somewhere. I wish TOD had a set of articles along the left hand side on each major energy technology.

Care to post it to a blog someplace that is easy to permalink?

Post it in your bio page.

I am not certain whether you are talking about Gilgamesh's analysis, or my analysis.

I have been keeping copies of my own analyses on a variety of energy-related subjects on my blog. I am working on getting things fixed so that PDF versions will be available also, if people want to use them for class-room handouts. I hope to have this done within the next week.

In terms of TOD saving things by subject, I notice that the "Index" link at the top has a few items on three subject, but this does not seem to have been updated in nearly a year. This approach would seem to be helpful, if expanded.

Also, I remember someone at TOD trying to compile a "book" of posts on various subjects. I haven't seen anything on it in a while. Does anyone else know more about this?

Your analysis will be on the main site. Based on threading, I'm guessing the part he wants to save is the photon-energy efficiency.

One can use the permalink feature or the bio page. I've put stuff on my bio-page (and the money links were inspired by your comments on money Gail)

Hi Gail,

I do think this article should be attached as part of the Ethanol analysis. It is well written, clear and complete. You are building an excellent reference blog. The Oil Drum is a great discussion site, but it scares away most I refer here with sheer volume of unedited material.

My reply was to Gilgamesh, because so many useful comments are lost here in the forums and very difficult to find again. (possible in an article like this, if you can remember which article, but nearly impossible in the drumbeat if you cannot remember the author.)

The Book bit is me and it was on my list for this summer - except that things keep getting in the way, but it will get done. I did say it would take more than a semester.

My best estimate going forward is that we will be bringing MTBE back soon as prices rise. Ethanol will be used more and more, but it is little less than a masking agent and a net energy loser in some cases, and the cases where it does gain, it gains very little as has been demonstrated.

Hybrid vehicles will become popular, MPG ratings will be forced up, gas saving techniques will be displayed on commercials for all to see. These changes will help delay the ultimate effects of PO.

Efficiency standards in industry, and even a slight economic recession may reduce oil demand slightly, but not very much.

Already we're seeing breaks in the system. I suspect gasoline will hover between 3-5$ a gallon until 2010, and as the above mentioned measures become more and more commonplace, they will reduce prices but only temporarily. After 2010, prices will begin heading up again to even higher levels. Industry and Government will do everything in their power to keep Gasoline or Gasoline Equivalent supplies around 9 MBD. They will use everything at their disposal to do it with. It will give us a few years, but its no where near enough.

My best estimate going forward is that we will be bringing MTBE back soon as prices rise.

I don't think the oil companies will do that under any circumstances due to liability concerns. That's why it was phased out at light speed - they were told that there would be no protection from MTBE litigation. So, they dropped it like a hot potato, there wasn't enough ethanol to meet demand, and you saw what happened.

at what point does driving and economic upheavel require the bringing back of MTBE?

Theres nothing that a law won't fix. The pressure will be very high on lawmakers. It already is.

The most likely legislative result is to eliminate the mandate for oxygenates, as modern vehicles do not need them.

Furthermore, I must note that PV is too expensive for electricity generation...

Furthermore, those fuels which are produced are only 25% efficient, meaning that only .25 to .30 watts/m^2 of REAL work are going to be harvested from the ground.

Electrical engines are ~80-85% efficient. Batteries will reduce the range somewhat, however regenerative breaking helps a TON in city driving or constant stop/start milage. Consistent driving will be most benefited by super aerodynamics.

FURTHERMORE PV IS A ONE TIME INVESTMENT WITH A 40 YEAR LIFE, probably even higher than that once it really gets into use and low maintenance becomes the norm.

But we don't have enough silicon fab plants to supply the needed PV cells in quanitity.

We do have concentrators!!!

Electric MOTORS (not called engines) can be made in the 90 to 92% efficiency range in large sizes like 40 to 50 HP which would be used for electric cars.

Better to used sun for concentrated thermal power in small power plant then use the KW to power trains that get 3 to 5 times more passenger miles than electric cars. I surmise that electric power costs will rise but not as fast as the price of oil. So long term solution is to go electric but use it most efficiently - in trains where travel is fairly dense, then use leftover power for electric cars where capital cost of rails are not justified.

Forget corn based ethanol, without the subsidy it is dead.

PV is going to get a lot cheaper.  Even at 25¢/kWh, PV electricity fed to an electric vehicle consuming 250 Wh/mile only costs 6.25¢/mile for electricity.  This is the same as a vehicle getting 64 MPG on $4.00/gallon gas.

When SRI's sodium-reduction process eliminates the silicon shortage, PV prices will tumble.  Roll-to-roll amorphous cell production may start cranking out capacity by the gigawatt, changing the world in just a few years.

well part of the problem now (PV cost) is because only the silicon fab plants at the end of their industrial life are being used. I can talk to some of my buds who are going into fabrication about this, but im fairly sure that computer silicone also has to be more tightly controlled for ppm/ppb dopants than current solar cells.

Anyways im not sure if it's the amount of silicon that is the true backstop, it is the ingot creation which is the limiting step. because its a batch process and takes quite some time, computers and PV are limited by available high quality silicon.

finally i will note that comp chips are getting smaller! (thus requiring LESS silicon... meaning that a solution to producing ingots en-mass may never have been properly explored)

and futuristically i will note that until i can see a self sufficient solar powered PV system manufacturing plant, this is all for naught. (ro at least one which over time switches to producing its own source of power, which is a prerequisit for exponential growth)

While true, you still need to consider the battery costs. The cost of electricity is just a small part of the costs associated with EV or PHEVs. In any event, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on increasing our wind power percentage, boosted by the fact that some of that variable wind could be used to recharge the EVs or PHEVs at night.

Having said all that, the real breakthroughs need to occur in battery technology unless we can have vehicles which can use electricity in real time. And why not? This technology existed decades ago in the form of bumper cars. And wouldn't that be fun?

i am going to put my engineers opinion down here.

battery technology will not improve significantly ever again. there are no breakthroughs. We are coming up against fundimental physical limitiations. (diesel is the best anyways for energy density MJ/L basis)

Batteries are expensive, and it will nessecitate being careful with them, and only implimenting one when nessisary.

i also wonder about the car grid connection and letting cars supply to the grid... its more cycling on the batteries and will likely cause wear/tear.

battery costs are not bad, if i pay 3000 for something which can last me 200,000 miles im alright. (remember in a fully eclectric car lots of stuff is removed like breaks, exhaust, rad, ICE, ) how much do those components cost? i removed breaks because the electric engine becomes a break by operating in reverse.

battery technology will not improve significantly ever again. there are no breakthroughs. We are coming up against fundimental physical limitiations.

So the remaining improvements will not be in basic electrochemistry, but:

  • Materials processing.
  • Fabrication (esp. economies of high-volume plants).
  • Use of cheaper raw materials for the essential chemicals.

This is just fine.  Lead-acid a la Firefly Energy is quite adequate for a 30-mile PHEV, and Li-ion is more than adequate for a 300-mile EV.  We really don't need any more, we just need it cheaper.

(diesel is the best anyways for energy density MJ/L basis)

Getting that energy into the form of diesel can be very difficult and expensive compared to putting up a PV panel or wind turbine.

i also wonder about the car grid connection and letting cars supply to the grid... its more cycling on the batteries and will likely cause wear/tear.

Some battery technologies are very insensitive to cycling (ultracapacitors even more so).  If the battery also has a limited calendar life, not using the available cycles just wastes its capability.

Analyses to date have found that V2G operation pays for itself, including battery wear.  Those analyses assumed conventional lead-acid batteries.  Future batteries will have greater cycle lives and make V2G even more compelling.

ya i was talking about the basic electrochem. you cannot beat the laws of thermodynamics.

my gut intuition says economy of scale has already kicked in, the marginal cost of batteries is likely materials. i don't see feedstocks getting much cheaper. (i need to read up on this to confirm my instinct)

some of the materials are likely to be in short supply for a while, here's to hoping that the batteries don't require rare earth metals.

i am also aware that pv/wind is the best current investment one can make. put down the money and reap power for 40 years at no real cost. put down 20,000 in panels for your consumption and work it off.

i even wonder about the 'ultracapacitors', so much charge so close together... the heat flux and the need for large surface areas and strong structures to withstand the repulsive forces, and if the capacitor is braced to withstand pressures, what happens when the pressure inside is nil?

anyways if you have links to the V2G stuff i would like to take a gander.
I know with li-ion if you keep within a fairly restricted range of capacity you get much greater lifetime out of the batteries. It's a matter of people not plugging in their cars and 'above ground factors' in making it work.

Pile of stuff on V2G and other matters in AC Propulsion's technical papers.

The answer to Question 4 about the ethanol raising the price of gasoline and reducing supply probably needs some additional explanation, based on analyses of the Energy Information Administration.

The primary issue that the Energy Information Administration is concerned about is how much the gasoline base (RBOB in EIA lingo) needs to be adjusted when ethanol is used instead of MTBE, and what the impact of this adjustment is on gasoline volume. There are also some secondary impacts. Since ethanol is primarily used in summer (as part of reformulated gasoline), the price/supply issue arises in summer.

In the summer, there is a problem with the evaporation of gasoline causing smog. This was a problem, even before ethanol entered the picture. Because of this issue, butane was removed from the base in summer, since it contributed to the problem. It was stored and added in the winter. Robert Rapier discussed this in Summer Gasoline.

This removal of butane in winter and the addition in the summer tended to make the summer prices higher for two reasons:

1. Butane was a relatively cheap component. Adding it in winter made the average cost lower. Removing it in summer made the average cost higher.

2. With the switch in where the butane is used, there is relatively less gasoline available in summer, and more available in winter. Demand is higher in summer, so this is a bad mismatch. The shortfall in total gasoline available (relative to the amount of crude oil refined) in summer lead to somewhat higher prices in summer than in winter.

Taking MTBE out and substituting ethanol tends to make the evaporation problem (RVP) worse. To counteract this tendency, instead of just removing the butane, more of the light fractions need to be removed (C-4s and C-5s) when ethanol is used as an additive instead of MTBE. Also, to balance things out, some of the heavier fractions must also be removed as well.

I don’t have a source showing what happens to these fractions, but it would be a reasonable assumption that these fractions would not be a problem in winter, so could be saved and added back in winter (to gasoline that doesn't contain ethanol), as the butane is. I would expect that the removal and adding back of these additional fractions do the same things as the butane alone, only to a greater extent. Thus the summer/ winter price swing can be expected to be worse with ethanol than with MTBE.

The EIA calculated that outside of California, the gasoline base to which ethanol is added was expected to be reduced by 5% to 6%, by the removal of the additional fractions. For California, the difference is even larger – about 11%. This issue is discussed in a variety of different EIA publications, including Supply Impacts of an MTBE Ban and EIA’s Analysis of Last Summer’s Gasoline Prices.

Besides the removal of the fractions of gasoline, there are some indirect issues affecting imported gasoline. If the gasoline base we are using to blend with ethanol is different from what other countries are using, this may reduce the import market. Also, to the extent that other countries are still using MTBE as an additive, the gasoline with MTBE is not available to the US market, since we have discontinued using MTBE.

MTBE could be blended up to 15% of volume with gasoline. Since it was relatively available, and not too expensive, it could be used to “stretch” available supplies. Ethanol is less available, and can only be blended to a maximum of 10% of gasoline volume, so this is another source of lessened supply availability.

Since I do not work in this market, I am going by what I read. I would appreciate input from others on what happens in the real world.

Which leads me to wonder why we haven't seen any effort to promote dual-fuel vehicles powered by butane?  It may even be possible to store butane in strong bladders inside a gasoline tank, and use engine vacuum to pull empty ones flat to make room for liquid gasoline.

Good work Gail

Its interesting how the public perception eventually cuts to the chase - people were all for ethanol at the start - but here, in Central WI, many gas stations have signs out front saying "We sell pure gasoline, no ethanol". It seems people have figured out E85 has about 70% of the BTU content as petrol.

One reason you don’t see more E-85 is because of a liability problem for gas retailers. The E-85 pump is normally off by itself away from the rest of the pumps. Gas nozzles wont fit into a diesel filler cap but gas nozzles will fill a gas tank because it is the less dangerous for dreamers or idiots. The filler of all gas vehicles are a specific size and the E-85 nozzle will currently fit them all. What would you do if you were a slow learner and filled up with E-85, then some distance down the road your car quit or was damaged? Is the retailer liable because he didn’t tell or warn you. Years ago when each blend had a different pump it may have worked, and also the tort lawyers were at about 5% of their current population.

Lets just whip out any ol thought dipchip, doesn't matter that it appears to be a personal opinion, and it ends up being a tort problem. Uh huh.

Also dipchip your claim that cars can't run on E85 is also lacking in data.

Many cars on the road are capable to run E85 but don't have perfect classification to make the claim. The gas lines and other parts are not made to accept the corrosive alcohol. Long term use would damage them. Many auto's on the road can be switched over easily. The main problem is the car's ignition timing would be thrown off from the higher octane rating from E85. Many of the newer cars have a sensor to detect the octane rating and adjust on the fly for the octane.

Also I thought one of the reasons less E85 was going to be unavailable came from the lack of ability to use MTB to increase octane. So they are using the alcohol that would have gone to E85 to replace the MTB.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

One of the things I found in the reading I did was that there was barely enough ethanol last year to fill the MTBE-substitute role. There was virtually nothing left over for E85 and for other uses, such as blending into all gasoline in some states, like Minnesota.

Some of the early EIA analyses assumed that the optional uses would disappear, so that more would be available for the MTBE substitute role.

First let me correct some thing. I meant that diesel nozzles will fit a gas filler.

I said one reason not the reason.
Where did I say that cars can’t run on E-85? What is your opinion why most pumps are off by themselves? Are you by any chance a tort lawyer and I hit a tender nerve?

Some distance down the road could be 20,000 miles.
Personal opinions at TOD are like Bass scales, they all have them.

Dipchip, no I am not an attorney, but you made the claim that it was an "attorney" problem which is on its face ridiculous. It was YOU showing YOUR bias that came out in the post. Not mine, so take your tactics and try them on someone that is in your same political vein. Your type will swallow anything as long as it fits your agenda.

You said cars couldn't run on E85 by the statement that it would cause them to fail to run. What do you call that, oh I know, a conservative thought process where, I am never wrong, and always right, just deny you said it, claim it doesn't exist, or you were mis-quoted.

pathetic response from you, as usual on your erroneous statements

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Go to an E-85 retailer and ask why the E-85 pump isn't located with the gas and diesel pumps.

As I understand it, using E-85 in a car that is not designed for it can be used to void the manufacturer's warranty. Thus, the car owner is likely to be pretty unhappy he accidentally purchases E-85, and I can see that law suits might result. Clearly separating the E-85 from the "regular" gasoline would make sense, if they both can use the same nozzle.

Other reasons for separating the two:

-The two types of fuel come from different suppliers.
-Special pumps are needed for the E-85, because of its corrosive nature.


A car manufacturer using anything to void a car warranty, imagine that.

You also void your warranty if you don't take it back to them for the oil changes, or you better have some hard proof to prove you changed it and changed it according to specific specs, or guess what. your warranty can be voided.

The parts would only become tainted if it was from repeated use.

Most modern vehicles have a CO2 sensor Things have changed a lot for engines made in the last ten years: most cars now already have a computer chip that controls the fuel injection and timing. Many have a chip that be reprogrammed if it doesn't go all the way for the higher reading.

Check with your cars info booklet, it will tell you the range of octane it will accept. My stealth isn't flex fuel, but will love the higher octane, but I can't put in 108 octane because the chip wasn't programmed for it, and the freakin Japanese designers will not give out the code so the drivers of team 3s can use it. But thats another story.
Mixing in E85 with gasoline raises the octane level. If you raise it to much it will start to "knock". If you keep driving a car that is "knocking" you don't deserve to be behind the wheel. to fix it, simple drain the gas tank or add more gasoline, depending on the "blend" you might have in the tank.

Fuel injected cars with a CO2 sensor and a chip that read the octane rating will work. Flex fuel cars are designed and have the 'flag of the company" that all the lines and parts will not corrode.

Cars with a Carb are different. The change then is a litle to complicated to go into here. If you put to much and blend the octane rating higher it will knock and may lock up. Permanent damage, only if you're and idiot and think that noises from under a hood are normal.

Check our manual to see. hey in a pinch you might like to know how much ethanol your car CAN take.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Mother Earth News was writing about running vehicles on "wet" (95%) ethanol in the 70's, using nothing more than a re-jetted carburetor, a fuel pre-heater and a small gasoline supply for cold-starting.  I suspect that a properly engineered direct-injection gasoline engine might need no modifications at all.

Yes, Engineer Poet, and if you want I can direct you to an article that tells you how to do it.

But you need to manually advance the timing. So having to much difference in the octane rating could lead to problems if you kept driving.

You don't need to resize the jets if you install or have a manual choke.

Just use the choke to open the throat for a tad more air manually and drive away no problem.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Shucks I must really be a dummy. I always thought when you used the choke you restricted the air intake and provided a richer fuel mixture. Nice to have intelligent folks here to inform the less knowledgeable.

Shucks dip chip, You are not thinking, It opens and closes on a manual choke, but go ahead keep typing. And Dippy, you need a bit more air with ethy, the reason for the wider jets on a carb for ethy. But keep showing how little you know, makes it easier to skip your posts.

And dippy, go ask an ol time pilot about using a manual choke, go hear what he has to say about using one.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Food or Fuel?

Already ethanol costs more per BTU than gasoline with the 51 cent subsidy included. Ethanol got worse miles per gallon than gasoline. In 2006 ethanol subsidies were costing the taxpayer billions of dollars in addition to what they paid at the pumps.

The corn harvest was roughly 257 million tons in 2003.
The wheat harvest was roughly 64 million tons in 2003.

If in time ethanol is used as ten percent of all gasoline in 90/10 blending, you take 60 percent of the corn harvest for ethanol, and you take 154 million tons per year to make ethanol. If you divide 154 mmt (corn for ethanol)/321 mmt (total grain harvest) = corn for ethanol might require 48 percent of the US grain harvest (corn and wheat combined).

This chart shows 2003 corn exports (USDA).

Notice the amount of corn exports was below 50 mmt (million tons). The amount of corn used for ethanol in 2006 was roughly 55 mmt. The US government made plans to expand grain barge facilities on the Mississippi River for the grain export market. It may be an error to plan for grain exports, as there might not be any by the end of 2008; if ethanol production growth continues as projected by some. This might lead to further trade imbalances, debt, and lack of confidence in the dollar.

fuel will win until working become uneconomical.

it's simply amazing how many people do not run their lives like a buisiness, assessing how much is spent TO WORK, and how much is gained FROM WORK.

driving 100 miles/day to get to work probably loses you ~200 bucks a week in the form of wear induced vehical depreciation and gas costs.

Well, if they ran their life like a business they wouldn't be working for someone else to begin with.

4. Does it ever make sense for the government to select one "winner", such as corn ethanol, for subsidies?

It makes sense for the selectors, of course. That is how our government works. Large scale special interest based government is a smaller (barely) example of tragedy of the commons - grab your politically derived handouts before others can get them - broader impact be damned.

Another interesting question might be:

"How might our SYSTEM prevent one alternative fuel from being singularly promoted at the expense of other promising alternatives and/or in the face of it being untenable without subsidies?"

The miracle of "hemp" is always left out.

And it didn't start because of pot Imo, hemp has many uses and can do many many things. Many "businessmen" don't want an easily grown multiple use non-intoxicating plant to get in their greedy little plans

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

"Many "businessmen" don't want an easily grown multiple use non-intoxicating plant to get in their greedy little plans."

This isn't a biased opinion or agenda is it?

It's ironic that you posted this on June 6th. I mean really, really ironic. Because just a day earlier (or maybe it was two days? I forget), government funded researchers in Brazil announced that they had perfected a way to drastically reduce processing costs of cellulosic ethanol. If it turns out correct, they say they can produce it at 35-50 cents a gallon. Since cellulosic ethanol is created by using all of the parts of the plant being used (instead of the 10%, mainly the edible part, of the plant), in all likelihood, if this process turns out to work as advertised, we could use the discarded parts of corn, or non-edible plants such as switchgrass, so food production would not have to be drastically increased.

In all likelihood, if the process can be reduced down to 35-50 cents a gallon, as advertized, then it would likely be profitable to create the kind of infastructure necessary to transport ethanol. In addition, while existing cars can't convert to using ethanol, new cars can be retrofitted to do so at a cost only between $75-$200; indeed, the Big Three carmakers were already planning on having half of all new cars being flex-fuel capable by 2012.

It's funny, because if this is true (and government researchers usually can't get another job if they announce something as "perfected" and even give a specific price for production, but it turns out to be completely inaccurate.) then most of the post you published becomes irrelevant.

If it turns out correct, they say they can produce it at 35-50 cents a gallon.

Based on experience, 99% of the time these claims don't turn out to be correct. They are based on projections that depend on some expected breakthrough. And cellulose is a tough nut to crack.

But, I think I have finally run across a cellulosic proposal that will actually work. I am flying down to London tomorrow to meet with some guys. They are using a totally different approach to this problem. I have looked over their process half a dozen times, and this may really turn out to be something. I expect that I will have to sign a secrecy agreement, but at some point I hope to write about it.

Cool. Glad you are still talking to the cellulosic guys. We need you working on renewables!

I don't spend a day traveling for nothing. I have seen at least a hundred proposals in the past year. This one is the best. I think they have something special. I also didn't realize it until tonight, but the guy I have been corresponding with has the same name as a very prominent author and supporter of sustainable communities. I think they are the same person, but I only realized that this evening. I will know for sure tomorrow.

Good luck Robert!

You seem to be very rigourous in your ethanol analysis and that's just what's needed to triage these new ideas and pick the possible winners.

Carbon - Coventry UK

All I know is, the source I heard about the Brazil conference is usually very skeptical about any energy replacing oil, and have a down-to earth view. Normally, I'd ignore the Brazil thing too, except for two things: first, when the source I got this from talks about something in detail, it usually turns out to be important. And second, the reasercher's announced they had "perfected" the process, and gave an exact range for production, announcing as well, if memory serves, that they had sucessfully implemented the process.

It might not be true; but it certainly isn't something to be dismissed out of hand.

And I don't mean to dismiss it out of hand. 99% of these things are overstated. But 99% is not 100%, so I will reserve judgment until I actually see the study.

The company you are likely referring to is Dedini which I outlined here:

Dedini announced a $1/gallon breakthrough in the production of ethanol from bagasse using an acid hydrolysis process at its 5000g/day demonstration facility.

I thought that in Brazil, they are currently burning the bagasse, when they produce ethanol from sugar cane. This is a big part of what keeps the EROEI up.

What happens to the sugar ethanol EROEI, if the bagasse used in this operation is taken away? Or is there left-over bagasse that can be used for ethanol production?

I am going to propose an interesting scenario to you.

You get 100 units of Combined Sugar Cane/Bagass from growing before harvest.

Initial varaiables
1 Unit will represent *some* amount of energy, and all the values below will be used

Harvesting costs 10 Units(fuel,maintenance,wage,+inefficiency)
Separation Costs 10 Units
Fermentation cost 1 Unit.

HARVEST 100-10=90 Combined Units
10 units are now not recoverable, EVER.

now we have method A (burn bagass) and method B (use a cellulostic method to convert bagass into ethanol)

Distillation costs 40 Units Bagass
Net Pay, for an initial input of 20 units for harvesting and separation you get 39 back out. EROEI ~=2!!!

Bagass Convert to ethanol, 10 unit loss (there must be a loss and it will be larger than fermentation)
Distillation cost 40 units (coal fired furnace)

Output now is 39+30 (39 from sucrose, 30 from the bagass) = 79

Inputs are 20 from harvesting, and 40 from coal

Overall EROEI 79/60 = ~1.3

As we can see from my highly hypothetical situation (although some things must be true, such as costs for distillation, harvesting, and separation must be non zero; the fact that cellulose to ethanol must be more costly than sucrose to ethanol[more complex==more costly]) The distillation will not change in values much, they will be different however the majority of the cost is in going from 90 to 95% Ethanol, not 13% to 90%, likewise moving from 95 to 99 is more expensive than 90 to 95.

Keeping systems simple typically allows for better EROEI. More processing will always decrease EROEI because the stored energy of the original material CANNOT BE INCREASED POST HARVEST.

Notice how the EROEI on oil dropped with more expensive and complicated techniques? The highest EROEI was wells dug into the ground by hand. Very low investment, high return!!!

/edit my grammer-time was not so hot.

Actually, I was given to understand that the real benefit would not be in using the process on sugarcane; while it is the easiest crop to turn into ethanol, corn is only slightly more so; therefore, I'm not sure if the same model still applies, since we will now have more material to harvest from.

Burning bagasse instead of natural gas doesn't change the EROEI at all. Energy is energy. Bagasse has so many MJ per kg, as does coal or natural gas. It requires a minimum of 23,000 BTUs of energy (from any source) to distill and dehydrate ethanol. Using bagasse changes the fossil fuel input equation, it changes the CO2 output equation, but it doesn't change the EROEI.

The high EROEI calculation of Brazilian sugarcane ethanol comes from omitting bagasse as an input (I have a series of studies that do that), or crediting the coproduction of electricity back to the ethanol. With regard to the liquid fuel itself, the EROEI is less than 2.

wouldnt using an output as an imput change the overall balance?

every step has it's fixed cost, and replacing one with another does not change anything, however the usable energy which has been extracted (the ER in EROEI) can change.

If the bagass was just thrown away, the EROEI would have changed quite substantially? and then altering the bagass into ethanol nessesitates a different fuel for distillation.

someone please correct me here.

The amount of bagasse that goes into ethanol production versus electricity generation is not fixed and depend on a ny=umber of non-technical factors. As i understand it, Brazil does not provide a favorable rate for electricity from bagasse, so mills only invest in low pressure boilers. These produce a fairly small amount of excess eletricity.

In Thailand, the regulations are more generous. There is one Thai stock exchange listed sugar/ethanol producer, Khon Kaen Sugar. In their reports to investors they state that roughly 1/3 of bagasse burned goes to the ethanol production process and 2/3 to electricity generation.

Yes, in most cases the bagasse is burned to facilitate the fermentation process, provide electricity and in some instances, provide enough residual power for the local grid. Key point: some bagasse is used - not all.

The Dedini demonstration facility is small at 5000 gal/day and although technically feasible to construct a commerical sized operation on the acid hydrolysis process, even at $1/gallon, it will be hard to compete with cane fermentation (.80/gallon) as it exists today, let alone in the future for 3 reasons.

First, greater efficiency from the increased use of mechanical harvesters, best practices etc.

Second, Brazilian research teams are working to develop better strains of cane that provide a double hit of increased yield per acre AND increased sugar content per stalk.

Third, barely 1% of Brazil's arable land is dedicated to cane production and as outlined in Yergin's CNBC interview from the recent Ethanol Summit, foreign investment is literally POURING INTO BRAZIL because countries like Japan don't have the domestic resources to meet their own legislated mandates.*

*note that is legislated usage -not demand- for those of you who think demand and usage are the same thing.

1 hectare of cane in Brazil produces aprox. 1900 gallons of ETOH.

In 2006, a mere 6.2 million hectares was cultivated for BOTH sugar and ethanol and only HALF of this sugar went into ethanol.

Today, President Da Silva is talking about puting an addtional 190 million hecatres into ethanol - that's a staggering 361,000,000,000 gallons of ethanol per year!

But wait!

Under the integrated biorefinery regime (similar in concept to what is being implemented in the US) the above blue-sky production figure stands to increase by 30% if Dedini's 2nd gen process is -as claimed- combined with first gen fermentation.

The aforementioned, coupled with the fact that ethanol pipelines are being planned for both coasts, should provide some indication as to the legitimacy and potentcy of the Brazilian juggernaut.

10 000 m^2 = a hectare...

7192L of Ethanol in 10000 m^2 a hectare or .7192L/m^2

Density of Ethanol is 0.789Kg/L

We end up with 5674Kg/10000m^2 = 0.56 Kg/m^2

At 30.54MJ/Kg we finally end up with 17.33MJ/m^2 produced in brazil per year. Which is, again in terms of Wattage, 0.544 Watts/m^2.

AGAIN look upthread for my look at best case on corn.(FYI 16.99MJ/m^2 without feed)

This is marginally better, but totally within error for estimation...

You are falling for the fallacy of big numbers. Big numbers mean little. If I increase production of gasoline by 1e38gallons per year, but demand is 1e74 we are not even close to talking about being on the same level.

There are ceilings on how high the values for efficiency can go (100%), plants cannot go above a gross value of 27% or so, of which AT MOST 6% can be used for biomass growth. These are the central limitations we operate under.

If current crops are at 1% of the 6% efficiency ceiling for biomass growth. we can ONLY INCREASE PER (acre,hectare,m^2, world,continent,km^2,cm^2) yields six fold. AT MAX! AND we will probably NEVER get close to that 6% limit, we can likely hit 3% or 4% with GREAT EFFORT.

I seriously implore everyone on TOD to take these things into consideration, VOLUME IS NOT MASS, VOLUME IS NOT ENERGY. Gallons of ethanol are different than gallons of gasoline. Change your numbers into JOULES using scientific notation(1E to the whatever). Energy density can be measured in J/g or J/m^2 density is measured in g/m^2 and is dependant on temperature and pressure (use STP or a handbook to give us the proper reference)

Your example of 190 000 000 hectares or 1 900 000 000 000 m^2 extra planting land for only 316 000 000 000 gallons of gas is pretty shitty. (~0.6 Litres ethanol per m^2)

Compare these numbers now, always define a good base case.

For crops use either J/m^2 or W/m^2(with a timeframe of 1 year). This way efficiencies based on solar insolation can be quickly calculated.

ps your numbers don't match by about 0.1L Ethanol per m^2

Uhh... What part of blue-sky approximation did you not understand?

meh, I just wanted to run the #'s

I'm not a farmer or a scientist, but I was thinking that there might be a problem, even with cellulosic ethanol. I may be wrong, but I think that the rest of the plant is used for something, like mixing into the soil to add in nutrients. I've heard that switchgrass production and other such methods of taking the whole plant out of the ground for good leads to rapid soil depletion, and is not sustainable.

I think this is a real issue. It is probably best to put essentially all of the plant back into the soil. We may be able to get away with taking out a little, but taking out the essentially the whole plant is going to deplete the soil very quickly.

It is probably best to put essentially all of the plant back into the soil.

Fires (which prairies have often) only return the ash (K, P, Na) and not the hydrogen or most of the carbon.  The above-ground portions of the plant are turned into energy... similar to biofuel schemes.  Despite this, prairie soils are very fertile.  I think we can do just fine removing carbon and hydrogen and putting the rest back.

Thanks for the report. Doesn't look too good for ethanol when the subsidies are removed. Are we to draw the conclusion that MTBE should be used after all? It's made mostly from natural gas, and some say it causes cancer. It doesn't look real good, either.

Wouldn't simple conservation be a better solution?

And would eliminating all subsidies help or harm attempts to get to a more rational and efficient energy regime?

Apparently, one option is to do without either ethanol or MTBE. According to a quote in Robert Rapier's Summer Gasoline article:

California contends its refineries can make clean-burning gasoline without oxygenates such as ethanol or MTBE. In fact, California’s Sen. Diane Feinstein contends ethanol’s volatility may be the cause for increasing smog levels in Southern California since the waiver was denied and more ethanol was added to the state’s gasoline supply.

MTBE doesn't seem like a good choice, because of the cancer issue, and because of liability concerns by companies. Also, as natural gas decreases in supply, it will be less of an option.

It seems like elimiating subsidies would be helpful. The government should still support research efforts, hopefully in a variety of areas.

Actually, the future looks fine for biofuels without subsidies, as soon as we tax gasoline to five dollars a gallon. Will biofuels be able to continue America's idiotic car culture - no, but neither can oil at this point. However, biofuels will play some role in our species energy future.

I like this best, OPEC coming out yesterday saying

the powerful cartel was considering cutting its investment in new oil production in response to moves by the developed world to use more biofuels.

Hah, the oil industry's been giving the same line over here for the past several weeks. Less biofuels more expensive oil, more biofuels, more expensive oil -- such are oil industry markets, and of course understand this comes from the top of the oil bureaucracies, not the bowels, where the concept of peak is still heresy.

$5 a gallon today and delenda est Exxon, Shell, BP, et al.!

"Is this a solution" - well I guess Jack Daniels is a solution. Nice summary Gail. My feeling is that corn ethanol and most temperate latitude biofuels are a Trojan Horse threatening our energy security.

It seems at present, these bio-fuels are making a meaningful contribution in terms of liquid fuel availability but are barely making a contribution at all when it comes to actually providing energy. This serves to disguise the perilous situation that our (OECD) energy security is in.

The eroei for me is the killer of this energy non-solution. I've been trying to work out ways of conveying eroei to laymen (lawyers, politicians, university professors and the like) and came up with this graphic.

Using humans as proxies for units of energy, illustrates the massive difference to our society between an energy source with eroei of 20 and 1.2. The idea behind this is that with eroei of 1 all members of our society would be working in energy production. It is only when you get significantly above 7 to 10 that Heinberg's energy slaves take over leaving society with surplus man (and woman) power to work.

Fire away .. CW

Thanks to Leanan for the C2H6O graphic.

Excellent graphic. Essentially what your graph is showing is the end of the industrial revolution and the migration from the farms to the cities reversing itself.

I think it could be even stronger if you could show how population has changed over time. Start with the agricultural based economy (all red, a few blue) add in some coal EROI (less red, more blue), high EROI oil and natural gas (very few red, lots of blue) then walk it backwards.

I would love to steal this idea. It is very good, and even people who don't do math might get it right away.

A good review of ethanol but I have some observations:

1. A comment in the track above looks like exponential growth to me ... as TOD readers should know ... completely unsustainable!

"But one I found was by Martha Schlicher at the "Life Sciences and Society" meeting in Columbia in March, where using "improved agronomics and transgenic crops" the current increase in yield per acre is growing at 3 bu/acre/year with no reason to anticipate this not continuing."

2. Corn is human food, a fungible commodity, converting it to fuel for vehicles presumably means humans somewhere in the world will die. Around 25,000 already die each day of hunger.


"Excellent graphic. Essentially what your graph is showing is the end of the industrial revolution and the migration from the farms to the cities reversing itself."

It is a good graphic, very eye catching. But the leap it makes is very speculative, I would think, without specifying the assumptions underlying, such as how much energy per person is assumed to be used, where the energy comes from, waste reduction, and probably a dozen other variables I can't even think of.

Of course, the idea is to stay away from the possibility of any paradigm shifts, because as everyone on TOD agrees, paradigm shifts can only occur if they are bad, very bad. Technology does not offer paradigm shifts which may be helpful, and and almost never happen at all.

I will leave aside the value judgements on technology in the 19th and 20th century, but note that modern technical cultures went through paradigm shift after paradigm shift, from steam engines, to internal combustion engines, to automobiles to aircraft to radio to television to computers, to birth control pills to chemical farming to air conditioning/refridgeration.

And of course we know that only one or two major paradigm shifts would throw the red/blue stick figure calculations out the window (advanced batteries or ultracapacitors, PV cells, advanced hydrogen conversion/fuel cell development, etc.)

I keep asking myself which is more likely: (a) Technical developments altering the landscape of energy production/consumption, or
(b) hoards of post retirement age baby boomers on a slow death march back to the farms, to become yeomen serfs in a new feudal age.

I will let you folks help out, which do you see as more likely? Of course, for the aging boomers, if you choose (b), it is not going to matter to them, they are just looking at how they are going to choose to die.

My bet: They will put nuclear reactors in the tar sands AND the oil shale fields, convert Appalachia to a region that looks like Dresden did after the fire bombing to get coal to liquify, and invade Saudi Arabia to find out just how much oil is really there if they have to.

Why wouldn't they, when "walk it backwards" to use gTrouts words, means death, and death of all they hoped for in thier declining years.

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

Using 10 EROI nuke that produces high quality electricity to produce 3 EROI tar sands that produces oil (that still needs refining into gasoline) would be a major mistake.

If it happens it will be because building a sizable fleet of electric cars will take time, and so an artificial boost to oil prices will exist. But once it corrects (or the economy just collapses), the tar sands will only be needed for aviation fuel (or not at all).

This is the problem of investing based on money and not based on energy. Massive investment in the wrong places.

The main theme I keep wanting to pursue is the fact that there is little shortage of energy on or arriving at Planet Earth.

It is the fossil solar fuels that are dwindling, and that have potential to also cause so much harm to our environment. Man used Fossil Solar because it was there in abunadnace in an easy to use format.

I'm still optimistc that renewables and nuclear can more than plug the gap in dwindling fossil solar. But the right decisions need to be made - and bio-fuels IMO are a huge mistake. Once the OECD become convinced that fossil solar is dwindling, major action will be taken to rebuild our energy infrastructure. It may be done late - but not too late.

I think it could be even stronger if you could show how population has changed over time.

That would be fascinating information to have going back in 50 year blocks to pre-industrial revolution and back to hunter-gatherer days. I wonder if this information has been compiled already? Nate - Richard Heinberg?

such an analysis would be publication worthy. talk to some cultural anthropologists, they may be able to point you in the proper direction.

or, one could possibly use current statistics for all 170+ countries today to get a fair spectrum of responses.

Changing EROI through time would be cool. I guess you could take each major source of power (grains, coal, oil, NG, Nuke), multiplied by respective volume to get an overall EROI.

What should appear is a "scissors" effect, where agricultural energy sources are supplanted by industrial ones.

I guess I would start simple, and just get the EROI of preindustrial agriculture. If people can see at a glance that low EROI means a primitive lifestyle, then they will understand that many of the proposed "solutions" are not solutions at all. (The current chart does not give a layperson a clear understanding of what all all "energy producer" economy means for their lifestyle).

From an EROI perspective, those who are trying to save industrial society by Biofuels end up at the same result as those who argue we should all become farmers again.

From an EROI perspective, those who are trying to save industrial society by Biofuels end up at the same result as those who argue we should all become farmers again.


"Be careful what you wish for"

Dennis Meadows of Limits to Growth fame did a nice ASPO presentation where he explained that "Hard Problems" are ones where the obvious solution actually makes the problem worse not better. See slides 24 and 25.

Corn Ethanol is a perfect example of making the problem worse. Even if there are no other solutions and we all end up as farmers again, it would be better to not produce ethanol and just give the money to farmers to go organic and not plant. It would lower current fuel usage and preserve the soil for when it is our only resource. Farmers still get to pocket the cash. (But Monsanto and ADM are cut out of the deal).

I agree, all the numbers i look at do not yield enough energy for current society.

We become plebes for our aristocrat masters, farming food and oil.

Funny how it all comes back to the sun.

Here is a big problem with TOD that Im not sure how to address. In this space Id have alot to say, even briefly, how consumption also impacts EROI, in the built infrastructure. How finding new high EROI sources arent necessarily the answer because of the multiplier effect. How a low EROI does not mean a primitive lifestyle, especially if the non-energy inputs a society requires are low. How energy quality matters immensely, and that we have painted a corner in that we REALLY need liquid fuels, even though electricity is higher quality.

But I feel that Ive said these things over 100 times, and right now, Ive decided to go put my own energy into planting more parsnips and mulching my melon patch. (I expect a 20:1 EROI return on my potatoes, but much less on the other things due to constant car trips to the Farm and Fleet)

The problem is that our objective is to reach a broader audience with these ideas, especially a policy audience. But so much information has come across these pages that it may be that when the policy makers eventually come here, some people with answers will have long been burnt out, their comments in a red and black cyber rabbit hole.

Success here requires not only knowledge, not only community, but also correct timing.

But net energy is not only interesting and important but the most misunderstood and shrugged off topic in the peak oil debate, that and why we want more energy.

I agree EROI is super important and I would like to understand it better. Can you aim me at some text books? Or current research papers? Or the names of the academics who are writing the best material on this subject today? If your feeling burned out, I can try my hand at writing up some articles and run them past you for correction or something. I have some free time this summer to put into study.

Maybe some kind of Editor consensus articles on major topics could be linked off the main page in some way. For instance, this article by Gail seems widely agreed upon, by opponents and proponents of Ethanol. It works as an introduction, and covers most of the debate points.

Jon Freise

Analyze Not Fantasize -D. Meadows

I am going to throw out some numbers for you:
These are numbers for energy density in terms of MJ/Kg

To address the fuels issue:

Stored Energy
Work Energy
Regenerative Breaks (x5 multiplier)
Wet lead-acid
0.125 0.113 0.5625
0.180 0.162 0.81 0.8 1 0.8
0.180 0.162 0.81 2 0.64
Nickel metal
hydride battery
0.200 0.180 0.9 3 0.512
0.220 0.198 0.99 4 0.4096
Lithium ion
0.580 0.522 2.61 5 0.32768
Lithium ion
polymer battery
0.595 0.536 2.6775 6 0.262144
2.700 2.430 12.15 7 0.209715
Ammonia 17.000 3.740 - 8 0.167772
Methanol 22.700 4.994 - 9 0.134218
Ethanol 29.700 6.534 - 10 0.107374
Ethanol 31.100 6.842 - 11 0.085899
Gasoline 45.800 10.076 - 12 0.068719
Gasoline 47.000 10.340 - 13 0.054976
Desiel 53.611 11.794 - 14 0.04398
Methane 55.500 12.210 - 15 0.035184
Hydrogen(g) 142.000 31.240 - 16 0.028147
17 0.022518
18 0.018014
19 0.014412

ack that table didnt come out too nicely(ignore the column with .8 and 1:20 and the decimals)! however!

Note the density in the first column, looks like batteries lose!

now factor in cool stuff like efficiency (90% for electrical and 22% for ICE, assumed combustion of hydrogen not fuel cell)

I gave electrical engines a 400% boost becuase i have been reading that regenerative breaks are good for 80% return of breaking energy. Therefore the % capacity increase is like SUM(from i to n, n=inf, 0.8^i) which is near to 4. If driving on the highway this is obviously not the case.

anyways i think it's momentum behind the FF infrastucture! the 4th column shows how batteries are almost competetive, flywheel storage is competative with everything (but it's big bucks, talk to NASA they have a really cool page!).

Analysts of Firefly Energy's statements get an energy density figure close to 70 Wh/kg, which is the region of NiMH.  (Lead-acid is theoretically capable of over 200 Wh/kg, so there may be more room for improvement.)

It would be easier to take you seriously if you would

  • Cite sources for the data in your tables
  • Spell words like "brakes" correctly

One could also do such a graphic showing the tax loading.

I don't think tax comes into eroei. However, metaphorically, fossil fuels are subject to a real energy tax that subsidises production of bio-fuels. In this regard, production of bio-fuels may be viewed as an extreme socialst policy where the very well-off (FF) are used to subsidise the weak and poor (BioF).

Come to think of it the monetary tax is used to produce this inequitable redistribution of "energy wealth" from rich to poor. What needs to be shown on the graphic is the "tax load" or "energy subsidy" on the eroei 20 graphic for different ratios of high and low eroei energy production.

You could say

"EROEI of government is a infinite negative number"

Then give it a fancy name, XYZ theorem or something, no more math needed.

small nit pick

EROI is a ratio, so can never be negative. Above one and it produces more energy than it uses, below 1 and its an energy sink. At one (unity) its a push.

Net energy, or how much energy a process produces after costs are counted, can be less than zero, in energy losing techniques. Net energy = EROI-1. EROI=net energy+1.

OK, you are the tech so you most likely are right.

But it looks like you still got the idea that government is a reservation for the incompetent and corrupt that is a infinite liability. :-)

Right now, what *IS* the tax load on energy from source X and exactly how is that going to change with the 'energy producers' model this graphic shows?

Right now the taxes are structured for big business. How will the small producers navigate the maze of laws to take their 40 acres of sunshine collecting and harvest bio-power?

A Technical Assessment of E10 and E20 Petrol Ethanol Blends Applied to Non-Automotive Engines

Failure Mode and Effects Analysis of Engine Function and Component Design for Mercury Marine 15hp Outboard and Stihl FS45 Line-Trimmer Engines.

Engine components could potentially experience function failure through the use of ethanol-blended fuel. The effects of function failure (in order of potential incidence) include:

* Lack of power
* Rough engine operation
* Fuel leaks
* Engine seizure
* Engine stopping
* Engine not starting
* Poor starting
* Throttle sticking

Lack of power, rough engine operation, fuel leaks and engine seizure have the potential to be the most common effects of component failure. The mechanisms by which these potentially occur are material degradation, gumming, lubricant deficiency and altered combustion.

I know theres no stoppin the Ethanol train, but its going to be an expensive ride.

It will be stopped;

once enough people realize it's dumb,
once that the $/BTU cost is understood as more than oil/gas/diesel.

I guess what I meant to say was there is no stopping the Ethanol train from continuing on its course toward that brick wall we all see coming.

We will do everything we can to keep the cars running.

right, carry on then. Full steam ahead.

Lets make sure we get the following out of the way before I respond.

- I am not 'pro' corn-ethanol.
- I do not see it or biofuels for that matter, as a silver bullet to PO, GW and the like.
- I recognize the limitations of corn-ethanol production, it's effects on the enviroment, food industy etc.
- I fully support conservation, electrification, localization and the like as other 'tools in the toolbox'.
- For this response, the term 'ethanol' will mean corn-ethanol unless specified.

That said here goes...

1) This is a given. The anti-ethanol crowd likes to make this fun calculation despite the fact that no one in the ethanol industry believes or promotes that all the corn in the U.S. should/will/can be used for ethanol production.

2a) Subject to personal observation. E85 is very much like organic food. Some are willing to sacrifice mileage knowing that they are supporting local farmers, local producers, the environment.

2b) True. The switch from MTBE stems primarily from the EPA's Blue Ribbon Panel on Oxygenates in Gasoline wherein MTBE was found to contaminate ground water supply. NY and California were the first states to ban MTBE while ETOH has been used by midwestern states and in Canada as an octance booster for some time.

3) The pros and cons of either are objective.

4) No argument here.

5) IMHO, the only way corn yields are going to increase will be because of genetic engineering and although promising in theory, manipulation of nature is far too recent and far more dangerous than we can possibly fathom. Rather than peek inside Pandora’s box, we've opened it possibly to the determent of our existence. I side with Dr. David Suzuki on this on.

6) GHG emissions decrease somewhere between 13-19% or better pending the production path. Case in point Panda Ethanol and others who capture the methane gases from manure that would otherwise escape into the atmosphere. You can expect the reduction profile to get better and better each year.

Trying to tie the GHG profile of US ethanol to Brazilian soy is a bit of a stretch. A bad crop in the northern hemisphere can affect southern hemisphere planting and vice versa and besides, the Brazilians are planting more soy for their own domestic supply of biodiesel irrespective of what the US is or is not doing.

7) No argument here. I’ve proposed that if we’re going to make ethanol in this fashion, then it should be made under a mandate that requires the usage of organic feedstock. Better for the environment, better for the water table, better for the EROI, greater GHG reduction et cetera.

8) Ok here’s the big one (and it ties into 9.). In the context of Peak Oil, it is not the fossil fuel inputs that matter, but rather the petroleum inputs; the PIR or petroleum input ratio of the LTF alternative we should choose to make. Gasoline is made from petroleum – a finite resource that is permanently declining. Ethanol is made from renewable resources and the PIR of ethanol is very low and the PIR of the next generation of ethanol is even lower.

The EROI of ethanol meanwhile is 1.3-1.6 and like global warming, the EROI debate about ethanol is skewed because the bulk of scientific data that supports a positive EROI resides in one corner, while 1 study from 1 entomologist sits in the other. In reality, there is no debate – only the appearance of one.

In the short term and absent a national mandate, carbon dioxide will likely increase irrespective of the LTF alternative chosen. The next generation of ethanol, however, contains both carbon neutral and carbon negative production paths. Again, it comes down to prioritization - $300 million a day for Iraq or $300 million a day for domestic fuels.

10) An interesting angle although as I understand it, the US is the largest importer of MTBE in the world, importing from vast quantities from the likes of Saudi Arabia, Canada and Venezuela. And as for economic impact, the clean-up for MTBE usage is somewhere between $1-30 billion: Who’s going to pay for that?

11) Economic impact. A subject best reserved for a new thread for I certainly do not agree with the lower standard of living assertion.

12) No argument here.

13) Absolutely agree.

14) No argument here but with one exception. The UN and other NGOs have very carefully stipulated that biofuels portend BOTH positive AND negative consequences for the world.

15) No argument here.

I apologize for the long response Gail. Considering that I am the lone biofuel industry member of this forum and no doubt the most vocal, I suspect you knew my analysis was forthcoming =]

"2a) Subject to personal observation. E85 is very much like organic food. Some are willing to sacrifice mileage knowing that they are supporting local farmers, local producers, the environment."

--Um yeah except when it's grown w/ fertilizer. Sorry but that is such phony populism. The definition of "farmer" has become pretty broad. Most people who grow corn are industrialists not "farmers." The fact that they are growing food is only incidental. Most of them make a lot more than I do, thanks in part to corporate welfare. I am suppossed to feel good about subsidizing the incomes of such people when it is causing famine? Please.

"I am suppossed to feel good about subsidizing the incomes of such people when it is causing famine?"

Famine? Really?? Care to back that up with some evidence?


The prices of corn (and other grains replaced by corn) are up. That means that someone wanted those grains, bid for them, and then was exceeded in price, and stopped bidding.

Was the losing bidder the ethanol industry? No, ethanol production increased.

So who lost?

I think your going to have to do some pretty fast tap dancing to explain how increasing grain usage for fuel is not going to impact people wanting to eat when grain demand exceeds supply.

"Despite A Record Global Grain Crop Forecast, Stocks Are Still Expected to Shrink in 2007/08"

The word famine was used gtrout. FAMINE i.e. a social and economic crisis that is commonly accompanied by widespread malnutrition, starvation, epidemic and increased mortality.

I am not aware of any ethanol famines in world but if you can document one please feel free to post up.

As for the tap dancing... I've never once stated that grain used for fuel will not impact people and I've argued in fact, that said impact would be positive, especially for those in the developing world who have been crushed by first world protectionist trade and subsidy policies.

No gtrout, I see winners not losers.

There's no better place for GM corn than in a gas tank.

No you are not the lone bio fuel member of this forum if you include corn farmers like myself. I use to be more vocal but it's pretty much a lost cause at TOD. Most here are doomers with an agenda. Anti ethanol posts are a regular feature here with each one having varying levels of misinformation and faulty reasoning. I ignore most of it and come for the PO news and discussion you can't find anywhere else like the analysis of the Persian Gulf hurricane. Pointing out the misinformation and faulty reasoning has little effect here. The resident High Priest of Anti-ethanol will just give another sermon on the evils of corn alcohol. The congregation will all say "Amen" and and thank you RR and leave more self righteous than ever. Ethanol is a lost cause here, but not to worry. It's growing like weeds in the real world and that is what matters.

Well, there certainly are some well educated and well situated/connected people here and some good data, but the great majority of posters seem to have agendas that benefit them financially.

I would suspect that the large gov subsidy for ethanol is indeed altering the market.

The fed gov is so big (with its 2 trillion dollar budget) that it can cause huge and sweeping changes.

If ethanol consumption is 10 billion gallons a year, 5 billion dollars is being paid by you(50 cent subsidy), the taxpayer and then further on at the tank where the blend has lower energy density and therefore mpg.

Practical, can you remind us why Ethanol is good for society? Two arguments I have seen are offsets of imports and reduction in green house gases.

Offsets Imports: Replacing 2.4% of gasoline by ethanol would be the same as increasing the fleet mileage standard by 0.48 MPG (20 MPG current fleet * 0.024).

Green House Gases: Replacing 2.4% of gasoline by ethanol gives a reduction of 0.024 * 0.13 = 0.00312 (0.3 percent) reduction in gasoline green house gases.

At what cost to society?

Corn prices double, along with all dependent food.
Taxes go up to cover the subsidy.

So, essentially, consumers pay more, and get very, very little gain. Remind me again, how does this help?

If we increase the fleet MPG by 1 MPG (not too hard or expensive) then we get exactly the same benefit for zero dollar cost.

Why, if we can have the same thing for free should we support Ethanol? I guess I don't get it. I would be glad to have you point out the misinformation or faulty reasoning. I can appreciate how you as a corn farmer benefit, but how do I as a consumer benefit?

Further: The prior analysis ignores the issue that natural gas is in decline and soon coal will be used. Then we lose the green house gas advantage. And because both NG and Coal deplete, consumers electric bills will push higher as those resources decline. I am sure consumers will appreciate that.

So if we remove all fossil inputs, then the offset and green house gas numbers get worse, because only 0.3 (of 1.3 eroi) is sunlight created energy.

Offset 0.3 * 2.4% * 20 MPG = 0.144 MPG increase needed.
Greenhouse 0.3 * 2.4% * 13% = 0.000936 (0.09 percent).

So my tax dollar goes even less far. But I must be missing something, for you to be so positive about what I feel is a very expensive and minor fix. Again, please elaborate.

Last year ethanol production increased by 950 million gallons/A.
Gasoline consumed increased by 2.2 billion gallons/A.
Total vehical milage increases from 20M/G to 22M/G would reduce consumption by 14 billion gallons/A.

Hi practical,


re: "...if you include corn farmers like myself."

I'm interested in hearing any specific ideas or replies you might have in response to Gail's article and/or other comments posted.

re"...varying levels of misinformation and faulty reasoning."

Could you give some examples? Perhaps share with us a bit more of what you see as sound information and reasoning?

I would also like to see specific examples of misinformation and faulty reasoning.

I expect that corn can be a worthwhile part of a sustainable energy future, but by making use of the stover as an additional energy supply rather than the grain.

First of all thank you for being polite, objective and methodical on a topic you hold interest in that continues to rage on this forum.

In the context of Peak Oil, it is not the fossil fuel inputs that matter, but rather the petroleum inputs

I used to think this was true, but after writing this water paper, I am convinced that especially globally, energy (liquid fossil fuels) may not be Liebigs weakest link in various systems. We are currently trying to optimize energy solutions on the best monetary return, which is hairy given subsidies. As things get tougher, I believe we will adopt more of a 'look two steps ahead' approach, which is to use energy return, or more specifically return on liquid fuels, as you suggest.

But one of the downfalls in EROI analysis (there are many, but to me its still better than conventional market analysis) is that it assumes all non-energy inputs are equal - if you have 4 units of energy input, it is assumed you have 4 units of everything else (water, soil, labor, land, etc). Unless we use systems analysis, we can't know what will be the weakest link, where and when. My work shows that over 50% of the planets population (by population not by country area) will be severely limited in ANY biofuel production in 2025, due to water demands exceeding available water, especially under 10 year drought conditions. Ironically, the 'numbers' show that the US and Australia DO have enough water to scale biofuels, but many countries dont (I say ironically, because Australia has been cutting off water to farmers THIS year due to drought and their crop failure is a large reason why wheat futures have been soaring)

The EROI of ethanol meanwhile is 1.3-1.6 and like global warming, the EROI debate about ethanol is skewed because the bulk of scientific data that supports a positive EROI resides in one corner, while 1 study from 1 entomologist sits in the other. In reality, there is no debate – only the appearance of one.

1. There IS a debate, it just doesnt seem like it. As Euan posted somewhere above, to replace something in society that has a 9-19:1 energy gain with something that has a .3 energy gain means more and more resources go into the energy sector. An easy way to look at it is if we ran the whole country on ethanol from corn, the energy gain leftover, while slightly positive, would not be enough to fuel airplanes, shopping centers and hospitals, etc.

2. Also, there still exists a debate on the 1.3-1.7:1. Pimental and Patzeks number was the lowest largely because they used wider boundaries. In my opinion, we should attempt to make as wide of boundary as possible, via Life Cycle Analysis or something similar, to account for 95% plus of the true energy inputs - how much energy does it take to build and maintain a tractor and other farm equipment, etc. And only a few studies have started to look at non-energy impacts, like GHGs. If we are hoping to be more sustainable, we have to include all of our inputs, not just the top layer

3. David Pimentel is a professor of Ecology and Agricultural Science at Cornell University, not 'just an entymologist. He is in his 80s and as of last week was still sharp as a whip. Hes published more articles and books than any professor Ive ever met. Pro-ethanol people that dismiss his credibility because he has a phd in Entymology are being disrespectful, and ignoring the agricultural contributions to the literature he has made. Its also like saying that since I have an MBA in finance, I have no business contributing to theoildrum. One of the smartest and well read people I know never finished high school. Point out errors in his analysis, not that he also is an expert in bugs.

Gasoline is made from petroleum – a finite resource that is permanently declining. Ethanol is made from renewable resources and the PIR of ethanol is very low and the PIR of the next generation of ethanol is even lower

On the surface this is accurate, but it seems meaningful only if we have unlimited inputs to steam the ethanol to its concentrated form - right now we use natural gas and increasingly coal for this - the market still doesnt pay attention to our pending natural gas treadmill, nor the incremental GHGs from so many coal plants. So 'ethanol' too, is non-renewable, unless its very small scale and uses its waste products for heat.

I will make a prediction here: biofuels will not scale anywhere near the current global expectations, due to water demands of populations. And to write on the standard deviation of weather patterns impact on enery production will have to wait as this is already a boringly long comment.

Disagree on the "boringly long comment" remark...this was an exceptionally thoughtful response to a thoughtful comment. Helped clarify the issues for me. Thanks.

Well thanks Nate. And I get what you're saying about Pimentel.

I agree that water, like every other resource we so take for granted, will certainly limit our options and as I have posited on prior occasion - GW is the ultimate trump card.

However there is much to be said about the way in which we use these resources and as part of the most wasteful and yet at the same time, resourceful people on the planet, I'm sure there is much that we as a society can do to change our ways. Trim that fat as it were.

For instance...

Do we really need to be spending 40+ billion dollars each year on pets?

Do we really need 10 different brands of laundry soap - half of them made by the same company but with different names and colors?

How about lawns?

NASA has calculated that 162,000 sq. kilometers of the US is covered in turf - an area 3 times larger than any irrigated crop on the continent! The kicker being of course, that some 270 BILLON gallons of water are used EACH WEEK to keep this turf in shape. And for what? So that we can look out from our air conditioned abodes and say, "DAMN! That's a great looking lawn," before returning to the television?!?

At what point as a society are we going to acknowledge that maybe... just MAYBE, the 'sport' of watching cars/trucks/boats use up the last of planet's petroleum supplies as they race around in a circle all day long isn't such a good idea.

My point is... there's lots to do. And the sooner we start mobilizing to do something about it, the better it will be for all.

I agree with the stupidity of the excesses of the consumer society and its wasteful use of resources such as lawn maintenance and pet upkeep , but what do we do when we dismantle this economic system and put the people employed in it out of work causing a severe economic downturn? Yes, we have an economy largely based on needless services but “trimming the fat“ as you say would actually be like performing liposuction on a grossly obese person who had ninety pounds of lean tissue - not likely to survive.. Either these people are put out of work by high energy costs, or they are put out of work transitioning to the “perfectly functional society”. This is the main problem I have with social engineers - shallow or narrow thinking. They ignore the externalities of their solutions, and choose to ignore them hoping that everything will work out in the end.

All in all, your agreement with my analysis is better than I expected.

Also, thanks to Nate for his comments.

Also, on 8, I don't think that we can look at petroleum alone as the product being replaced, because natural gas seems to be in as bad shape as oil, or even worse. This is the graph prepared by Colin Campbell of the Association for the Study of Peak Oil and Gas showing his projection of future North American natural gas.

Forecasts of future natural gas production are pretty iffy, but if this one is half-way right, we are facing a steep downward slope, starting very soon. There are probably some additional sources of natural gas not shown on this chart - natural gas from waste materials, "tight gas" and the like. The steep slope possibly coming so soon is still a major concern, and is the reason I do not think we want to look at petroleum alone in the ratios.


Your correct, the natural gas issue is HUGE. In fact, let us say we had a situation much like we had in the 1950's when natural gas first started growing as a major energy industry, that is, the assumption of 200 or more years of natural gas at curren demand. While other issues would be important, (land use, water use, soil erosion, competition with food) the central issue of fertilizer and natural gas consumption would not be issues....just imagine that situation for a moment....:-), cool huh?
Because a "clean and plentiful" fossil fuel makes ethanol make some just pour on the natural gas in fertilizer, convert all the farm equipment in the corn fields to nat gas fueled engines (there are bi-fuel systems on the market now that will allow Diesel engines to run it with no problem), use natural gas to distill the would be a liquid fuel provided by access to clean and plentiful natural gas! :-)

In fact, many of the large scale ethanol proposals we now see are nothing more than dusted off plans from the 1970's when just such an assumption was assumed to be true, at least another century or century and a half of cheap, plentiful natural gas. That alas now seems not to be the case.

The NPC (National Petroleum Council) has issued a very involved report, the so called "Balanced Options" report of 2003, in which they see a very severe supply/demand crisis in North American natural gas markets coming very soon. In fact, it would have already gotten here except (a) unusually mild weather has held demand down in all seasons, and (b)American industry and chemical production has been offshored to low nat gas price countries (the U.S. is for the first time in the modern era a net inporter of fertilizer)

Even if you dismissed every other liability of the ethanol program as being put forth in the U.S., the natural gas issue alone would be a deal breaker.

Roger Conner Jr.
Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

Thanks for all your work Gail. With regard to this graph, could you provide a link--I'd like to read more about how it was derived, etc. The implications for near term are very stark-- it shows North American gas production down about 40% in the next 3-4 years. In fact, Canadian production has been dropping more quickly this year than in recent years, but U.S. 2007 YTD production has been flat, according to the EIA. Thanks in advance.

re #6

is that GHG per unit fuel? or per km of operation?

or GHG per tonne fuel produced?

Sorry about this, but i feel everything should be properly qualified.

Anyways, dumping and waste typically goes down when it becomes profitable to reclaim the waste stream. It becomes an added source of revenue.

I think finding alternative fuel sources is very important to us. Not just because of the harm fossil fuels do the climate but because oil won't be around forever. However that said I'm not sure using corn is the way to go. With the global population booming is it really wise to tap into your food source and create a fuel from it so you can drive your vehicle?

I think the more appropriate thing to do would be to first move away from oil as an energy source and use things like wind and nuclear power to run our grids. It just seems wrong to use fossil fuels to power our lights. The #1 thing they should be used for is keeping warm. #2 would be transportation.

We really need to start planning our energy use a little smarter and using our food supply for power won't be an issue.


Climate News & Data at

Excellent scientific query and sound underlying arguments with valid supporting data. In a larger context, I am impressed with the increased press coverage the US corn ethanol program is receiving in mainstream media and non-energy industry publications.
Outside of forums such as TheOilDrum, the underlying corn ethanol refining assumptions and arguments continue to come in a seemingly impermeable political wrapper. All the science in the world will not matter if like minded communities cannot collectively rally the non-energy literate masses to reject the misguided corn ethanol policy decisions of every administration since 1979.
As I state at, you can tell much about an administration based on the veracity of its policies and the second order effects of same. This nation is rushing headlong into unprecedented corn ethanol production targets without a thorough analysis of all downstream effects on land management practices, water consumption sustainability, runoff pollution implications, and increased likelihood of exacerbated global hunger to name a few. That said, it would unfair to fail to mention that Ag academics and some farmers are asking hard questions about these issues. They need and want objective, accurate answers. I fear that years of depressed corn prices may create a farmer payday mentality, and I honestly cannot blame them for making crop choices that best sustain their business models.
But what is the desired end state? A change of public policy--anything else is discussion for only its sake. Getting stories and threads such as this into the hands of all policy makers must be a priority for this website.


John Q.

But what is the desired end state? A change of public policy--anything else is discussion for only its sake. Getting stories and threads such as this into the hands of all policy makers must be a priority for this website.

I agree that the corn ethanol information we are talking about needs to get to the right people.

In order to do this, it seems to me that we need to be associated with some organization. This could either be a group that is formed by some subset of TOD folks, perhaps an "Organization of Concerned Professionals". Or it could be an existing organization, such as ASPO-USA, if they are interested in the role.

We could then write one or more press releases, summarizing what we see as major issues, and have the organization publish it. It would also be helpful if representatives from the organization could be available to talk to news groups. Articles such as what I have written would be back-up information also available to the legislators and others we are targeting.

If anyone can see a way of making this happen, I would be willing to help with press releases.

Public anger is another good tool.  If we can publicize the study which found that ethanol would increase gasoline prices and cut supplies, it might generate editorials and phone calls to legislators.

This is off topic, and I doubt very few of you know about this incident, and I think you should know about it. Because it does effect what you try to do in spreading the word and your truth.

The evening of the Republican debate there was a meet and greet with the press afterwards. All the big candidates did not attend, but their "people" were there to answer questions.

The debate was telecast by CNN and they issued the credentials to the press.

I am not saying that Alex Jones is on my list of people I would most like to meet. But he is entitled to his viewpoints. I think he has some good points, but his tact is another matter and I must say I view him with the same suspicion as Professor Steven Jones. with that said.

His website was issued credentials. He had two students I believe there to ask questions and I think they had a video camera and laptop connected and were streaming live to the net.

One of the students asked Rudy's rep about Rudy's statement
that he had been informed on the day of certain buildings falling that a collapse WAS going to happen. He made this statement LIVE to Peter Jennings.

he asked the person to explain how Mr. Rudy G was told that, who told him, and why did they know or think such a collapse was imminent.

The person made a couple of statements to throw off the question and dodged it. He asked the person to present PRoOF of such a statement. To which the reporter replied, I have it on my laptop I will show it to you.

THEN he turned away. Rudy;'s press secretary (who was not the person but there) must have gotten the POLICE.

THEY ARRESTED this kid reporter and took him out of the building. Put him in the car and booked him. FOR ASKING A QUESTION WITH A LEGITIMATE PRESS PASS.

The reporter said the police tried to intimidate him at the station and other people showed up and said they were thinking about adding other charges besides I think tresspass with say, ESPIONAGE etc. To scare this young reporter.

Its on you-tube

This is scary folks, think about it. You can't ask the hard questions, they will arrest you, and did you see this on the media. NO, why, because they refuse to ask the hard questions, and they don't wish to loose there ability to ask questions, even if they are fluff pieces of crap.

Peak oil people could easily face the same fate if this is allowed and and not challenged.

video from the other reporter that taped the question and arrest. They also threatened him and tried to book him, but couldn't because they didn't have anything, but according to him tried the intimidation to the hilt.

interview where he does make the statement

Not to bring up a subject here that is "off limits" so to speak, but to prove that there is a MAJOR problem with asking questions it seems now and getting put in jail. As someone that does work in the press and does do "other" work on subjects such as Peak OIl I find this HIGHLY HIGHLY DISTURBING.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

I find this to be highly biased opinion!

You couldn't find a dog with a box of fleas.

Its not opinion dippy, its fact. The video's show them,

are you a scien t 0 lo gist dippy, you sure do think like one.

Quid Clarius Astris
Ubi Bene ibi patria

Meanwhile in Colombia.. The green revolution is claiming some victims...

Massacres and Paramilitary Land Seizures Behind the Biofuel Revolution

Armed groups in Colombia are driving peasants off their land to make way for plantations of palm oil, a biofuel that is being promoted as an environmentally friendly source of energy. Surging demand for "green" fuel has prompted right-wing paramilitaries to seize swaths of territory, according to activists and farmers.

A great deal of the Indonesian rain forest has been destroyed to promote the growing of palm oil (so called bio-fuel). Elephants are poisoned to keep them away from the plantations. Other jungle animals have no where else to go but into populated areas where they are killed. Saw it first-hand when working for Caltex in Sumatra.

Without being able to pin down how much a "great deal" is, it is hard to say your point is inaccurate. However, it is misleading. The overwhelming majority of deforestation in Borneo, for example, was done by logging companies to sell timber. I have seen it myself several times since the early 1990's, at which time biofuels hardly existed.

Deforestation in Indonesia, Malaysia, Brazil, and other rainforest countries has been a huge problem for 20 years. The biofuel boom, is about two years old. I believe that you and many others are unfairly blaming what is planted on the ruined land for the damage that was done to it, although the link is much less clear.

Global Witness has done a fantastic job documenting official corruption in illegal logging in Cambodia. The culprits again are loggers. Later on palms or other crops may be planted on the land, but the criminals are the loggers.

I do think that deforestation in Indonesia is an abomination, oil palm planations do cause some defortestion, and that biodiesel from oil palms may not ever take off. But the claim biofuels is a major cause of deforestation suffers from a minute evidence to volume ratio.

Biofuels may not be a good source of fuel, but we should discuss the issue on its merits and not blame it for ills caused by loggers.

I am amazed that after over 100 comments, nobody has pointed out a basic error in the questions for discussion.

2. How would the market be different today, if, instead of providing subsidies only for corn ethanol, subsidies had been provided over the years for any type of biofuel, including potato based ethanol, diesel from soybeans, and any other type of biofuel considered?

The volumetric federal and state incentives for ethanol, and most state incentives for biodiesel, do not discriminate by feedstock source, nor (importantly) by energy source used in the fermentation and distillation process. Hence there is already some ethanol being made domestically from sorghum and cheese whey (and possibly in the future from potatoes). The federal volumetric ethanol excise tax credit (VEETC) and fuel tax exemptions at the state level also treat imported ethanol derived from sugar cane the same. The difference with imports, apart from those coming from NAFTA partners and CBI nations, is that they are subject to the $0.54/gallon secondary tariff.

By contrast, the volumetric federal biodiesel excise tax credits do discriminate by feedstock source. Ironically, virgin agricultural feedstocks (e.g., soy oil and tallow) benefits from a credit that is twice as high ($1.00/gallon) as the credit for biodiesel made from recycled cooking oils ($0.50/gallon).

For more information, see our detailed report, "Biofuels--At What Cost?: Government Support for Ethanol and Biodiesel in the United States".

There is also a good report today on the Washington Post's website, "Switching To Biofuels Could Cost Lots of Green".

I very much appreciate your comment. Part of the reason for posting this was to see if anyone sees errors in what is being said.

Sorry Jack,

I gave you the short version. Yes, you are right, the rain forest in Sumatra is being gutted by the paper and timber industry. But the after logging, the fires are set to clear the land for palm oil plantations. That is where the real devastation lies as there is virtually nothing left afterward to reduce soil erosion.

Palm oil has been around for a long time too. It lost it’s popularity in foods, but paradoxically, the oil company’s use it a lot for drilling oil wells because it is environmentally friendly.

This is going to be a huge problem. I pointed out several weeks back that Brazil -- the biofuels wunderkind -- is well-positioned to compete in biofuels because half of the arable land is owned by one percent of the population.

If you look at the central role that uneven land-distribution has played in conflicts throughout Central and South America, it isn't hard to envision how growing biofuels for rich, first-world citizens could become THE social-justice issue of the next twenty or thirty years.

If you look at the central role that uneven land-distribution has played in conflicts throughout Central and South America, it isn't hard to envision how growing biofuels for rich, first-world citizens could become THE social-justice issue of the next twenty or thirty years.

A few hundred years ago in Europe, sugar(!) was considered the same way.

The politically progressive attempted to boycott sugar, because it was produced by slaves in abominable conditions for profit of the plantations in order to sweeten wealthy Englishmen's tea.

Corn-based ethanol? Sure, it'll work. Here's an instructional video to how effective it'll be:

I need to correct an error in this article regarding MTBE. I have experience in a refinery that produced MTBE until the government effectively banned it.

MTBE is not made from natural gas by any process I am aware of. It is made from a butane/butylene (b/b) mixture and methanol. I suppose methanol is produced from natural gas but methanol comprises less than 10% of the feed to the process. The b/b’s are a product of a refinery upgrading unit like a cat cracker or a coker.

Several MTBE units in the country have been converted to produce iso-octene using the same b/b stream as feed. Iso-octene is also a high octane, low RVP gasoline component like MTBE but does not have the same clean burning characteristics due to absence of oxygen. No methanol is used in this process.

I read this article at TheNewsRoom( before this post, and frankly, I'm panicked: Gail, most of your quality commentary notes that there is no silver lining to corn-based ethanol, and the economic focused article that I linked indicates that E85 cars are still being produced by the masses. Have we carelessly thrown support and faith behind a fuel option that simply won't be viable in years to come...and isn't the best choice out there?


In your opinion, is there any way to remedy the economic problems and industry folding that could result from such a frenzied investment in corn-based ethanol? And which type of alternate fuel source do you think has the greatest potential for success -- in economic/efficiency/environment/etc. respects?

Convince your Congressional representatives not to renew the volumetric ethanol excise tax credit (VEETC) when it expires at the end of 2010; to not call for any more volumetric mandates; and to eliminate the import tariff on ethanol.

Then, I would ask, does reducing fuel use require necessarily replacing it (gradually) at great expense? Or could policies that affect vehicle purchasing behavior and driving directly (like a carbon tax) more apt to achieve the desired policy goals at least cost?

Winner winner
Chicken dinner (organic)

Great topic! Ethanol has gotten much attention lately, but is it really a viable source?? I recently found an article that opened my eyes to the topic, discrediting market analysists.

Why Ethanol Cannot Live Up to all the “Perfect” Energy-Solution Hype

Take a look and you will think twice about current trends....Cheers!

Study Launched to Define Forces That Will Impact Ethanol Industry

by Myke Feinman, BioFuels Journal Editor

Danvers, MA --- A six-month study will determine how the ethanol industry is impacted by economic forces such as global agricultural production, the price of crude oil, and biodiesel production.

Ethanol 2012 Study was launched June 4 by The Hale Group, Ltd. and includes experts in agricultural, petroleum, public policy and technology sectors with a tight focus on the U.S. ethanol market.

Working with The Hale Group on the study are Cambridge Energy Research Associates (CERA), led by Dr. Daniel Yergin; former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, Dr. Clayton Yeutter; and Dr. Bruce Dale of Michigan State University.

Results of the study will be released to the study’s subscribers in late November and early December 2007, with a media version released in December, according to Robert Ludwig, principal at The Hale Group.

Gail - shall we bookmark this discussion for Dec?

I'm willing to look at it, but there are at least two issues. (1) Can we get it without paying lots of money, if it is a CERA study. (2) Yergin/CERA have a bad rep for unsupported assumptions leading to doubtful conclusions (around here, at least).

Boy - I bet i could predict the findings of that group 6 months before the report comes out. Will there be a negative comment about ethanol or liquid fuels in it? Dale had a powerpoint titled "EROI RIP" and we all know Mr Yergins track record and opinion.

Interestingly though, IF Cera is right and there are decades of high energy gain oil left before a plateau (they never mention energy gain, but its implied), then EROI doesn't matter (yet) and Mr Dale is correct. However, after the peak of net energy (which I could argue has past, and quite easily argue is happening soon) then net energy analysis will be front and center.

For now, follow the money...

Should someone mention somewhere the fact that what Congress has giveth, Congress can taketh away? Those subsidies could be yanked in a hearbeat, the next crop of corn could be diverted from ethanol to the food chain, and everyone counting on E85 to continue their lifetime joyride in their funmobile will be left parked on "E".

As the late economist Herbert Stein said: "If something can't go on forever, then it won't."

Another concern I havent seen mentioned is the large majority of midwest farmers rotation crop - corn - soybean - corn - soybeans - other - soybeans, etc. to improve the soil (or rather, degrade it less). If corn demand continues to grow, even next year a meaningful amount of acreage will be pulled out of rotation just to grow corn. This will have implications which Id like to know more about -will it require more fossil fuel based fertilizer? Will it be lacking in trace minerals, etc?

India is seeing a different story either. 5 % Ethanol is doped to gasoline / motor spirit with the aim of improving environment standards and to save forex on cutting down proportionate oil imports. But contrary to this, the manufacturers of ethanol have all cartelised and jacked up the prices of ethanol, which would obviate the need for ethanol doping in gasoline since the rates are becoming costlier than what would have been otherwise. The result is many states are unable to implement this.

The same may happen to this case also once the strong demand for corn based ethanol is established

Muthu Kumaran

Ethanol is expensive here - even with the big subsidies, it is more expensive than gasoline, when the energy-value is considered. Also, in this country, gasoline manufacturers adust the base to which it is added. Adjusting the base also adds to the price. So adding ethanol raises the price of gasoline.

And you are right - it is very difficult to produce enough to equal 5% of gasoline sold. It takes a lot of energy and water to produce it.

Thanks for your comment.