Ethanol from Coal

The handwriting has been on the wall on this issue for a couple of years. In fact, I first mentioned it in March 2006 in Improving the Prospects for Grain Ethanol. Here is an excerpt of what I wrote:

This is an option that most environmentalists will abhor. However, it is the one most likely to take place in the short-term. The natural gas input into ethanol production is a serious long-term threat to economic viability. Since natural gas is a fossil fuel, and supplies are diminishing, it will put upward pressure on the price of ethanol over time. However, if the energy inputs could be produced from coal, ethanol prices would be insulated from escalating natural gas prices.

Using coal might also lessen the significance of the EROEI debate. If you take 1 BTU of (cheap) coal, and you get back 0.8 BTUs of (more valuable, liquid) ethanol, then EROEI doesn't have the same significance as when you use natural gas to produce ethanol. You converted the BTUs into a readily usable liquid form. This argument may be valid from an economic point of view, but it ignores the fact that coal is still an inherently dirty energy source. If coal remains abundant and cheap, coal economics will beat natural gas economics, but coal will increase the rate at which we put carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we come up with a viable method of sequestering the carbon dioxide produced at the power plant, then we might have a temporary economic solution (although we are still using up a non-sustainable fuel in the process).

Now I am not going to tell you that I think this is a good idea. I am just telling you what I think is going to happen. And a few days ago a friend sent a link that says Iowa is considering a couple of new coal plants for some ethanol plants, acknowledging the superior economics of coal as fuel:

Iowa needs $2 billion in coal-fired electricity production to supply power for ethanol; critics say coal use “ungreens” ethanol

Two coal-fired electricity plants, in Marshalltown and near Waterloo, have been proposed in Iowa to provide electricity for the growing collection of Iowa ethanol plants. Critics say that ethanol’s need for coal-powered electricity makes the case that it is not a green fuel.

Alliant Energy, co-owner of the Marshalltown project, said that the needs of the ethanol plants can only be solved at this point in time by nuclear, natural gas or coal, and that natural gas is not economical while nuclear has been taken off the table due to environmental concerns. The proposed plants would cost $1 billion each.

Last week, Xethanol Corporation announced that it would invest $500,000 in Consus Ethanol for its cogeneration project that would provide power for its ethanol production process from waste coal, that would have a $0.48 per gallon cost advantage over comparable ethanol plants in the Midwest powered by natural gas. The Pittsburgh-based facility will distribute fuel to East Coast markets, which have higher prices for ethanol.

On the subject of using coal as the source of BTUs for ethanol production, there are two things that stand out. First, the current process of using natural gas to produce ethanol makes little sense, since you can use natural gas directly in a CNG vehicle. You gain little or nothing by turning a BTU of natural gas into a BTU of ethanol (plus some animal feed). However, coal can't be used directly as automotive fuel, so one can make the argument of upgrading the quality of the energy source by turning some of coal's BTUs into ethanol.

Second, the cost of energy per BTU is far lower for coal. The current price of natural gas is $8 per million (MM) BTUs. However, according to the EIA coal sells for about $40/ton, or 2 cents a pound. The energy content of bituminous coal is about 12,750 BTU/lb, which calculates out to $1.57 per MMBTU. (Just double-checked my numbers, and found that the EIA reported that coal prices in September 2007 were $1.78 per MMBTU, so I was in the ballpark).

So, the economics are going to drive ethanol producers toward coal as their fuel of choice. And some have already been driven there. I predict we will see a lot more of this in the future, especially in light of my previous essay on the economics of corn ethanol. Plug in coal at $1.57/MMBTU instead of natural gas at $8, and it makes a huge difference. But for ethanol producers who do go this route, don't pretend that what you are doing is clean or renewable.

It would seem to me that scrapping ethanol altogether, gassifying coal on a massive scale, and converting automobiles to CNG would be a better way to go. The EROI for such a scheme surely must come out considerably better. There must be a way to gassify coal (maybe in situ?) that would be cleaner than just burning it directly for fuel. Automobiles and service stations would have to be converted for CNG. On the other hand, most of the existing inventory of autos can't run E85 now, and very few service stations carry it, so we're going to need to be making some investments in some sort of changeover in any case. The advantage of going the coal gassification route is that it doesn't just help the transport fuel situation, it also helps with Peak NG. The coal will eventually run out, of course (and much sooner under this scheme), but it does buy us some time to transition.

It would seem to me that scrapping ethanol altogether, gasifying coal on a massive scale, and converting automobiles to CNG would be a better way to go.

It would be so much smarter to retire the cars... we have bicycles, trains, feet...

Is gasifying coal to power cars more easily done than simply moving to electric transport and converting the coal to grid power as we do today? At least with electric vehicles we have alternatives in place when (if) wind, solar and nuclear ramp up.

In any case, considering coal+corn for ethanol suggests we are rather desperate. This is incredibly wasteful.

considering coal+corn for ethanol suggests we are rather desperate

A good summary!

Does anybody in the USA that makes the law care about CO2 emissions at all?

As somebody below says, welcome to the Anthropocene.

I am not sure there is any point in being desperate. I saw a chart that suggested that the US uses more FF energy than the entire estimated energy gain in all biomass from photosysnthesis in the US. In other words, if every square inch of US soil was planted with corn that you still wouldn't replace FF. There are no free lunches; and this is brutally true in energy. Ethanol from biomass is also BS.

All of this, PO, Climate change, the ethanol BS; indicates that humanity has to shift its mindset and it is not going to. If getting desperate is what counts it will happen when gas is $10+/gallon and sea levels have risen a foot and continuing to rise so a world wide moratorium closes all coal fired power stations.

Then people will be desperate!

If we had enough lead for all those electric car batteries, electric cars would be the way to go. An electric car with a fifty mile range for commuting, shopping, etc, and a van to take out of the garage once a month if you needed to drive a long ways without stopping someplace like work to charge your batteries for a few hours.

There is plenty of lead for run-arounds for everyone.
Advanced lead-acid like that from Firefly would use a lot less anyway, and in a light, specially designed vehicle give you plenty of range for most commutes and going shopping:
Background & History -

The Japanese have always been doubtful about plug-ins, and have said why not go straight to all-electric.

Unfortunately car companies have emphasised the resource-constrained lithium and nickel metal hydride batteries, when if you want to make plug-ins zinc-air would do a better job and is not resource constrained.

"The Japanese have always been doubtful about plug-ins, and have said why not go straight to all-electric."

As best I can tell, that's partly due to Japan's small size & short travel distances, and partly just competitive FUD.

I'd be curious to see a better analysis of lithium supply limits. It appears to be plentiful in theory, though current suppliers are somewhat limited.

There are real resource limits for lithium, Nick, and to a lesser extent Nickel for NiMiH batteries.

Here is a discussion complete with references and sources on my blog:

Unfortunately, lead for advanced lead acid batteries also seems to be in short supply, at least anytime soon:

Zinc air seems the best option, or perhaps Sodium Nickel Chloride to some extent.

I suspect that if one were to rank order the number of trips - from shortest to longest, clustered in 5 or 10 mile increments - the average person (or the total motoring public in aggregate - it doesn't really make much difference which way you look at it) takes in a given time period (a year, say), you will very likely find that they take far more short trips than long trips.

Therefore, I think we need to just approach the whole problem differently. Instead of coming up with an EV that will work for both long and short trips, we need to be thinking in terms of providing people with small, inexpensive EVs that will just work for those short trips. Not everyone can walk or bike everywhere around their locality, all the time, and not everyone will be well served by mass transit for a long time to come, so we do need to at least be weaning them off of the habit of hopping into an SUV for a quick trip down to the post office or grocery store. For longer trips, unless someone is making such trips very often, it is going to have to make more sense for them to just rent a vehicle with the capacity to go long distances when they need it.

Now here's the thing. If we are talking about most people having small, inexpensive EVs with limited speed (maybe a little higher than the 25-35 mph that NEVs are limited to now, but certainly not much more than 55 mph) and limited range (maybe 25 miles or so), then that is less of a challenge than is coming up with EVs for everyone that can go several hundred miles at highway speeds. We just might be able to come up with enough materials for enough batteries for that.

As for the long-distance cars, I don't think that electric is the way to go with those at all. Probably some form of fueled, combustion-based engine is the better solution. Whether the fuel should be ethanol or biodiesel or methanol or methane or hydrogen is something we can debate, and probably will endlessly. But if you are only talking about a small fraction of the total vehicle population now on the road (with further decreases as more intercity passenger rail comes on line), then each of these options looks a lot better than they do when talking about using them for the entire motor car population.

First of all, we need to rebuild neighborhoods to make them walkable. We can do this by building village centers in suburban areas where necessities and important wants could be made available within walking distance to all.

We should make it a societal goal to reduce automobile use by 80% by 2050.

Car sharing is an interesting concept. EVs could be part of the pool for short trips. Longer trips could be made by flex-fuel hybrids or by bus (Reducing the use of automobiles could shift resources to making bus transit more available and timely).

I have reviewed the Meridian Lithium report before - it's an interesting preliminary study, though it jumps to some conclusions on the USGS study. IIRC, it's evaluation of the Reserve Base makes a bad assumption on how "existing economically viable techniques" are affected by price changes - if price changes, economic viability changes, and he doesn't address that. He notes that li-ion battery prices need to fall, but he doesn't address the fact that lithium cost is only about .25% of battery cost, so increased lithium prices wouldn't be a serious problem. More importantly, the author has done some questionable things in the past, and I'd like a confirmation from another reputable source.

Oil has been the object of intensive exploration for many decades, and OPEC members have an incentive to overstate them. It's easy to assume that other commodities have been explored for in the same way, but that's rarely the case - usually, they receive only the exploration needed to ensure production within the window of time necessary to find new reserves and exploit them. In fact, sometimes commodity reserves are taxed - that's a big incentive to keep them down.

Lithium is a pretty abundant element, and TOD posts have suggested that it has gotten little serious prospecting (perhaps due to very low prices until recently), that it's pretty abundant, and that it's available from many similar salt-flats elsewhere which have received little attention - I'd like to see some good analysis here beyond this one source. At this point I don't think we can say anything stronger than "questions have been raised about the adequacy of lithium supplies".

On lead, I couldn't find the discussion of lead on the Stockhouse site you link to (the link is cut off, and I couldn't find it searching the site). There doesn't seem to be a question of insufficient resources. I don't see any quantitative discussion of the suggestion that production can't be ramped up quickly enough - that seems unlikely to me. Commodity production increases are difficult in time frames of 1-2 years, but in timeframes of 5-10 years production can be increased at high % rates. I think you need to present more information to make your case that limits to lead production are a serious problem.

It seems that the Meridian report has serious inaccuracies, and is too gloomy by half.

It aint' easy for an average guy like me to sort out what is happening, without engineering training.

I like to put ideas out there though, with the intention of having them shot down if there are holes in them.

Here is a very thorough discussion of the issue of lithium availability:

It's a shame that some of the posts are personal, including a couple of mine, but some seem to find it a personal affront to suggest anything contrary to their own ideas.

I am hoping that one of the more technically qualified people there will write this up, so that we have an easy reference point.

I would still be more comfortable if we had rather more emphasis on zinc, with it's vastly larger resource base.

If lithium is in good supply, lead resources are of less interest anyway, so it seems concerns are misplaced.

It was an interesting excercise though!

That is a good discussion over at fraserdomain.

I took a closer look at the MIR report, and found that indeed, the data didn't support the conclusions. Definitely biased.

I sometimes post info about which I'm unsure, to get feedback. It's very helpful to say that's what you're doing, or to signal your level of certainty with phrases like "it seems that", or "this source suggests that". You'll alarm people less.

SailDog - I have finally heard an accurate evaluation of "What we are likely to do in response to Peak Oil and global warming". For me, as well as a growing number of people, it's clear that until we are left with no alternative to happy motoring, infotainment and addictive consumerism the prospect of people retiring their cars and taking effective actions to solve global warming and Peak Oil are just more wishful thinking.

George Bush told us years ago in his state of the Union that "America is addicted to oil".

If we are addicts then it is reasonable to assume that:

a. not all of us will decide to wake up to our addiction in time

b. each of us will have reach our personal bottom before we make the change

c. the biggest enemy for an addict is denial

d. Only one out of 3 addicts are able to free themselves from their addiction before it kills them.

Therfore I would have to conclude that for America to make the shift to a sustainable lifestyle there will need to be a massive dieoff of most of us.

Does anybody in the USA that makes the law care about CO2 emissions at all?

Yes: the state legislature of California. They wanted their own automotive emissions standards to include CO2 and greenhouse gases, resulting in more strict efficiency standards than Federal law.

But they, and the EPA's own scientific staff, were overruled in an extraordinary decision by the head of the EPA (a political appointee), and I believe a legal ruling says that any state can't make its own emissions standards unless the Feds agree.

So, no. At the moment, there is no legally enforcable standard on greenhouse emissions in any way in the USA, or any mandatory economic penalty imposed.

There are new Adsorbed Natural Gas natural gas tanks that can store more natural gas in a smaller space at lower pressures on vehicles. If you gasify corn stalks into Substitute Natural Gas (methane) you would have carbon neutral fuel for cars. You can just pipe the SNG into the existing natural gas pipelines and fill your ANG tanks on your car in your garage more conveniently and at a lower cost.

I suggest that Leanan bring back my all-time favorite HO post, gasifying coal and oil shale with surplus nuclear weapons.

I was thinking along the same lines.

If you are going to use coal, particularly bituminous or subbituminous, why not just gasify it? With the inital volatile content of a medium-high volatile coal somewhere around 20-30%, by weight, you'd be well on your way to creating a liquid fuel of reasonably high BTU value.

The rough rule of thumb value we use for coal-to-liquids (and it really does depend upon the BTU value and both the proximate and the ultimate analysis of the coal) is over 2.4 BOE/ton of coal.


I think your coal pricing is a bit out!

McCloskey's reported last week that coal was rising rapidly and had reached $270 per tonne

We could be closer to peak coal than we imagine - possibly within 40 years, for the following reasons:

1. Natural industrial growth in newly industrialising countries such as India and China.
2. Coal being consumed to offset petroleum consumption - such as coal to liquids.
3. Remaining coal stocks are inferior grades meaning more tonnage has to be mined for equivalent energy content. Lignite is about 60% of the calorific value of anthracite. The US has already peaked in anthracite and bituminous coals.

We may have our eye on the oil price - but we should also be watching coal.

Existing Chinese coal fired power plants seldom exceed 28% thermal efficiency, although they are starting to build some ultra-super-critical plants that will produce power at about 45% efficiency (before transmission losses).

By way of comparison, the typical efficiency of UK and US plants is about 38%, and then about 8% of the power produced is lost in distribution.

It is good that we have all these tecnologies that may be available for long term use.

However, none should be considered, if not accompanied by a long and shorter term demand side reduction plan.

Pollution from burning and mining coal is a large concern with viewing this resource as a mere economic substitution for the diminishing oil resource. And remember, there is a finite supply of coal.

That's what spot coal costs after you ship it someplace at the peak of a boom. If you build a strip mine you sell coal for a lot less on long term contract.

I'm not religious, but all I have to say after reading this is, "god help us all." It looks like we'll cook the planet before human activity is curtailed by a serious energy crisis. Welcome to the Anthropocene.

We need to set as a goal, and REALIZE the reduction of automobile and airplane use by 80% by 2050.

This is an option that most environmentalists will abhor.

True enough, but I find this stated a bit euphemistically, as though only social considerations are worth mentioning.

How about "This is an option which, if implemented, may contribute to killing off many of the planet's existing species and much of its human population in coming decades and centuries."

RR is clear he's not supporting it, but why not call it as the majority of climate scientists see it?

I wouldn't want to be raising corn to compete with coal. Sounds like a storm brewing for all those midwest farmers.

forget the farmers.

There's a storm brewing for anyone who eats.

"The three major U.S. grain exchanges said in a coordinated statement late on Friday that they will raise the daily trading limit in wheat futures to 60 cents per bushel from 30 cents, starting with the February 11 trade date."

Usually when this happens, the commodity in question trades down.

But this ain't usual times.

Lowest wheat stox in 60 years. Maybe 100.

Wheat Open High Low Last

Mar 08 1153 1153 1115 1115 * Feb 08, 17:06


Mar 08 1153 1153 1150 1153 Feb 11, 09:29

$1131.50 now -CNBC

How much of that panic pricing is because of wheat and soy acreage turned to corn for ethanol production? I think the commodity grain market is set for a fall. A recession could lower energy prices and currently uneconomic ethanol production could crash. Suddenly the tassle would be off the ear, so to speak.

The raising of trading limits isn't all that significant if you look at it as a percentage of the current price vs: the old limit as a percentage of the price five years ago.

I can gloom and doom with the best of them but my hunch is that this agricultural boom is heading for a bust, short term. Recessions cause people to eat less meat, drive less, buy less and generally pull in their consumptive horns. We all know the common wisdom that it takes ten calories of corn to grow one calorie of beef. The corn required to make a hamburger can make four pounds of tacos.

If the coal to ethanol conversion process is scalable and economic the implications for corn based ethanol would seem to be pretty grim. If corn prices crash, acreage will go back to wheat and soy.

How much of that panic pricing is because of wheat and soy acreage turned to corn for ethanol production?

As for wheat, in the US the answer would be to be "not much". From the USDA numbers, in 2006 the acreage downturn happened for soybean and oats (and perhaps hay production.) There were problems worldwide in 2006 for wheat production so demand for US exports is understandably strong.

The cornbelt in the US overlaps the major soybean growing areas, thus there is a natural tradeoff there that we would expect to continue. Should there be a major problem say in China over this year's soybean production then we might see beans in the same situation as wheat currently finds itself. Historically in China there has been tradeoffs to actually substituting human hair for soybeans... really, for making "soy" sauce. That is just for flavoring of course - for the bulk protein I think the Chinese are running out of options.

There's a little rent-seeking going on with the coal company. In reality, the ethanol producers are moving, pretty rapidly, toward biomass for energy. Several are taking the "Corn-Plus route" of burning their thin stillage, others will take the Poet route (too complicated to explain, here.) One, or two, have actually taken the route of using the waste heat from a present coal-fired utility.

Interestingly, coal hasn't worked very well where it was tried. It was probably a design flaw in that specific plant, but they weren't able to generate enough heat.

The really good news is that the ethanol plants are learning how to make alcohol at lower, and lower temperatures. That, and the newer membrane technology is bringing the "energy invested" part of the equation down very quickly.

"The really good news is that the ethanol plants are learning how to make alcohol at lower, and lower temperatures."

And some of these guys say their stuff tastes almost as good
as Jack Daniels. Green, not the Black.


Just make sure you get to it BEFORE it's "denatured." :)


Let's all sing!!


Hold tight wait till the partys over
Hold tight were in for nasty weather
There has got to be a way
Burning down the house...

It such irony. We thought the BOMB would be the end...
But no. It's going to be the freaking car.
Imagine that.

Don't count The Bomb out yet. This is The Car's show, yes, but The Bomb may yet make a "special guest" appearance, right before the end of the show. ;P

Don't count out the nuclear car bomb or small sailboat bomb. It may be the future delivery system of choice.

Don't count out the nuclear car bomb

Now that would be just perfect! The exact opposite of a neutron bomb - takes out all the d@mn cars, and leaves the people standing.

With all the electronics on new cars, the EMP from a high altitude nuclear burst would take out the cars (and a whole lot more) and leave the people standing around with nothing to do (or eat).

E. Swanson

"burning down the house" happens to be the theme of today's blog entry from JHK, who's in perfect form again:

"This is not so much financial bad weather as financial climate change."

Mr. Rapier This is an interesting piece but I believe your case is weakened by using numbers like 1 BTU of coal to create 0.8 BTU ethanol. This is in the range of numbers referenced but more reliable numbers seem to cluster in the 1.3 BTU to 1.6 BTU fossil fuels to create one BTU of ethanol.

You touched on a key point when you mentioned that using coal created a higher value liquid transportation fuel. My objections to EROI and Net Energy calculations is that they do not acount for differences in the value of BTUs from different sources.

In regards to your posting on the economics of Ethanol posting of several days ago-you expressed suprise at the yields. You must not be aware that 8.4 pounds of the 56 pounds in a bushel of corn is water. I did however like the approach used.

You mentioned potentially using coal to make ethanol. It has been a long time since I worked coal gasification but once you get to CO-H2 mix I suspect you would be better of just using the FT Process making liquid fuel directly.

The problem with coal is:

1) It's Not Sustainable,

2) It's Dirty as all get out, and

3) The plants cost a fortune, and are labor-intensive

Better Solution, Probably, Biomass:

This is an interesting piece but I believe your case is weakened by using numbers like 1 BTU of coal to create 0.8 BTU ethanol. This is in the range of numbers referenced but more reliable numbers seem to cluster in the 1.3 BTU to 1.6 BTU fossil fuels to create one BTU of ethanol.

Not with coal. Even the pro-ethanol Argonne/USDA studies that reported those numbers you cite showed a net increase in GHG emissions when using coal. In other words, energy out is less than energy in. But, the 0.8 was just an example. I don't recall what the exact number was. I will look it up later if I have time.

It has been a long time since I worked coal gasification but once you get to CO-H2 mix I suspect you would be better of just using the FT Process making liquid fuel directly.

Yes, that's been my position for a long time. If you are going to use gasification to make a liquid fuel, do FT and make diesel. The reason some are being driven to ethanol is because the subsidies are distorting the market.

With all due respect, Robert, you need to get his comparison straightened out. You wrote:

If you take 1 BTU of (cheap) coal, and you get back 0.8 BTUs of (more valuable, liquid) ethanol..

Now, divide both sides by 0.8 and you get:

--->1.25 BTU of coal, and you get back 1.0 BTUs of ethanol

This is in the ball park with the other numbers posted by SMN.

As SMN mentions, remember that the EROEI computation includes more than just the energy used in the ethanol plant. Part of the problem is that these other energy expenditures aren't apparent at any one stage of the total "system". The use of economic values does provide some capture of the energy used, but the various energy sources are not priced the same in dollar terms, so the ROI computation distorts the overall picture.

Economic values often are backward looking, in that today's dollar values do not reflect the long term changes. As the dollar value of oil increases, the dollar prices for everything made by using oil also increase, but this is not an instantaneous change. As a result, computing ROI today may not give the same value as an ROI calculated a few years after a step change in oil price. As oil prices might be expected to begin to ramp up after Peak Oil, the ROI value computation may also produce a delayed ramp upwards, making the usual economic comparisons meaningless.

E. Swanson

Now, divide both sides by 0.8 and you get:

--->1.25 BTU of coal, and you get back 1.0 BTUs of ethanol

This is in the ball park with the other numbers posted by SMN.

No, what he posted was just the opposite of what the studies have shown. I think he meant 1.0 BTUs of fossil fuel per 1.3 to 1.6 BTUs of ethanol production. That's what the Argonne/USDA studies have claimed. But for coal, the reverse is true: More fossil fuel BTUs in than you get out. But, you can argue the fact that you are turning coal into a liquid fuel. The question is, "Is that the most effective use of those BTUs?"

Yes, as I recall, the best EROEI was around 1.3 BTU's of ethanol for every 1.0 BTU or other energy "invested". SMN may have reversed the relationship but then, your original value would appear to be too low as well.

The ratio for most processes is going to be less than 1 to 1, without some other energy subsidy. Turning oil into gasoline results in less energy than could be recovered by simply burning the crude oil. The FT process to turn coal into diesel is less than 1 to 1. What's more important is that the energy gained by extracting the oil or coal is much greater than 1 out for 1 in, as Nate Hagens has often pointed out. The overall ratio for gasoline or diesel from Earth to consumer is also much greater than 1 to 1 for the easy to get at fossil fuels.

That this ratio is so close to 1 to 1 for many alternatives is the fundamental problem the world faces. Can we continue living the way we do with an energy system which provides only a small net gain? The usual economic system analysis does not capture these problems very well and as long as we continue to rely on ROI as the metric for decision making, we are only going to keep on keeping on until our toes are hanging over a cliff. Then what?

E. Swanson

Yes, as I recall, the best EROEI was around 1.3 BTU's of ethanol for every 1.0 BTU or other energy "invested". SMN may have reversed the relationship but then, your original value would appear to be too low as well.

Again, no. The EROEI of 1.3 was for natural gas as the fuel for the boilers. The USDA later did some funny accounting (they assigned more of the energy inputs to the DDGS) and they then claimed an energy return of 1.67. But the situation changes when coal is used, because it isn't as efficient. When coal is used, the EROEI - even by the proponents' methodology, was less than 1. Was it 0.8? I don't know. That was just an example to show why someone might be willing to run a process with an EROEI of less than 1.

What's more important is that the energy gained by extracting the oil or coal is much greater than 1 out for 1 in, as Nate Hagens has often pointed out.

Of course. And Nate and I have discussed this on many occasions. We are exactly on the same page on this issue.

Ethanol from garbage sounds as though it might be fairly decent:
Coskata Ethanol Technology - How It Works - Illustration and Analysis - Popular Mechanics

Some information indicates you might be better off making it into biogas though, and get more energy from it:
Fuels compared

If anyone has more data on the energy output of different biofuels I would be interested.

...And unfortunately on the marketing/PR front:

I hear the phrase "clean coal" coming from the mouths of people who have no idea of energy issues. I am hyperaware, as a TOD'er, and it jumps out as another example of the power of public relations, television, marketing, etc.

I also heard one of the Repub's state the need for America to adopt "liquid coal".

I will repeat my prediction that when the energy crunch comes, coal will be king. There may be a brief period (now?) where NIMBYism leads us to do nothing. But when the power bills start to go up and really bite, look out for the coal plants, and not the more expensive 'clean' ones, but the big dirty ones.

I will repeat my prediction that when the energy crunch comes, coal will be king.

I have predicted much the same: When the air conditioning starts to go out in Houston, objections to dirty fuels will cease and we will start burning coal just as fast as we can.

I have predicted much the same: When the air conditioning starts to go out in Houston, objections to dirty fuels will cease and we will start burning coal just as fast as we can.

Which suggests to me that it would be important to try and make sure that "burning coal as fast as we can" is the same thing as "burning coal as cleanly as we can".

That's a contradiction in terms. Any sort of "sequestration" of the CO2 would cost a significant portion of the energy generated, thus getting in the way of producing net electricity "as fast as we can". (Meanwhile the "demand" for air conditioning will increase as the climate gets hotter...)

The economic penalty of sequestration is why I predict it will never happen, even if technically feasible.

Best hopes for expensive coal.

Sequestration will, in retrospect, just have been a foot in the door. A temporary rationalization, a balm to near-term cognitive dissonance. It won't be continued once populations are actually demanding more energy. Not a chance in the world.

"Clean coal" is a memetic icon for the masses, and a well-designed one. Show of hands - how many people still think dolphins "accidentally" got caught in tuna nets? That good humans will live forever in paradise after their brains die? This is how humans think, unfortunately.

IIRC what I heard on a recent BBC program about CO2 sequestration, the biggest demonstration project to date of carbon capture and sequestration from coal burning only involves a few hundreds of pounds of carbon emissions a year.

Carbon capture has been used successfully at a number or chemical plants for years and the methods and technologies used there form the basis for proposals for capture at large coal fired generating plants. But, we don't know if the methods and technologies will successful scale up to handle the massive carbon emissions from such plants.

The scientists argued that it would be foolish to try to implement collection and sequestration at a full sized generating plant based solely on what we have observed and learned for the very small-scale operations now existing. They felt that a 15 year (or longer) program of progressively larger test installation would be needed to prove the concept and identify engineering and operating issues.

Given the projected explosion in construction of new coal fired generating plants over the next decade or two, they recommended that all new plants be designed and built for the eventual addition of sequestration equipment and operations. This would greatly speed up the back-fitting of plants to use the process (or one of the processes) identified as usable on the scale needed. It would also reduce the costs of the back-fitting.

"When the air conditioning starts to go out in Houston, objections to dirty fuels will cease and we will start burning coal just as fast as we can."

Maybe. Wind and solar can be built much more quickly, Texas has a very, very good wind resource, and nobody in Texas has NIMBY objections to wind.

Now, wind is still more expensive than coal, but that's a different matter - people may be willing to pay a relatively small premium for clean power, especially when it can be built more quickly.

Nick's right. Concentrated solar photovoltaic can be built faster than you can build the railroad tracks to a new coal deposit and start mining it, much less faster than you can build the coal mining machines, or the coal burning power plant.
It's a dead question. If your alternative to solar "cooties" is sweating in the dark, even the most dead set oil industry executive is going to go green.

Good point Robert,

Here is what I feel we can expect to happen:

1. Corn prices rise until ethanol plants cannot earn money.

2. Ethanol plants switch to cheaper coal.

3. Corn prices rise until ethanol plants cannot earn money.

Farmers will do fine. The poor will suffer further. I did a few calculations on how high corn could go in Stuart's "Fermenting the Food Supply" post.

To form an argument that biomass will replace coal or natural gas, you need to prove that equal quantities of biomass can be provided at a lower price than coal or NG. Otherwise the argument is DOA.

To form an argument that biomass will replace coal or natural gas, you need to prove that equal quantities of biomass can be provided at a lower price than coal or NG. Otherwise the argument is DOA.

I was just about to write the same thing. Economics will rule in the end. You won't stay in business if you are trying to run your plant on biomass, and your neighbor has a $0.50/gal advantage because he switched to coal.

Correct me here, please.

But you're not running your plant on coal, you're running it on electricity made from coal.


You're right, Mac. This company just wants to build a couple of coal-fired plants; and they're using the "ethanol story" to try and justify the project. Ethanol plants don't use all that much electricity. In the future, when electricity costs are higher, they'll just produce their own. Corn Plus has a couple of windmills up, and, I'd imagine there will be a few others do the same.

Yeah, it sure isn't very smart to burn coal to boil water to run a turbine to make electricity, then use that electricity to boil water (containing ethanol) to put into a distillery. While some of the combined cycle plants have good efficiency, the result is likely to be more coal consumption than just burning the coal in a boiler at the ethanol plant.

E. Swanson

I thought the plan was to use the turbine exhaust to provide process heat for the distillery. This is about 60% of the coal's energy that is usually wasted in a cooling tower. Therefore no more coal would be burned than if the distillery wasn't there.

That's where the thermodynamics comes in, as in increasing Entropy, etc. The energy dumped into the air with a cooling tower is at a low temperature, very near ambient. To "use" that energy, it must be possible to "dump" it to some still lower temperature. But, the cooling tower is already at the lowest temperature which can be achieved at that place and time. Now, if somehow the steam power plant were operating in space, the dumping could be at a much lower temperature (higher entropy state) of the cosmic background radiation, something near 3 K.

Then too, the steam cycle can not produce the maximum thermal efficiency of an ideal Carnot cycle. Also, there are losses all throughout the plant, including those in the boilers, turbines, heat exchangers, piping and pumps.

Who is it that came up with "The Plan" which you mention? Do they understand engineering?

E. Swanson

You just don't get this whole cogeneration concept. The steam leaves the turbine, passes through a heat exchanger which is connected to the distillery, and finally goes to the cooling tower. The heat reaching the distillery is more than hot enough for cooking the mash and the distillation tower if a vacuum is applied.
Alliant Energy wants to build two new coal fired power plants in Iowa and hopes by including an ethanol plant into its plans TPTB in Iowa will issue the permits.

I do understand the "cogeneration" concept. I didn't disagree with the concept.

The steam leaving the turbine under this concept would be at higher pressure than that which would result if the steam were directed to the cooling heat exchangers. That's the result of the fact that the distillation process requires higher than ambient temperature, as distillation process will also ultimately be dumping heat to the same ambient temperature sink. When the steam temperature is greater, the turbine will thus be less efficient, as the pressure drop across the turbine will be less. As a result, less electricity will be produced per ton of coal.

That said, the resulting combination may be more efficient than burning coal in separate boilers for the ethanol and electric plants, since the distillation process does not require the high temperatures which can be produced by burning coal. It might be that some steam could be extracted at some intermediate point in the turbine, where temperatures and pressure are higher than the normal output to the cooling towers. Given the possibilities, it's too simple to claim that the "60% of the coal's energy" would be available without some impact on the electric generating plant's output.

E. Swanson

But you're not running your plant on coal, you're running it on electricity made from coal.


The specific ones mentioned in that article, yes. But the ones I mentioned in the original essay - from the Christian Science Monitor - were using coal for boilers. Here's the link:

Who is going to pay for clean coal? The power plants make less money if they have to pay for it. The consumer will just pay higher fees for the power if they do. Then you will have coal on par with other energy sources...well, that sounds good to me! :)

Wow wow, hold the phone on investing in this project. This is assuming that the next presidency 1) upholds the CRAZY subsidies for corn-based ethanol and supports the tariffs on Brazilian imports. 2) that the evolution of cellulosic technologies is delayed (which is highly likely, i must admit), and as someone already pointed out, 3) for some silly reason we don't pursue liquid fuels via F-T gasification.

The Voyager plant, when completed, should, by using just the lignin from the kernel and the cob, not only be able to increase the yield/acre by 27%, but, also, be able to supply virtually ALL of it's process energy. This, without even using any stover.

The "Next Generation" ethanol plant will use both anaerobic digestion, and gassification. It will even produce some biochar which will improve crop yields, and sequester CO2 (if you're interested in that type of thing.)

It will, also, produce some corn oil, and a better cattle feed. Another big advantage is that a lot of the fuel will be produced locally, which is a big advantage when dealing with ethanol. With coal, you've got to either produce the ethanol close to the coal fields, or, ship the coal, and THEN ship the ethanol. Double Trouble.

Both trucking rates and railroad freight rates have gone up 10 to 15% per year and in some cases with the RR's the shippers have seen 20% increases per year. Ethanol plants that are receiving all inputs and outputs by rail will be at a disadvantage, unless congress reintroduces rate regulation.

Best solution for process heat is to go to boimass from municipal waste stream, INHO.

If we think our electric bills are high now, wait until ethanol-from-coal, or coal-to-liquids, is scaled up...

The analysis has already been done by Kammen at Berkeley(the anti-Patzek).

Using dirty coal, corn ethanol is still cleaner than gasoline(91 gCO2 per MJ versus 94 for gasoline).

So it is STILL cleaner than gasoline.

Cellulosic is MUCH better at 11 gCO2/MJ.

You can improve GHG emissions by co-firing 50% renewable biomass with 50% coal.

I'd be surprised if ethanol producers were still using natural gas to fire boilers for distillation heat.

CTL gasoline without CCS is very bad--you end up with twice the CO2 as drilled oil.

Of course, coal is not renewable but it makes more sense to make energy positive ethanol from it than burn it to make electricity.

And carbon capture and sequestration is a reality but it will certainly cost money. The economics are not that bad but the problem is money is in short supply everywhere.

Hopefully the government will MAKE us do CCS and put an end to the issue of it being a 'choice'.

Using dirty coal, corn ethanol is still cleaner than gasoline(91 gCO2 per MJ versus 94 for gasoline).

So it is STILL cleaner than gasoline.

Your information is dated. You do realize that Kammen and company are the ones who just released the report that said that ethanol is twice as bad as gasoline. Right? Since you like him so much, do you accept his conclusions on this:

Academics tasked with plotting California’s transition to a low-carbon fuel have delivered more bad news: Ethanol appears to come with a higher greenhouse-gas price tag than previously thought — higher, indeed, than fossil fuel.

The University of California at Berkeley’s Transportation Sustainability Research Center told the California Air Resources Board that ethanol could be twice as bad as gasoline, from a carbon-emissions point of view. How? Basically by turning land now covered with trees, grass, and other natural “carbon sinks” into farmland for corn and other crops used for ethanol.

“Simply said, ethanol production today using U.S. corn contributes to the conversion of grasslands and rainforest to agriculture, causing very large GHG emissions,” wrote Berkeley profs Alex Farrell and Michael O’Hare in a January 12 memo to California regulators. “Even if only a small fraction of the emissions calculated in this crude way [through land use change] are added to estimates of direct emissions for corn ethanol, total emissions for corn ethanol are higher than for fossil fuels.”

That's the same group that you quoted in your favor above. What say you now? Is he still the anti-Patzek?

This is a very oblique objection to US ethanol.

The way the report is worded, corn ethanol in the US is claimed to be 'worse' because it encourages people to develop virgin forests in the Third World (land use change). It is obviously ridiculous to say that US farmers are clearing virgin US land for ethanol; the CRP land is FARMLAND purposely taken out of production for a while to prevent over production.

First of all, the Third Worlders are not converting land to make ethanol for the US market(we have ethanol tarrifs). They also are not clearing land for soybeans and cotton displaced in the US( US has had bumper crops in corn and soybeans). They are cleaning land for the EU biodiesel mandates and for their own rising populations. Do you think if the US stops growing corn for ethanol, this land use problem will go away.

They don't mention the dangers of draining marshes, building suburbs,etc.

It's errant nonsense and the final attempt by the Patzek-Pimentalites to stop the least polluting liquid fuel.

I didn't see Kammens name on any reports, the Berkeley Transportation Department is Patzeks group. Kammen is in the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.

This argument, the US shouldn't do biofuels because 'it will encourage others' is horseshit. 'Others' will follow Brazil's lead not ours. Personally, I take NO responsibility for the energy policies of Africa or Indonesia or Brazil or China...

If you TRULY care about the planet bomb every oil refinery, coal fired power plant, the world, right? That's the intelligence level of these 'reports'.

This is about agriculture. Approximately a 20% of the annual increase in the atmospheric CO2 concentration is owing to deforestation or other land use changes. This is not about anyone else's energy policy but our own. When we stop exporting grain, forests are cut down. It is that simple. We can change our energy policy to get biomass in a responsible way or we can increase emissions by having a foolish policy. People will eat and they will cut down forests to do it if there is no other way. You are blaming the reporters, but your argument is with the scientists, and you have not shown yet that you have understood what they are saying.


If we put soybean farms into corn for ethanol, Brazil will put forests into soybean farms.

I didn't see Kammens name on any reports, the Berkeley Transportation Department is Patzeks group. Kammen is in the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.

Kammen is coauthor of the report I cited above. It was a report to the California Air Resources Board. Seems like Kammen has had second thoughts. My question to you is, if you felt like he was a credible source when he thought ethanol was a good thing, do you still feel like he is a credible source? My guess, by your post, is that you no longer feel he is credible because of his new report. This is a habit I often see in Creationists: Whether a source is credible or not merely depends on whether the source agrees with them. And if the source changes their mind, they are no longer credible. But if someone changes over to their side, suddenly they are credible.

If you TRULY care about the planet bomb every oil refinery, coal fired power plant, the world, right?

And ensure the deaths of millions of people? I care about the planet, but I also care about people. Our lives are entirely dependent on fossil fuels at the moment, such that if you pulled them out from under us it wouldn't be long before we were dropping like flies.

I think you've confused about Farrell with Kammen.

"Alex Farrell, a professor with Berkeley's Energy and Resources Group who concluded in 2006 that biofuels produce a net environmental benefit, said the paper by Searchinger and his colleagues changed his mind."

Farrell's concern (again) is land use, changing virgin forests to farmland IN OTHER COUNTRIES.( For example,I believe the number of trees in North America are increasing.)
I think this is an oblique objection as in "don't do 'that' because doing 'that' will make it worse."(don't do coal, don't do biofuels, don't do wind, etc.)
There's a lot of such negativity about the peak oil community. In fact I think it is the majority view.

"My guess, by your post, is that you no longer feel he is credible because of his new report. This is a habit I often see in Creationists: Whether a source is credible or not merely depends on whether the source agrees with them. And if the source changes their mind, they are no longer credible. But if someone changes over to their side, suddenly they are credible."

That was a low blow. A creationist? Moi? (an adhom, perhaps?)
In fact if you look at the CO2 balance data, you'll find that land use is a separate issue and not covered by Kammen's calculations IMO.

I have great respect for sources, but in the end I use my own judgement.

I recently read a book on the solution of the 'Three Body Problem' in the 1890's- the interaction of gravity
on the orbits of three planets in determining the shape of orbits--2 body interaction had been solved by Newton, nowadays this drudgery is left to Univac.
The King of Sweden had announced a Prize to whichever mathematician could solve it. The amount of vitriol and politicking over the Prize were mindblowing( the Germans didn't want the French to get it, Swedes said the problem was already proven by a Swede(Gylden), etc.). The prize had been given to Poincaire, who it turned out had made a MISTAKE in his proof( on the convergency/divergence of a periodic series...OMG!!!!). The committee made Poincaire personally pay for reprinting the proof which cost 3.5 times as much as the King's Price(he did).

The bottom line is you must seriously weigh each objection in context and not simply dismiss a promising technology
because of oblique objections ( e.g. don't use wind farms because they confuse our present radar technology, etc.)

I agree that Farrell has a serious objection, but US bioethanol is not causing this. The US and the OEDC has little influence over the policies of the Third World and when they do attempt to influence TW, the response is either zero or negative. Because the US uses SO MUCH gasoline, going to low emission E85 would have a tremendous reduction in CO2 going out of the US, especially if the feedstock grown inside the US.

"I care about the planet, but I also care about people. Our lives are entirely dependent on fossil fuels at the moment, such that if you pulled them out from under us it wouldn't be long before we were dropping like flies."

Yes, of course....but the way you were harping on CO2 emissions I couldn't tell.

I am reminded of the quote,
"Fanaticism consists in redoubling your effort when you have forgotten your aim."-Santayana

The old plan was to convert fossil fuels to hydrogen gas, bury the CO2 and burn hydrogen in high efficiency fuel cells--energy negative but zero emissions. But fuel cell and hydrogen storage technology is coming on too slowly.

The fact is that ethanol will save a lot of petroleum (7 boe for every input barrel) using abundant coal for HEATING instead. This is the MOST efficient way of using any fossil fuel(+80%). Electricity from fossil fuels is an incredible waste(30% at best).

As for coal or tar sands or oil refinery emissions, I say bury them.

I think you've confused about Farrell with Kammen.

No, I haven't. Both were listed as authors on the reports to CARB.

A Low-Carbon Fuel Standard for California Part 1: Technical Analysis
Alexander E. Farrell, UC Berkeley Transportation Sustainability Research Center
Daniel Sperling, ITS-Davis
S.M. Arons
A.R. Brandt
M.A. Delucchi
A. Eggert
A.E. Farrell
B.K. Haya
J. Hughes
B.M. Jenkins
A.D. Jones
D.M. Kammen

Thanks for posting that link (May 2007).

The link says that biofuels are the best way to achieve the maximum reduction in carbon-AFCI (Table ES-2). Table ES-3 gives celulosic ethanol the lowest CO2 emissions.
Table 3-2. gives unconventional oil, EOR, oil shale, GTL and particularly CTL and oil shale the worst CO2 ratings compared to gasoline.

I would guess that Farrell must have had his change of heart after this document that Kammen did sign which is strongly pro-ethanol IMO.

The only bad ethanol scenario is the coal fired dry mill at 114, but a corn stover fired dry mill ends up at 47 so as I previously stated at a 65% coal/35% corn cobb fired dry mill should end up at 70%=114x65%+47x35% which is less than 80%. Overall the entire paper is strongly pro-ethanol IMO.

It does mention the land-use issue in Section 2.84.

Perhaps you have a different interpretation?

There were 2 documents. I only linked you to the first one. Kammen also signed the 2nd document. You seem to have a hard time believing that he had a change of heart. But he was in fact a coauthor on the report that concluded:

The Berkeley team warned about the land-use-change bogeyman (”LUC” in shorthand) in a pair of lengthy reports submitted to California authorities last year. But only this month did the team report the startling, if preliminary, numbers. Current wisdom in California says gasoline produces about 92 grams of carbon dioxide for every megajoule of energy produced; ethanol is reckoned to be slightly cleaner at 75.9 grams. But the land-use penalty alone from growing more biofuel crops could add as much as 140 grams/MJ—a “really enormous” number, professors Farrell and O’Hare wrote.

You can always e-mail him and ask him yourself. Be sure and report back what he says (and if you accept it).

If you can supply me with the link, I'll read it.
Otherwise, I'm loath to send an email to Kammen querying him on his position.

Here's a link from Farrell's powerpoint.

On page 13 he says cellulosic ethanol does not impact LUC and is a good alternative for the ethanol industry. He also says his LUC estimates are NOT reliable.
He's FAR from decisive on ethanol.

Let me admit to a concern about the effect of biodiesel in the Third World on LUC. (after all I've mentioned it myself.)
But as an american, I see that the main object of reducing american emissions of CO2 is best met by bioethanol (cellulosic whenever possible).

Nothing you have presented so far seems to fundamentally disagree with that.

I already supplied you the link. I reported on it in my blog above. The authors presented the two papers, and then made a statement saying that emissions from corn ethanol were higher than for gasoline. You chose not to believe that Kammen has taken such a position. Other than contacting him, I don't know what else to tell you. If you can point to where he has disavowed the conclusions of the rest of his co-authors, I would be happy to entertain that line of argumentation. But right now I think you are grasping at straws in refusing to acknowledge that he has had a large change in position from his previous corn ethanol enthusiasm.

I think you are throwing around a lot of numbers. For example, the combined cycle coal plants can achieve 62% efficiency, as I recall. I think that even old coal fired electric generators avhieve better than 40% conversion. Also, burning coal to provide heating for distillation produces more CO2 than using natural gas for the same purpose. Biomass, such as corn stover, is not waste, but would normally be returned to the land and would enrich the top soil somewhat as a result. If this material is not allowed to go back into the top soil, there would be a need for increased inputs of nutrients, a need which is glossed over by your later suggestion that stover could be added to coal being burned for distillation heating.

I do need to read the paper to add to my understanding.

E. Swanson

I turns out that these kinds of calculations are thumb twiddling in the context of how we produce biofuels now. There are two papers out in Science last week that look at the emissions produced by displacing food production on US croplands and conversion of natural ecosystems to biofuel production worldwide. It turns out that biofuels produce more greenhouse gas emissions than using gasoline. Here are the abstacts:

Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt
Joseph Fargione, Jason Hill, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, Peter Hawthorne

Increasing energy use, climate change, and carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from fossil fuels make switching to lowcarbon fuels a high priority. Biofuels are a potential lowcarbon energy source, but whether biofuels offer carbon savings depends on how they are produced. Converting rainforests, peatlands, savannas, or grasslands to produce food-based biofuels in Brazil, Southeast Asia, and the United States creates a 'biofuel carbon debt' by releasing 17 to 420 times more CO2 than the annual greenhouse gas (GHG) reductions these biofuels provide by displacing fossil fuels. In contrast, biofuels made from waste biomass or from biomass grown on abandoned agricultural lands planted with perennials incur little or no carbon debt and offer immediate and sustained GHG advantages.

Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change
Timothy Searchinger, Ralph Heimlich R. A. Houghton, Fengxia Dong, Amani Elobeid, Jacinto Fabiosa, Simla Tokgoz, Dermot Hayes, Tun-Hsiang Yu

Most prior studies have found that substituting biofuels for gasoline will reduce greenhouse gases because biofuels sequester carbon through the growth of the feedstock. These analyses have failed to count the carbon emissions that occur as farmers worldwide respond to higher prices and convert forest and grassland to new cropland to replace the grain (or cropland) diverted to biofuels. Using a worldwide agricultural model to estimate emissions from land use change, we found that corn-based ethanol, instead of producing a 20% savings, nearly doubles greenhouse emissions over 30 years and increases greenhouse gases for 167 years. Biofuels from switchgrass, if grown on U.S. corn lands, increase emissions by 50%. This result raises concerns about large biofuel mandates and highlights the value of using waste products.

So you see that the issues with biofuels are not so much the energy inputs but rather the ecological impact of land use changes. It does not matter if you use switchgrass or corn. If you displace food production then you increase emissions. If you use new land, you increase emissions. It is possible to go carbon negative, but only if you use agriculturally degraded lands that are no longer being used for food production.

I consider this work to be quite important. But, much damage has already been done and our most immediate concern is covering the loss of food we can expect over the next couple of years. Reducing feedlot operations substantially looks like the only ethical option just now.


It all comes down to "whom do you trust"? An independent researcher like Patzek, or someone who's salary depends on getting the "right" (read corporate) answers.

Instead of coming from state funds, which are now cash-strapped, as it has in the past, more and more "research" expenses at major universities are being funded by corporations, especially those with names like "Renewable and _Appropriate_ Energy Laboratory", UC, Berkeley.

As a Berkeley graduate, it pains me to see this corporate takeover of "reasearch" (read propoganda).

It's all too easy to "shade" the numbers to get a predetermined result.

"Of course, coal is not renewable but it makes more sense to make energy positive ethanol from it than to burn it to make electricity."

Hellooo, doesn't $11/bushel wheat tell you that you're not taking into account all the "external" costs of growing corn for ethanol production rather than using the acreage to grow wheat?

All these analysis showing significant positive "net energy" for ethanol are obviously ignoring the externalities. The highest EROEI is conservation--get rid of the excess number/size of cars on the road burning gasoline and you won't need to turn food into fuel.

Wouldn't it be easier to convert the coal streight in to petrol using Fischer Tropaz and cut out the ethonol entirely?

Terrible idea.

A ton of coal will produce 7 boe(barrels of oil equivalent)ethanol.

With Fischer Tropsch, a ton of coal produces at most 2 boe of synthetic gasoline.

Apples and oranges. You are comparing different processes. Ethanol can also be produced via a gasification process, at far lower efficiency than FT. Or, the BTUs in coal can be used to extract oil, at a far greater energy return than it can be used to produce ethanol. As long as you compare apples to apples, ethanol loses the energy balance.

BTW, Argonne Labs did a wheel-to-well analysis of the new Chevy HHR running on ethanol, and came up with a 23% less CO2 emission than the same car running on straight gasoline.

I'm assuming it was "Corn" ethanol; If anyone knows differently I'd like to hear it.

Another interesting development in the past year has been the dramatic increase in the importation of fertilizer to the US. There is good reason for this. As natural gas prices in North America increase it is no longer as economical to turn gas into nitrogen fertilizer. Importing natural gas has problems of its own, namely specialized shipping and handling facilities that don't exist. However, turning plentiful mid-east natural gas into fertilizer and shipping it by conventional means gets around this problem.
So the corn belt becomes even more dependent upon the mid-east to supply us with food/fuel.

It would be more energy efficient to burn the corn in existing coal fired plant, than to convert it to ethanol.

And soon the economics will work out too!

$5/bushel = $200 tonne

Australian steam coal is trading about $140/tonne.

Global prices of coal can be monitored on this site:

Whilst the US has previously been a net exporter of coal, the situation is changing and the market is seeing increasing levels of coal import.

The margin between tonnage exported and tonnage imported is decreasing

Global coal consumption is up 23% in the last decade. We are competing for coal on a global market just like oil. Coal is essential for electricity production in every industrialised nation almost without exception (France?).

Converting coal to liquids to provide transportation fuel will put further demands on coal production and prices will rise.

Electricity generation installed capacity in China has reached 550W per capita, in the US it is 3.5kW per capita. Who is likely to be hardest hit with rising coal prices?

it is inappropriate to compare ethanol produced using coal to syn-gasoline produced from coal via F-T since the coal serves as the source of heat in the ethanol conversion, while coal serves as the source of hydrocarbon for the syn-gasoline in the F-T conversion. In other words, coal in F-T is analogous to the corn in corn-based ethanol production, which produces 1.3 (at the most) barrels for every barrel invested.

it is inappropriate to compare ethanol produced using coal to syn-gasoline produced from coal via F-T

I presume that wasn't directed at me, since I made no such comparison. Majorian did make that comparison above, and I agree that it is inappropriate.

Are you for real, EnergyDoc??

Why inappropriate?

Probably because it makes it look like ethanol uses far less coal to make a barrel of oil equivalent than F+T CTL gasoline, which it is. It's dumber to use coal to make fuel than corn..unless you don't have any corn.

A ton of coal costs $50 a ton. A ton of corn costs $160 per ton, .69 tons(25 bushels) of corn goes into a boe. A ton$50/2=$25 a barrel. ($160x.69+$50)/7=$23 a barrel ethanol. Ethanol even beats coal on pure economics.

People want to know which fuel makes more sense, not
which one is 'appropriate'.

Okay, so here's the direction we're heading. This new Denali incorporates displacement on demand, direct fuel injection, flexfuel technology, Batteries, boogeta, boogeta. Onward and upwards, folks.

Oh, Did I mention? 50% Better Fuel Economy!

The existing fleet of flex fuel vehicles have a fairly dismal fuel economy as the official gov. figures will illustrate.

When you are only achieving 9 -13 mpg (city), even a 50% improvement is nothing to write home about.

Have you noticed that most flex fuel vehicles have been tailored to the needs of mid-west farming types - i.e. big block V8 pick-up. Of the 61 vehicles featured, 52 of them are v8 with 4.7 to 5.3 litre engines and only 9 of them are 6 cylinders. What ever happened to the perfectly adequate, economical 4 cylinder 2 litre engine?

If a vehicle that got 10 mpg is improved by 50% its fuel use drops by 3.3 gallons/100 miles. If a vehicle that got 20 mpg is improved by 50% its fuel use drops by only 1.7 gallons/100 miles. If that vehicle is also flex fuel then a farmer has the opportunity to grow his own fuel.

If you use enough sugar, you can make just about anything taste good, even if it kills you. That's what ethanol is --- sugar --- and these people profiting off ethanol will do anything to make it seem good, look good, and taste good. Jesus. Things are bad enough and now they're talking about using coal? Do they not get that none of this does anything positive for the environment, especially when you consider the land use impacts. And now they are adding coal, which has the worst land use impact of all.

Come on, people. We have to get out of our damn cars.

while nuclear has been taken off the table due to environmental concerns

Due to concerns about the environment, they rule out nuclear and the answer is (pause ... drum roll) coal! For environmental reasons!

I do not even know where to begin with that. Those ethanol people are sure committed to continue their record of defying logic.

Those articles in Science were out of date, and had a couple of really weird assumptions, number one, of which, was that anyone would plant switch grass (a crop that grows well in the South) on good Corn (a North Central Crop) land.

Also, I'll betcha a dollar to a doornail that the next Indonesian land you hear of being cleared for a palm plantation will involve the processing of the dead biomass into ethanol (a process that completely destroys that particular argument.)

Also, the article didn't say that CO2 would double. It said that the amount from land use might double. It won't. Besides, as we all know, the amount from burning petrol is, surely, going to decrease. Right?

Those articles in Science were out of date

The ones in the brand new issue of Science? You know, based on brand new research? The ones from the guys who previously heartily endorsed corn ethanol?

As I said before, you are suspiciously quick to discount this stuff. Especially for someone with absolutely no connections to the ethanol industry.

Also, the article didn't say that CO2 would double. It said that the amount from land use might double. It won't.

Again, such confidence. I must ask, are you a scientist, and have you done/published studies that run counter to the claims in Science? The article said that including the land usage changes in the life cycle analysis resulted in up to a doubling of the overall CO2 emissions.

Yes, Robert; but if you keep reading you will see that, although it was poorly worded, the assertion was that it could double the emissions from "land use." That WAS the subject they were on when they went into this particular set of bushes.

As I said, Robert; I am a retired insurance salesman with grandkids, and an intense interest in their future. I'm not a scientist, nor do I play one on the internet. I, also, do not own a farm, or any stock in any ethanol company, here, or abroad.

I'm not sure if you were replying to me above but if so, the articles came out last week. So far as I can tell, the issue with switchgass or corn is growing them on cropland, not growing them out of their range. I would say that dead biomass is a pretty close to a definition fossil carbon so it would be no different than coal or oil since you don't put the carbon back in the ground when you plant oil palms. The article on US croplands gives 1.93 times as much carbon dioxide emissions using corn and 1.5 times using switchgrass compared to gasoline.



Just wanted to point out that different grades of bituminous coal vary in energy density (your figure is an average), and range predominantly from 10,500 to 15,500 BTUs/lb. [1]

My reading of the Clean Energy Act of 2007 would not permit new ethanol plants to be coal fired. One section of the legislation says


(a) Renewable Fuel Program- Paragraph (2) of section 211(o) (42 U.S.C. 7545(o)(2)) of the Clean Air Act is amended as follows:
(1) REGULATIONS- Clause (i) of subparagraph (A) is amended by adding the following at the end thereof: `Not later than 1 year after the date of enactment of this sentence, the Administrator shall revise the regulations under this paragraph to ensure that transportation fuel sold or introduced into commerce in the United States (except in noncontiguous States or territories), on an annual average basis, contains at least the applicable volume of renewable fuel, advanced biofuel, cellulosic biofuel, and biomass-based diesel, determined in accordance with subparagraph (B) and, in the case of any such renewable fuel produced from new facilities that commence construction after the date of enactment of this sentence, achieves at least a 20 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions compared to baseline lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.'.

The link it is from is here. I have had trouble with these links continuing to work. This link may work better. Click on "text of legislation", then "engrossed bill".

I read the last part of this to say that any new facility begun after November 2007 will have to achieve at least a 20% life cycle reduction greenhouse gas emissions. There is no way that a coal fired ethanol plant can meet such a requirement. With the recent studies that are out, I doubt the natural gas plants will pass this test either, but at least they have a fighting chance.

I read the last part of this to say that any new facility begun after November 2007 will have to achieve at least a 20% life cycle reduction greenhouse gas emissions.

I have been wondering how they are going to measure this. I suspect there will be a lot of politics involved. And in that case, who is to say what result they might come up with?

Bingo. Even scientists can't agree on the "boundaries" for the analysis. Politicians will make it look like anything they want.

I agree the devil is in the details. With the 20% rule in the legislation, environmental groups at least have a basis for contesting plants that are permitted. I expect that the government will omit the recent studies on nitrous oxide from fertilizer and on land use impacts, in determining CO2 savings. Even excluding these impacts, I expect the coal fired plants will have difficulty showing a 20% savings relative to gasoline, unless they are only using waste heat from existing power plants.

There is an API call next week on the subject of biofuels. API is very unhappy about corn ethanol. I don't know if it is too wild an idea, but it seems like API might be willing to side with environmental groups in putting pressure on the government to do a fair evaluation of the CO2 impact of coal fired plants.

"There is no way that a coal fired ethanol plant can meet such a requirement. With the recent studies that are out, I doubt the natural gas plants will pass this test either, but at least they have a fighting chance."

Why do answer questions with 'I doubt that..'?
It sounds like you know the answer before figuring it.

Let's look at the situation.
Natural gas gives off 2.75 grams of CO2 for every gram of natural gas. Therefore a gram of natural gas gives off 75% the CO2 as a gram of carbon(coal).

Corn ethanol today using natural gas produces 77 grams per MJ of GHG reduction from gasoline so it already meets the 20%.

A 'CO2 intensive' coal fired ethanol plant produces 91 grams of carbon per MJ whereas a straight gasoline plant produces 97 grams per MJ. So coal ethanol is 6% less than gasoline to start. If you co-fire Powder Basin River subbituminous coal(8800 btu/pound) with 36% biomass(6000 btus per pound--corn cobbs) you end up with 77 grams per MJ(that 20% reduction).

The other alternative is to bury the CO2 with CCS.

The amount you quote is from the "old" Berkeley study.

There have been two studies out since then. One is by the same Berkeley author that did the study you quote. It looks at land use as well, and concludes that the CO2 emissions are much higher than previously believed, and much higher than those of gasoline. Another study is not quite out, but is by a Nobel prize winning author. It looks at how the nitrogen in fertilizer combines with oxygen to form nitrous oxide. It also concludes that global warming gasses are greater with ethanol than with gasoline, but for a totally different reason.

If you put these two studies together, things look really bad. I give links to two newspaper write-ups in my comment above. If you read the comments, there is other discussion of the new Berkeley study elsewhere in the comments, also.

The old study of Kammen was done by the Berkeley Energy Department, the new study is done by the Berkeley Transportation Department(Patzek's department). I don't see that the new study overturns the old study.

I looked up the 'preview' of Crutzen. I think he's saying the N2O emissions from fertilizer plants is higher;
in my mind that can be corrected by pollution control equipment at the plant.

I should also comment that switchgrass-cellulosic ethanol doesn't need fertilizer.

N2O emissions also come from cars and E85 reduces those by 90%. See table at the bottom.

I should also point out that N2O is not nearly the danger that CO2 is, accounting for 10% of the radiative forcing of CO2(see table in middle of article).

But in fairness, I should wait to read Crutzen's actual article before going 'ape' on him.

Similarly, I would encourage you NOT to make up your mind prematurely.

With articles like this one, there can't be any question about whether or not we are now past peak and using the other less easy to use, and more expensive half. It's also easy to see that desperation breeds justification for what would be a wholesale increase in CO2 emmissions over conventional crude. The idea that such a desperate move could also include sequestration is pure folly as we have seen with the ending of the clean coal energy plant by Bush. It's so easy to say we will offset the extra CO2, but then the argument that it is too expensive and will drag down the economy too much filters into the equation and suddenly we are just making more fuel in a much dirtier way than before. What we need is a substitute oil, like algae ethanol, but the question is; What would it take to scale up to the necessary level to provide 22 mbd and what would the cost be per barrel/gallon. If it's 300/10 then its not competitive and we are right back where we started using coal/gas to produce more oil.

"What we need" is to realize that 22 mbpd (for the USA alone) is going away, never to come back, and "make alternative living arrangements". The era of the personal automobile is over. But we'll destroy ourselves and the planet before we accept that.

BTW, this Xethanol outfit has a pretty checkered past. A lot of hat, and no cattle type outfit. Always a story, but not a drop of ethanol, yet. I wouldn't pay much attention to ANYTHING they print.

I must say that I think their original article was much better:

Have a read through that and see if you come across anything interesting.


I got an e-mail from Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban after that article offering me free Mavericks tickets.

About what I expected. I've been reading about their adventures (misadventures) for a couple of years, now. So, you are a petrochemical engineer, eh? hmm.

Robert, I'm a bit skeptical of "Scientists," right now. There seems to be a pretty good market for "Scientific" articles about biofuels that contain a lot of "could bes," maybes, possiblys, etc. An example would be this brouhaha over some pirates cutting down Brazilian rain forests. Overlooked is the fact that Brazil has immense amounts of fertile land lying fallow, and that, obviously, what's happening is crooks looking for "free" land.

Then there was the N2O debacle. I won't even go into the fact that a lot of "Scientists" thought Cruntzen's metodology "suspect;" but I'll just reference that N2O is measured by Parts per Billion in the atmosphere, and that after 100 years of intense Industrialization, and Fertilizer-intense farming the amount of N2O in the atmosphere has gone up a whopping 16%, or thereabouts. Oh, and did I mention that N2O in the atmosphere has a radiative forcing of 10% that of CO2?

Anyways, I appreciate you letting me say my piece, and I hope I haven't been too big a pain in the keester. Peace :)

So, you are a petrochemical engineer, eh? hmm.

I am a chemical engineer who is leaving the oil industry in 3 weeks. But I have done quite a bit of work on ethanol. I did my graduate work on it (and I have an essay in the queue that talks about some of it) and I am working on an ethanol project right now. But, there is a great deal of hype and overpromises in this area. And I spend my time debunking the hypesters.

What type of "Project," if I might ask? Commercial? Think Tank? I must admit, I'm a little puzzled. You seem a bit resistant to acknowledge some of the progress that's being made, especially on the energy input, side. Also, you seem loathe to admit to the importance of distillers grains, and other co-products. Also, you have seemed to not want to regard "Octane" as being very important. Just Curious.

What type of "Project," if I might ask? Commercial?

I am under an NDA at the moment, and they aren't ready to release details. As soon as I get the green light, I hope to write something up here about it.

You seem a bit resistant to acknowledge some of the progress that's being made, especially on the energy input, side.

Not at all. But you have taken a lot of projections and cast them as reality. What I do is challenge the projections if appropriate, and point out what actually has been demonstrated. A great deal of what you have written about is only hypothetical, and I have seen a lot of those go down in flames in recent years. E3 Biofuels. CWT and their "turn out into anything process."

Also, you seem loathe to admit to the importance of distillers grains, and other co-products.

No, but I am quick to point out the fallacy of treating those co-products as BTUs just like the ethanol. Also, those co-products have been used - by the USDA - to bury some of the energy costs that went into the ethanol. You know the study that shows the 1.67 energy return? It was done by the same group - the USDA - who 2 years earlier called it a 1.3 energy return. In the meantime, they found out that they had underestimated some of the energy inputs. So, how did they then come up with 1.67? They allocated a greater portion of the energy inputs to the co-products, exaggerating the energy return of the ethanol.

Also, you have seemed to not want to regard "Octane" as being very important.

Not at all. I am intrigued by the potential for high octane fuels to get higher thermal efficiency.

Does anybuddy else recognize the need for radical demand side management?

Are you all energy engineers and supply side resource planners?

Any resource/urban and regional planners out there, who are new urbanists but understand that realizing this ideal will require a fundamental change in the way that we allocate resources to and within communities?

I don't think/feel that I am getting my message across.

Do any of you feel frustrated, isolated, and hopeless about continuing the status quo into the future?

Howdy Mike,

Well, speaking for myself, though others here would seem to concur, each person has absolute managerial control over exactly one person - themselves. Human nature (a contentious topic) lends its self to manipulation by interested parties. Many people seem fine with being manipulated into excess material consumption. In a 'free society' (another contentious subject) people are free to manipulate and pursue gain, and free to consume to their hearts content.

That's why we're doomed, collectively. Just like yeast. I am not frustrated, isolated or hopeless about the status quo - I am 100% certain it will not continue. Unsustainable things, by definition, end.

I'm personally optimistic, as many people here seem to be as well, to continue to have a reasonably enjoyable life as civilization crashes. There will always be waves and a natural world.

A bike, a bag, a spear, a little plot of land - these are the best of times.

Does anybuddy else recognize the need for radical demand side management?

Mike, I am actually more interested in demand side management. It is clear to me that no way can we produce enough biofuels to sustain our current level of consumption. And the way we are producing most biofuels today isn’t sustainable. But I can have more on an impact on the supply side. We will need some supply. What I want to do is make sure we have some sustainable supply source. It won’t be enough to fuel the world, but it will be enough to keep critical applications functioning.

But I do preach conservation, and I practice what I preach. I favor higher carbon taxes, and policies that will reduce demand. But I can’t do anything to actually force anyone to reduce demand. I can do something on the supply side.


I get a feeling that rationing would make more sense than a tax since the tax would have to be so high. Have you considered this issue much?


Small and incremental increases in municipal, state, and Federal gas taxes, with direct payments back to the less wealthy would be superior to rationing (Sandalow).

Use of the revenues from such gas tax should be increased for the funding of mass transit, research, development and implementation for supply-side solutions, and funding of neighborhood redevelopment to wean communities from the automobile.

We may also need to tap into more of general revenues. Large reductions in "defense" spending would certainly be in order.

I think we are thinking from two different perspectives. You want a slow incremental change with slight increases in gas tax, while I want to see substantial reductions in emissions starting right away. A tax that gets the kind of reduction needed comes to about $15/gal in the beginning which is impoverishing. moderate boosts in the tax don't do much to reduce consumption and prices continue to rise. Rationing, reducing consumption 8% a year, will drive prices down and spur the substitutions needed. It is an American solution.


If you told people that they could not buy 12 mpg pickup trucks unless they had a need for them in business, you would have a riot on your hands. Over 1 million new pickup trucks are sold each year in the U.S. and only a small percentage are used for hauling anything. There is responsible demand side action, but people act like you are restricting their freedoms.

You are surely correct that people in the U.S. are so used to thinking of themselves as individuals and having their wants instantly satisfied. That's why the best solution will be rationing, once it becomes obvious that we are past Peak Oil. The other approaches, such as increased taxes or allowing the market price to respond to the increasing shortage, have been shown to result in massive problems, as seen in the early 1980's wave of high inflation and the large interest rates and recession used by the FED to damp down the prices. After Peak Oil, the average person will by definition have his/her "freedom" restricted, if one defines that word to mean some "right" to consume all the gasoline that one might want at a low price.

E. Swanson

That's right, Libertarianism and individualism are strong themes throughout our culture.

We must try to reach all to appeal for the need to unify and work together to adapt to the looming threats of resource scarcity.

That is why we need a President and others that command attention throughout the entire spectrum of political leanings, to gently explain the situation and appeal and/or implore for all people to reassess their niche and behaviors with respect to the short term, and thoughtful and considerate long term plans for both the supply side and the demand side.

Hi Robert,

Thanks for the reply.

I, for one, have absolutely no interest into "forcing" anyone to do anything.

We have a dire need to educate the public about the finitude of oil and other (particularly energy) resources. How do we do that? Judging from the posts, most people who participate in the "Oil Drum" forum probably already recognize the problem.

We need someone with mainstream stature, like Al Gore, to champion the peak oil, inter-generational, energy problem. It is my considered opinion that we must think outside the "mainstream" box, when it comes to demand (and supply) side planning and IMPLEMENTATION.

Rebuilding and retrofitting the automobile determined suburbs to make them walkable and improving old urban neighborhoods to make them desirable would go a long way towards reducing long term demand, and would create many jobs and could offer a better equity deal for all if run properly. A big problem we face with respect to such endeavors is affordability, but that is a whole other discussion (that we need to have).Of course, increasing funding for and expanding mass transit has been an argument for a long time. How about a "hundred million solar-roofs" project, weatherization, co-generation, etc.

And of course there is the maxim, "live simply so that others can simply live".

I do wish you would stop referring to the need to educate people, meaning to cause them to agree with you.

No one ever educated anyone - we all educate ourselves, and perceive things in our various ways.

If as you think events will turn out in the ways you expect, then events will educate people, just as they always have.

Meanwhile, if you want to look at some conservation ideas, mostly pinched from Germany, here are a few:

If they can be done in one place, why not another?

Educational and economic entropy?

Everybuddy going their own way is leading to anarchy, particularly damaging within the economic system.

I believe it important what we/I recognize and will persist in my efforts to educate. It is the utmost importance that we recognize that we are all in this together and it will take unprecedented amounts of cooperation to realize a sustainable, equitable, and peaceful world.

We have the potential (i.e. technology) to communicate better than we ever could. If it degenerates to making plans on the cell phone to go drinking, we all lose.

The website you referenced is verbose. Can you summarize what they are suggesting?

If you can't follow a couple of hundred words giving about 7 or 8 different ways to save energy, I doubt your educational ambitions will be successful.

They already summarise several thousand words from many different sources.

Good documents provide an Executive Summary, referred to as an Abstarct in "scholarly" journals.

Your educational program looks as though it is to be based on the back of a corn-flake packet!

Not to worry, I will leave you to your several billion words of socialist musings, and why everyone should agree with you - sorry be 'educated'!

Here is your corn-flake pack summary:

'So what should be done? I would suggest better insulation, heat recovery from waste water, air-heat pumps, tougher mandatory standards, green roofs, alterations to planning permissions and encouragement of plug-in hybrids.'

No need and no place for personal attacks.

But I do agree with your suggestions (are they yours or a summary of the website or both?). They are excellent suggestions, but how do we go about implementing these changes?

Maybe putting my writing on corn flakes boxes is a good idea. Better that than fruit loops! ;-)

No personal attacks Mike - a little rough humour, maybe.

They are from the blog - mine.

But however they are mostly things which have been actioned in some place, usually Germany, and so they are items which can be put on the agenda with hope of success.

As for the 'how', by the same means as any act of politics take.

I feel it is worthwhile getting into some detail though, and that is why I have tried to put quite a lot of links to a lot of ideas in one place.

I suppose it is just my geek way of thinking, but I really value the detailed discussions - for instance if you read the thread on this forum regarding heat pumps, there is a lot of invaluable information there, and once you have digested it you can then get an idea of costs, and so start thinking of how it could be financed, especially in rented houses.

For me, you see, the question of carrying out action which you ask is inseparable from serious and detailed studied of the issues.
Otherwise the measures suggested are sure to be nonsense, and impractical.

That is one of the reasons I tend to be against 'consensus' and 'action plans' - show me the detail first, and how you arrived at it, then we will see if I agree item by item.

Answers to several questions posed in the comments:
" There must be a way to gassify coal"
--Yes, there are several different ways to gassify coal, turning it into syngas, which can then be run through gas tubines, making it somewhat more efficient, with significantly reduced mercury, SO2, NOx, solid waste, water consumtion, and can (relatively) cheaply sequester the CO2 in a process called IGCC. The only downside is that the capital costs for IGCC plants are 25% higher, so currently they're more expensive than pulverized coal, but that would change with stricter emissions regulations.

"I think your coal pricing is a bit out!

McCloskey's reported last week that coal was rising rapidly and had reached $270 per tonne"
--You're talking about coking coal, which is used to make steel--unrelated to electricity production, although all types of coal have gone up in price. Also, anthricite coal is basically only used for home stoves. Bituminous and lignite coal are used for electrical production.

"How much of that panic pricing is because of wheat and soy acreage turned to corn for ethanol production? I think the commodity grain market is set for a fall."
--First part, 25% of our corn production goes to ethanol, and corn is by far our largest single commodity crop (corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and I believe one other one--can't think of which). And it's unlikely that crop prices are going to drop any time soon, because (1) still increasing ethanol production (2) growing affluence of developing nations, which causes more meat and milk consumption, which require more feed.

"It has been a long time since I worked coal gasification but once you get to CO-H2 mix I suspect you would be better of just using the FT Process making liquid fuel directly."
--FT techniques are all uneconomical, which is why it hasn't been done and some in the government are pushing for coal-to-liquids subsidies (inculding Barak Obama). Plus, even with sequestration, CTL produces slightly more GHGs than gasoline, about 3 times more without it (which is almost guarenenteed if it happens.

Also, in the future, if carbon tax/cap-and-trade systems go into place, more and more power plants will be natural gas fired (to make up for new demand and reduced nuclear both as a percentage of total as well as total production (even the most agressive nuclear plant construction proposals would only keep nuclear at the same total production, let alone as a percentage)). This will probably cause natural gas prices skyrocket like nothing we've ever seen before.

Correct me if I'm wrong, but my understanding is that the waste heat from coal power plants will be used for ethanol distillation only. If this is the case, this is a positive development as we are effectively boosting the efficiency of CPPs and reducing emissions by foregoing using NG altogether.

On the negative side, such schema can be used for justifying new coal power plants. In other words "greenwashing" dirty coal with the help of "clean" ethanol. The cynic in me tells me that the purpose of the whole article has been exactly this one and it is the coal, not the ethanol industry to watch for in this case.

A much cleaner approach of course would be to power ethanol plants with waste heat from nuclear power plants, but let's stick with the politically possible for now.

my understanding is that the waste heat from coal power plants will be used for ethanol distillation only...

If that's the case... where's the need to build?

An existing facility is much cheaper. Besides the heat, the rail's in place and the permit's a done deal...

Probably because it is hard to move an ethanol power plant to an existing coal power plant or vice versa

One thing about becoming a mechanical engineer (as I did), is that you learn about thermodynamics and steam cycles. The notion that there is "waste heat" is totally incorrect.

The steam cycle rejects heat to the environment at the lowest practical temperature, which is desirable because that makes the pressure on the outlet of the turbine as low as possible. If one were to add a heat exchanger to capture this "heat" and then use that energy to run the distillation, the lowest temperature in the distillation process could not be less than ambient, which would be the same as that for the cooling of the steam cycle. But, for the distillation to work, the energy supplied must be higher than this near ambient low temperature. As a result, the temperature of the condensing steam would be higher than in the usual situation because a heat exchanger must have a higher inlet temperature than the outlet temperature of the other fluid. Thus, the steam cycle would be less efficient and more coal would need to be burned to produce the same quantity of electricity. What might look to the untrained eye as "waste heat" is not useful energy because of thermodynamics.

Of course, one could build the boiler at the ethanol plant and use some of the steam for electric generation and the rest for distillation. That would be an entirely different setup as the high temperature steam from the boiler would be available to both portions of the plant.

E. Swanson

Thus, the steam cycle would be less efficient and more coal would need to be burned to produce the same quantity of electricity. What might look to the untrained eye as "waste heat" is not useful energy because of thermodynamics.

While technically correct, my friend, you are overlooking the fact that, while the efficiency of a thermodynamic cycle is, indeed, dependent on the temperature of the cold sink where "waste heat" must be rejected to sustain the cycle, the earth's surface is not the coldest place available to do this.

If another colder sink can be accessed, it no longer should be classified as "waste heat" but rather an "energy source."

REF: at The AVE Concept: A Paradigm Shift on How Energy Sources are Evaluated, which was posted by me about a month ago.

The "cold sink" can be readily accessed by the Atmospheric Vortex Engine, giving a new basis for exergy analysis.

WAKE UP FOLKS! It should be clear to you by now after all these articles and comments in TOD that, without accessing a colder heat sink, all the so-called "new" energy sources and schemes are just masturbation--robbing Peter to pay Paul artifacts that do nothing by themselves to solve either the energy crisis, or global warming threat from GHGs.

What is needed is a new, colder location to deposit our "waste heat" that increases by a third electricity from conventional fossil sources. In the case of coal, it provides the deficit that would otherwise occur by installing secuestration devices.

In the case of existing nuclear facilities, the overall efficiency can be increased by 40%, extending plant life and decreasing the uranium replacement rate, as well as allowing a reduction in severity (temperature) to make them safer.

Combined with an AVE, geothermal energy would become a potent renewable energy source with efficiencies of 30-40%, vs the 10-20$ now achieved, based on heat extracted from the earth.

Warm sea water, or even seasonably warm lake water (horizontal wind would take up the slack in the winter) would become a viable energy source, reversing the decades of warming of these bodies and restoring the ecosystems.

The answer we've all been looking for is now available. The question is "what are you going to do to promote its implementation, and save the planet for your children and grandchildren?"

The AVE technology is SIMPLE, and CHEAP. It would only require years, not decades to implement on a large scale, as compared to building new nuclear plants, or sequestration from coal plants, if these can even be considered answers to the problem. Ref:

It looks to me like the biggest problem to being "against" ethanol is that you're fighting an awful lot of Scientists, Engineers, and Entrepreneurs.

Remember, half the Scientists that ever lived are Working TODAY.

Converting the entire U.S. grain harvest to ethanol would satisfy only 16% of United States fuel needs. The U.S. once supplied 25% of total world grain exports. New laws requiring ethanol production might eliminate U.S. exports and at the same time require massive imports. Current laws might force half the United States grain harvest to be used in ethanol production. This law might cause food prices to spike beyond what has ever been seen in one's lifetime.

Ramping up much coal gasification to ethanol production might not be accomplished in the twelve years required and might be unpopular with the consumer as it costs more than gasoline or natural gas as a fuel for autos.

Some dreamers claimed cellulosic ethanol is the answer. No one in the world has ever profitably produced cellulosic ethanol. There is no commercial production of cellulosic ethanol at any level due to the inefficient nature of the process. A few slick company PR people have boasted their company might do it in order to drive up the value of their stocks, yet none have shown it can be done.

Coal gasification was being done on a limited basis, to further the process of making it into ethanol is similar to converting coal to syngas, or coal to liquids (synthetic oil/diesel). Coal to liquids plants are not being built because they are too expensive.

The food to fuel alternative is a road to disaster. Federally required grain to ethanol plans should be reevaluated and abandoned.

IMHO the best comment on this whole post....

The ethanol boosters here just keep harping on details and ignore your opening line - we CANNOT replace our liquid fuel consumption with corn based ethanol and cellulosic hasn't worked yet - so it, like fusion is some "maybe someday" dream of our lifestyle being saved...

btw RR, thanks as always for the informative article - your efforts are appreciated

Listening to the beneifits of corn ethanol from farmers and ethanol producers is about as reliable as reading about the greenhouse effect from exxon.

Right, lets not pay any attention to those who actually produce the product. Let's listen to those who concoct apples and oranges comparisons which leave out the critical function of price in resource allocation. Then when the result indicates that electricity has a lower EROEI than ethanol, lets ignore it and look forward to the electrification of transport. Then slam ethanol because some backers get carried away as in any other industry. Then demand that bio fuels must be greener that fossil fuels. Bio fuels replace fossil fuels for the most part. If they are as green as fossil fuels nothing is lost. Since when do we have the luxury to be so picky in a post Peak Oil world? Then ignore the fact that if corn is not used to make ethanol, it will be fed to animals or exported both of which are big energy losers not to mention financial losers. Fallacious thinking has run amok IMO.

There are far better crops to produce biofuels with than corn. The corn to ethonol program is the result of the power of the farm lobby in the US. Thats why it is so controverial. Scrap it and use somehing better.

Is there any possibility of using coal as a feedstock for ethanol (and other) production? Of course, you'd need a source of hydrogen, but it still seems a good idea to skip the time consuming, messy, cultivation and fermentation steps.

Much better perhaps to burn the coal, collect the CO2 and use it with H2 produced from a renewable source such as offshore wind to produce Methanol.

First of all, you normally don't produce ethanol from coal, you produce methanol. Ethanol can be synthesised in a lab from ethylene gas but going from coal that way is really the long way 'round. Gasification of coal to make liquid fuels is by Fischer Tropsch syngas and you only get 2 barrels per ton of coal (3128 kwh per ton).
At this point plugin electric is worse (2000kwh per ton).

(Compare this to ethanol at 10940 kwh per ton of coal)

Coal(lignite) gasification to natural gas comes out of Jimmy Carter's White Elephant, 'Great Plains' Gasification Plant in Beulah, ND. A lot of the CO2 produced is captured and piped to Weyburn oil field for CO2 EOR(an extra 10000 barrels per day). This plant makes about .5% of the natural gas produced daily in the US.

You lose 50% of the energy of coal in turning it into natural gas by methanation. As I remember a boe of natural gas from a well is $44, so a boe of syngas from lignite is about the same ($11 per boe for coal(bituminous) /( 50% heating value--lignite x 50% gasification)=$44?).

The best use of fossil fuels is for heating, not making electricity.

Speaking of plugins...
The plugin folks talk about hour efficient electric motors and batteries are and inefficient IC engines are. That's where I think they make a mistake.

It's true that IC engines are only about 20% efficient

but with inverters and batteries, electric motors are about 86% efficient.

But how much total fossil fuels are we using?

Take a 12000 mile driver who drives 6000 miles city and 6000 miles highway(EPA judgement). A plugin is only good for city driving. So how much carbon does each use?
6000 miles x.3 kwh/mi/(2000kwh per ton x.86)= 1 tons of coal
plus 6000 miles/40 mpg x 6.7 pounds/gal/2000 pounds per ton=.5 tons of oil.
Whereas the amount of oil used on a straight 40 mpg car would be 1 ton of oil (12000 miles,etc.)
You can see that the plugin hybrid uses more and a pure electric would use 2 tons of coal.

Plugins will just make us burn up our TOTAL fossil fuels faster.
How many city miles can be better replaced with biking, public transport, car pooling, than burning more coal?

[quote]How many city miles can be better replaced with biking, public transport, car pooling, than burning more coal?[/quote]

Biking etc is all very well if you live three feet away from where you work, it never rains/snows, you're of an age where you can safely ride a bike without risking a heart attack etc etc.. And where do you put the shopping/kids/smelly dog?

Bikes are for 20 year old bachelors..... The rest of us have some dignity.. :-)

What even happened to the noble Highlander with a handful of oatmeal in his sporran?

..riding the bus, methink.

(Och, were my ancestors really purple cannibals?)

Anybody know anything about the Karrick process for converting coal to oil. Is it better than the F/T?

I haven't checked your 2,000 KWH/ton of coal figure, but the .3 KWH/mile figure is a pretty inefficient EV (especially if it doesn't include the 86% internal efficiency loss). That should be compared to a 22mpg vehicle. Or conversely, if you want to use 40MPG, you should use .18 KWH/mile.

So, all of the figures you give for EV coal useage should be reduced by 40%.

Secondly, why do you assume plugins won't work on the highway?

Third, (again assuming 2,000KWH/ton is ok), we get .6 ton's of coal per 6K miles, or about $24 of coal, vs 150 gallons of gasoline, at about $450. That's a big difference - the EV costs about 5% as much to fuel.

Finally, it's incorrect to assume EV's would use coal. A) coal is only 50% of US electricity, and B) EV's have a nice synergy with wind power. Wind is a little stronger at night when EV's would charge, and EV's would absorb the intermittency of the wind power.

I disagree. I took .3kwh/mi off an old EV web site. If you believe the EV hucksters, you're dreaming (.2 kwh/mi?).
The correct comparison is a lightweight hybrid car (~40 mpg real world) to an electric car interms of weight, size, etc. There will never be a heavy duty electric car, tractor, truck, etc. They require too much power for a battery.

I used highway/ city in terms of the US DOT.

"Estimated miles-per-gallon in the city. City Fuel Economy represents urban driving, in which a vehicle is started after not running for 12 hours and driven in stop and go traffic."

This sounds to me like how a plugin would run. Highspeed
driving would drain the battery of the EV very quickly.
EV run good at 30 mph though for maybe 30 miles, they are good at stop and go traffic. Anything more is unrealistic. I had a hard time finding any production car with solid data amid the prototypes.

I don't know where you get $24 coal unless its lignite (1000 kwh per ton), I will agree that coal is far cheaper than oil, but cheap energy will only encourage consumption and reduce fossil fuels. Is the idea to save
consumers money? If so these electric cars are quite expensive($50000) and would never save money over the car lifecycle.

US electricity is 70% fossil fuel, so I should include gas and oil generation but that would complicate calculations, so I used coal which is the fuel of the future as far as future electric generation goes(gas is peaking).
Wind/solar is delusional IMO; it's share of the generating market is less than 1%. The cars would run on additional coal or gas for many decades before they would be even partly renewable.

However, coal can't be used directly as automotive fuel,...

Yes it can. It is a decade old technology.

That's for the fuel. For starting in cold weather one needs to use coal/diesel or coal/ethanol startup mixture.

I forgot to post the link related to the diesel engine that uses it.

The major issue, wear, has ben mostly circumvented.

That's an interesting idea.

The link you reference however only talks about using the engine for large things, like ships and trains.

I don't know if there are technical reasons why it shouldn't be used in cars - it might not scale.

to recap to replace oil in heavy transport we need to do something with coal or start breeding Cart Horses again.