NNEC: The Rush to Ethanol

A new report tomorrow coming from the Network for New Energy Choices. NNEC also has an interesting project being put together called the National Energy Research Database (heh, NERD) that will be coming online in August.

The Rush to Ethanol makes the case that there is no silver bullet for fossil fuel dependence, energy independence, or curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Ethanol cannot be produced in quantities large enough to displace petroleum without unacceptable costs to public health and the environment, as well as to taxpayers. Without reform in the transportation sector fuel demand will continue to outpace fuel supply.

Read more: The Rush to Ethanol Brochure (PDF 746 KB). For a full copy of the report visit their site at: www.newenergychoices.org.

I really wish I knew more about the biology and yields behind the ethanol process as I've just relocated to the king corn state of the union (Iowa).

As an example of things that need attention I am wondering how much cellulose derived ethanol could be produced by treating the corn as an edible and shunting the stalks to a collection device rather than having them returned to the field. This obviously has a big impact on the low till/no till soil management practices of today so perhaps only a portion of the waste could be saved with the rest left on the field.

It would be interesting to delve deeper - drop the oil inputs from herbicide and pesticide use, assume ethanol rather than diesel for fuel, and then calculate how much of the stalks have to be processed to produce the fuel needed to grow the crop.

Notice the hidden implication - besides the third world food crisis brought on by the ethanol rush, besides the food miles, and besides the fuel required to raise the crop, there is a significant oil input to both fertilizers and herbicides that can not be replaced with byproducts of the crop itself.

We can produce 16% of our fuel needs if we turn all of our crop to ethanol right now ... and that 16% depends on current yields which are likely to slide to 30% - 50% of what we get now without the chemical supports for the crop.

If this is a little disjointed I'm going to blame it on the Lyrica and then return to counting the hours until I see the neurosurgeon ...

I am preparing a rather involved post for this string, but I felt it only fair to contribute a source and a thought or two to your question.

The best source regarding the questions you ask can be found here:


If you are new here, you may not be familiar with Robert Rapier’s work, but he has been exhaustive in his research on ethanol, and brought the mind of chemist and a petroleum genius to the subject.

On the post I am linking, Robert is discussing one of the few ethanol process that possibly could show promise, called:
E3 Biofuels' Closed-Loop Ethanol Process

The problem with ethanol, as Robert says, is “We take fossil fuels and basically recycle them into ethanol in a very inefficient manner.”

The fuels used are of course Diesel in the equipment, but of greater concern to many of us is the natural gas. The pesticides and fertilizers are not, as many seem to believe, oil based, but natural gas derived chemicals. The U.S. is already deeply concerned about supply of natural gas, and even embarking on expensive and complex projects to import LNG (Liquified Natural Gas) from of all places, OPEC nations. It makes the claim of ethanol as a “freedom fuel” that will assist U.S. energy independence all the more ironic. Natural gas is also consumed in getting the water out of the corn (distilling) and this is no small job. Corn has a very high water content.

Even if ethanol could overcome the consumption of water, land space, topsoil, and food that the industry creates, the natural gas issue alone would be a huge barriar to acceptance by many, who see natural gas as a natural treasure, one of the last great clean chemical and energy sources in the world.

The only system that has a chance is something like the E3 Biofuels system, in which the cattle, the corn, and the waste product are recycled, without long transport, all on one site. It may work, but it will be an uphill fight.

Good Luck, and follow out some of Robert’s work on his blog, it is fascinating stuff! :-)

Remember, we are only one cubic mile from freedom

Ethanol is at best a small wedge and at worst a disaster. But whatever you do don't tell the people that they might not be able to keep driving, even if it means some others cant eat.

Another new ethanol plant is being started here in North Iowa. Click on "slide show" to get the justification. Note how crowded it is getting with ethanol plants around here. There are also at least a couple of biodiesel plants not shown.


As a longer term resident of Iowa and someone who worked in the Seed industry for 10 years developing hybrids I will share some perspective.

One, corn is a commodity crop and all crops can be used for food, fuel, fiber etc. The balance is determined by the market place, yields and acres planted.

Two, no matter what we do ethanol and other renewable fuels will never equal our current gasoline and diesel volume. Those are created from stored geologic reserves and we can't produce that volume on a yearly basis from current crops.

Three, ethanol and biodiesel are a part of the solution to dwindling crude oil supplies. They make nice liquid fuels. But we also need to think about chemical feedstock replacement when petroleum is scarce. Corn, soybeans, flax, peanuts and other plants can help fill this need, way in the future.

Four, ultimately we must reduce our energy consumption before we use renewable. This last point is what, IMHO, is missing. The public has been told that corn ethanol can replace the gasoline supply. It can't. And now they they are discovering this, they are upset and looking for a new replacement. There isn't one. Crops are part of the solution. They are not the solution.

The energy efficiency of photosynthesis is shockingly low compared to photovoltaics. (one or two percent compared to 10-15%, not counting the inefficiencies of using just the corn kernels, and of fermentation / distillation) And so far, I haven't heard a single report of a farm running entirely on its own product. I have heard stories of vast tracts of tropical forest being bulldozed and burned to grow oil palms, however.

I think that biofuels are better suited to small, local production than to gargantuan megaprojects. They'll eventually be "silver BBs" for local needs. Whether the crop is corn, jatropha, sugarcane, or rape will depend on the local climate.

The problem will solve itself.
But not in a nice way.

As an example of things that need attention I am wondering how much cellulose derived ethanol could be produced by treating the corn as an edible and shunting the stalks to a collection device rather than having them returned to the field.

If the goal is cellulose, it probably makes more sense to dedicate land to crops that produce far more of it than a portion of the corn stover will provide. Industrial hemp comes to mind: far greater cellulose yield, greatly reduced pesticide use, almost no herbicide use (hemp will crowd out almost everything else), lower water requirements, works well in rotation with other crops. In a future where there is an emphasis on local production, hemp's non-cellulose fiber is also useful for paper, fabric, and manufactured "lumber".

Further improvements in the energy efficiency of ethanol production are possible, eg, membrane separation of water and ethanol. That said, in an energy constrained future, I think there are better alternatives than biomass to ethanol to ICEs possible.


In one of her excellent recent posts on Peak Oil, possible oil alternatives, and where our energy comes from in America, Gail the Actuary has included the following chart, which is extremely useful:


It is educational to just study this chart, and think for a bit. Some patterns may stand out to you (they did to me, but I have a tendency to be a “visual” brain side type, witness my fascination with the “one cubic mile of oil” illustration!)

1. Only one of the segments shown in the pie chart is consumed principally for transportation, and transportation is almost completely reliant on it alone. it also happens to be the biggest segment of the pie, at 40%. That segment is petroleum.

2. Only one other segment of the pie can be used for transportation in any measurable way at this time without massive investment and infrastructure. That segment ties for the second biggest segment of the pie. It is natural gas (and of course it’’s derivative product, LPG), tied with coal at 23% of U.S. energy consumption.

3. So we can calculate that 63% of the pie can be used for transportation fuel without heavy infrastructure investment, research, and delivery system creation.

4. The remaining 37% of the pie can most efficiently and productively be turned to transportation use by way of electrified transportation. It is the only viable way that nuclear and renewables can be used. Only coal of the remaining alternatives can be used in transportation as a liquid or portable transportable fuel, but it would require CTL (Coal to Liquid) manufacturing, at best still a very expensive and somewhat experimental system on so large a scale, and with serious carbon release issues. There are of course technical limits on the output fuel, with a synthetic Diesel being the most likely option.

5. Without electrification of transportation, through electric trains or through independent personal electric and or hybrid electric cars, we seem to be near the limit of what the conventional energy system can provide. A new development in liquid fuels would have to be provided.

6. Point 5 above created the dire need for a portable liquid fuel. Alcohol of various kinds (ethanol, methanol, and possibly butanol) and bio-Diesel fuels have so far proven to be the only viable alternatives.

7. The alternative biofuels create new issues. I will not duplicate the work of those to whom I am replying, but leave it to those interested to read for themselves and research further:

8. Did we race past the development of electrification of transportation too rapidly?
Alan Drake and others has proposed a variety of electric rail systems.

The most difficult hurdle to overcome seems to be in getting people accustomed to riding mass transit. The trains and streetcars only make sense if they are able to run at near capacity. If they are running near empty, the trains and streetcars can actually be less efficient per person than a very efficient car. (A hybrid car must have at least one person on board to drive it, so it’s minimum capacity is assured)

Electric trains for freight hauling. These seem very viable and should be investigated. seriously.

9. Hybrid and electric cars. These are technically viable. The deciding issue surrounds the durability and expense of the batteries. Even supporters of these vehicles must admit that the batteries are still expensive per kilowatt of storage. The bigger issue is that the customer must at this time carry the risk of battery failure. This is a great barrier to electric cars, and also to “plug hybrids”

10. ”Plug hybrid” vehicles, in which the car is charged on grid current, but has a combustion engine on board for range and performance enhancement have demonstrated extremely high levels of efficiency, sometimes over 100 miles per gallon of liquid fuel on board.
The fuel can be gasoline, Diesel, Propane, natural gas, recaptured methane, vegetable or animal derived oils, and potentially even butanes, ethane, any type of alcohol, or even hydrogen.

Due to the extremely small volume of liquid fuel used, the scale of the infrastructure to provide the fuel is greatly altered.

Conclusion: The infrastructure challenges of such a diverse fuel mix would be challenging, but remember that the volumes would be much smaller. If one looks at the cost and complexity of the proposed ethanol industry, a grid based/diverse fuel automotive fleet does not look so daunting.

With diversity comes redundancy and resilience to a fuel interruption paralyzing the entire transportation fleet. Many vehicles could be built with “multi fuel” capability, further enhancing a smart transportation, grid based transportation system.

The major policy initiative should be an assurance program and a utility/auto/battery/government partnership arrangement, to reduce the risk of battery failure and massive economic loss on the part of the customer. Many of the cars may be leased, and would be returned to the leasing company before the batteries ever suffered noticeable degradation, and the battery materials recycled. If the battery fails prematurely, the customer should be protected.

It goes without saying that the vehicle should be built in as efficient a way as possible for it’s intended use, and that methods should continue to improve in design and manufacturing.

Disclaimer: You will notice that this proposal assumes that the automobile will continue to exist, and be used, into the foreseeable future, in combination with other types of transportation. The individual transportation vehicle is almost impossible to replace in many of it’s roles, and attempting to remove such a crucial piece of transportation from a nation of the size and wealth of the United States would have near catastrophic effects on the nation, and the well being of it’s people. Such a change may be possible over several decades and in a graduated fashion, but only as the culture, society, architecture and design of the nation is changed, and allowed to change, to adapt to such a radical measure.

There is no technical reason that transportation and freedom of movement cannot be maintained reasonably comparable to that now known in the post industrial high technology world. With good design this could be done on less that one quarter to one third of the energy now consumed, and much of that coming from renewable sources.

Ethanol as a motor fuel can be viewed as a primitive, blunderbuss attempt to maintain individual transportation.

Had the money, engineering and effort been spent on a much more elegant and artistic approach, the United States would already be much further ahead in our quest for energy efficiency and security, and a much more ecologically responsible solution.

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

Due to the extremely small volume of liquid fuel used, the scale of the infrastructure to provide the fuel is greatly altered.

I don't know about extremely small but wasn't the volume of oil used extremely small at one point? I suppose that if we can figure out some way for current generations to carry on with life as normal, future generations can deal with the problems of growth, somehow.

There is no technical reason that transportation and freedom of movement cannot be maintained reasonably comparable to that now known in the post industrial high technology world.

Do you mean "technically", in terms of the "theoretical", or in terms of the "practical". Until we figure how to live sustainably, it doesn't really matter if it's technically possible or not, since unsustainable lifestyles must end, by definition.

Roger: You neglected to mention that your plan is not workable without a major movement back to the urban centres.Mass transit and dense living arrangements are pretty well inseparable.

Buses, bicycles and carpooling to train stations from park and rides would work as an interim measure. People would squeal, but not as loudly as the will if they have to abandon their homes.

What we're lacking in the US is leadership with a clear plan. Peak means we've used about half the crude and we're going to have a decline in supply, not that we're immediately falling off a cliff into the Olduvai Gorge. Even the Export land hypothesis is a slope over 10 years.
Bob Ebersole

Roger Conner - "9. Hybrid and electric cars. These are technically viable. The deciding issue surrounds the durability and expense of the batteries. Even supporters of these vehicles must admit that the batteries are still expensive per kilowatt of storage. The bigger issue is that the customer must at this time carry the risk of battery failure. This is a great barrier to electric cars, and also to “plug hybrids”"

Yes and no. A modern IC car must carry the risk of failure we are just more aware of the risks as we have lived with IC engines for so long. However with modern cars have you ever priced the replacement value of the airbags, engine management computer, transmission computer etc? In one famous case that I know of the accidental tripping of the 8 or more airbags in a car was almost enough for the car to be written off insurance wise.

The latest batteries are good enough. The AlairNano and A123 Lithium batteries are durable, safe and have fantastic cycle life. The only thing that is missing is the demand to make large scale production a reality. NiMh batteries such as those in the Vectrix (http://www.vectrix.com/default.aspx?portal=1&page=108) are still really good batteries for cheaper short range commuter cars.

Imagine if IC cars had to use engines that are produced on the same scale as present electric car components.

A motor such as the 914 can be $25 000 or more. This of course reflects the much higher standards that aero engines are certified for however, it is also because of the much lower volume of manufacturing compared to the millions of automotive engines produced each year.


I saw my first E85 pump in Colorado last weekend. I was shocked to see the price of E85 was way less than regular gasoline. Is this common nation wide? At the gas station I belive it was about $.25 cheaper. Since ethanol is more expensive than gasoline, there are a lot of tax subsidies going into all those E85 fill-ups. This helped put some of the ethanol issue in perspective for me.

Think on an energy/kg basis, you are actually paying more for that fuel, because your milage will fall!(and thus you are required to purchase more fuel to get the same distance)

In Minnesota E-85 is consistently forty cents a gallon cheaper than 87 octane regular. This spread is so consistent among the hundreds of E-85 pumps in Minnesota that I think it is set by the oil companies.

Georgia is NOT the corn state, but it is the largest state east of the Mississippi. Vast tracks of Georgia are undeveloped. In the future Georgians might see more of the below ventures.

"Range Fuels, Inc., a cellulosic ethanol company, today announced it will build its first ethanol plant in Treutlen County, Georgia. Founded by Menlo Park, California-based Khosla Ventures, Range Fuels estimates that this plant – combined with others to follow – will have the capacity to produce over 1 billion gallons of ethanol per year. The first plant will create over 70 new jobs for the area."


The smartest way I can see is to plant sugarcane again in Florida, Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana and get the 4+ to 1 energy advantage by pressing and fermenting, then use enzymes to break down the cellulose in the pressed stalks to get more and then take what is left over from that and gasify and synthesize more. With a 3 stage process and sugar cane as a feedstock, you should be able to get high yields per acre and produce more for less.

We use corn instead of sugar cane to make ethanol. This is our first mistake. Corn has an energy balance of about 1.2 to 1 and sugarcane is more than 4 to 1.

We talk about cellulose ethanol, but there are no commercial scale cellulose ethanol plants in production. Ethanol will probably always be an additive. People talk about E85, but there would be NO way we could grow enough corn to sell it at every gas pump at every station nationwide.

Besides, there are only about 5 million out of the 150 million vehicles out there that could use it anyway. So 3% of the vehicles could use E85, but people are urging that it be available everywhere. We are straining to get to E5 nationwide using 25% of our corn crop for ethanol now.

In my view, we could push for cellulose ethanol and hybrids to the maximum and just SLOW the growth in oil usage just a bit. That is what a HUGE problem oil dependence is.

When a real shortage of oil happens due to Peak Oil, a middlest war, terrorist attacks on oil instalations or al l three together, the main concern will surely be food production and distribution.The West now has a farming system that needs cheap, plentifull and reliable supplies of oil and natural gas. Expensive, scarce and unreliable just will not do. There needs to be a plan in place to keep farming going. Imagine harvest or planting time with empty diesel tanks on farms. Becoming dependent on a finite resource is a bad idea if we expect to be fed forever.
In Europe there are plants springing up to make biodiesel from rapeseed. The straw is wasted even though it contains a similar amount of energy per acre as the seed. The straw breaks up badly during combining and so is difficult to bale.
We need a new system where crops such as rapeseed and wheat are harvested unthreshed, after swathing, in to big, dense bales. These would be taken to local processing plants where the seed or grain would be seperated from the straw and each used for food or energy perposes as required.At www.peakfood.co.uk we show the design for such a harvester

OK, well we can all agree that ethanol is not going to solve our problem of oil dependence, and that we will not have enough oil as world demand for oil continues to rise. However, there seems to be agreement that developing ethanol is a step in the right direction.

my political forum

There is nothing wrong with creating ethanol for transportation, if it is done in the right way. You need something like sugarcane, which yields more than 4 units of energy for every 1 unit of energy put into making it. This gets the maximum solar energy out with using the fewer fossil
in the process. Other wise you are just converting one source of energy input to another kind energy output. Also, the heat you use for cooking and distillation is important. If you are using coal you are releasing a lot of CO2. If you use solar thermal you would not.