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The Inconvenient Truth About Ethanol

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  • fezofezo Posts: 9,195
    You can just set me up in the business and I know doubt will pay back your generosity.....

    You won't be the first person who doesn't want to underwrite my desired lifestyle. :P

    Sounds great. Leave enough space to grow SOME pineapples, if only for my own consumption.
  • easym1easym1 Posts: 218
    jkinsel,
    Not a problem my friend. You just prove to me that you're a good person and cares for feelings of others.
  • i have been reading this forum with some interest. i hope you won't mind if i post a few thoughts.

    as i see it, there is very little question that cheap oil is gone forever. google the term peak oil and read about it if you doubt this. frankly, it is probably a good thing that that is the case or we, the humans, would surely continue to burn it until we suffocated ourselves out of existence, along with the other animals that depend on oxidative phosphorylation for their survival.

    so now we ask, how will we continue to live as we do now and not destroy the planet while at the same time not destroying our economy with alternative sources of energy?

    the fact of the matter is that there is plenty of energy in the world. when one calculates the energy content of wind, hydro, solar, and the tides it becomes quite clear that there is more than enough energy in our environment to sustain us far beyond our current levels of demand. no, the problem is not a lack of an energy source at all. the sun and moon provide that and more.

    the problem is that we are not smart enough to figure out how to efficiently capture, store and redistribute all the energy that surrounds us.

    fossils have been a convenient source of stored energy to this point in history and have provided us with the ability develop the technology to reach this point in history. but like the child who can only live off his parents for so long before being forced to become independent, we now have to stand on our own technological feet and invent a way to use what surrounds us every day. further, we must use it in a way that does not alter the environment enough to make uninhabitable for us.

    to break it down to its simplest terms, battery technology has to be the next great frontier of advancement in this world if we hope to advance beyond where we currently stand today. wind alone holds more energy than we need, but we can't figure out how to get beyond fluctuations in wind speed and availability. this is a storage issue plain and simple.

    the distribution half of the equation is already solved, the electric grid is in place and fully operational. we only have to figure out how to store the energy that we want to feed into it.

    all the forms of energy discussed here, except tides and nuclear, ultimately come from the sun. if plants can figure out how to use sunlight to turn CO2 into corn, sugar, cellulosic or whatever other material we want to talk about, then surely we can figure out a way to store and retrieve that energy to suit our needs.

    at least now, with biodiesel and ethanol, and i believe that they are far from perfect, but at least they are CO2 neutral partial solutions. every carbon in those products that is spewed out as CO2 into the environment, was previously in the environment before being snagged out of the air by some green plant and fixed into a molecule of sugar or cellulose.

    nuclear, while certainly appealing from a CO2 perspective, has its own set of problems that are seemingly insurmountable.

    so how do we get there from here? i have no earthly idea. but i do know that we need to become much more serious about funding basic research into energy sciences. we need to stop letting the oil companies set the agenda for energy policy. we need to incentivize technologies that get us closer to these goals (like hybrids) and stop coming up with tax loopholes that encourage people to buy >6000 lb suvs that get 12 mpg. we need to get off our can once in a while and ride our bikes to work and walk to the grocery store.

    to anybody still reading this, i sincerely apologize for the sermonizing. i got on a heck of a rant there and i feel better now. i think we all want the same thing. we just gotta figure out the best way to get there.
  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,691
    Welcome to the forum Mr Peabody.
    One little item. I think you will find that the oil companies are at the forefront of solar cell developments. I think that is good as they probably know better than anyone when the oil will become scarce and be able to offer an alternative.

    I totally agree that we need some new break through in battery technology. I'm not impressed with the progress over the last 20 years. A lot of talk and very little evidence. I'm convinced that Li-ion is a dead monkey for vehicles. I could be wrong just a hunch.

    Now people are using lithium batteries to make illegal methamphetamines. What is the world coming to?
  • fezofezo Posts: 9,195
    As if we weren't having enough with people using sudafed to make meth. Buying it at a drug store is harder than getting a prescription filled.

    Welcome aboard, Mr. Peabody!
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    to break it down to its simplest terms, battery technology has to be the next great frontier of advancement in this world if we hope to advance beyond where we currently stand today

    When you say battery if you mean energy storage then I agree. I don't necessarily agree that batteries, as most people think of them, need to get any better in order to take full advantage of these abundant, yet intermittent alternative energy sources. For instance you can store the energy as hydrogen. Or you can utilize pumped storage hydroelectricity where you pump water to a higher elevation and release it to turn turbines when it is needed. Actually it doesn't even need to be water. Elevate any mass and you've got stored energy. The conversion efficiencies of these methods are actually fairly high ~70%. Much better than the 30% efficiency of an ICE turning the chemical energy in gasoline into mechanical energy.
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    I totally agree that we need some new break through in battery technology. I'm not impressed with the progress over the last 20 years.

    You're not easily impressed. The best Li-ion cells can store 200 watt-hours per kilogram. 20 years ago you had lead-acid, which were around 30 watt-hours per kilogram. An improvement of almost 7x.

    The first EV1 had a lead-acid battery pack that weighed 1,600 lbs. and gave it a range of 80 miles. That was replaced by a NiMH pack that weighed 1,000 lbs. and extended the range to 100 miles. The 900 lb Li-ion battery pack on the Tesla Roadster provides in excess of 200 mile range.

    If you're not impressed with this level of progress what exactly would it take?
  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,691
    I was referring to the NiMH battery that was first invented about 20 years ago by Matsushita. NiCads are still a good battery that are over 100 years old.

    Until the aging problem with Lithium Ion batteries is resolved I do not see it in a favorable light. 6-7 years before they die of old age will not be viable in automotive mainstream. We need something better or yours and my dream of an EV will not materialize.
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    Even the technologies that have been around awhile have improved considerably. Both NiMH and lead-acid batteries have improved their energy density by over 50% in the last 20 years. Today's Li-ion batteries hold more than twice as much energy as they did just 8 years ago.

    NiCads have a serious memory problem and are also toxic.

    Latest on Chevy Volt progress.

    http://www.technologyreview.com/Energy/18833/page1/
  • jkinzeljkinzel Posts: 735
    Another reason to endorse diesel/bio-diesel.

    http://www.marketwatch.com/news/story/why-rising-food-prices-eating/story.aspx?guid={E2C47792-2693-48BF-8967-26B070F10EBF}

    Butter prices are up 31%
    Cheddar cheese prices, up 65%
    Nonfat dry milk prices, up 117%
    Broiler chickens, up 17.5%
    Beef, select, up 12.8%

    The reasons why
    The factors driving higher food prices are unlikely to go away any time soon:

    Ethanol. The ethanol boom has driven corn prices up 70% in a year. Now more land is planted in corn, and soybeans, wheat, oats, and barley are all up from 5% to 35%. Plus, higher corn prices mean higher prices for animals in the food chain that eat it - such as chickens, cows, and hogs. Corn is also a key ingredient in a long list of processed foods like breakfast cereal, and so far, producers have been able to pass these cost increases on - another sign of a fundamentally inflationary environment.
    Higher distribution costs. Energy hits on two fronts: It costs more to process food and it costs more to move it all to market.
    World demand. The "China effect" on energy prices has been well documented. But it also affects food. Food exports have grown as living standards in China, India and other growing economies have risen. That's good for the economy but not for prices.
    The good news is that for years food prices have declined as a percentage of income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. families spent fully 43% of their incomes on food in 1901. By 1929 it had dropped to 24%, and by 2004 the figure was 14%.
    But as income growth slows and food prices increase, this happy long-term trend may be coming to an end.
  • smithedsmithed Posts: 444
    Nascar, Good post! I am neither for nor against ethanol as a fuel.

    I have a few questions that you are better able to answer than I:

    1. How much acreage would be required (from corn or switchgrass)if all the vehicles on the road today were to run on E85?

    2. Are fossil fuels really dirtier than ethanol? Both are hydrocarbons, so if burned completely would only produce CO2 and H20. Are there other things in gasoline than what is in ethanol?

    3. What organic molecules in corn are converted to ethanol? Is it all sugars?

    I have personal concern about too much ethanol in gasoline: I have a 20 year old boat (stern drive) and it specifically says that ethanol will cause deterioration of the fuel system.

    Thanks for looking this over,

    Ed :shades:
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,424
    1. Don't know the #, but various folks have estimated it more than all acreage now under cultivation. Given the current stress our limited use of ethanol is creating, I'd hate to guess what would happen if we *only* double current use. Also, remember switchgrass is a hope for the future. No current economic process exists for it.
    2. Once in the tank, there's no difference. The hoped-for advantage is in the making. If you could 'grow' ethanol, there'd be no net release of greenhouse gasses. Unfortunately, it takes lots of oil and coal to create the energy and chemical used to grow corn and refine it. Still there may be a net benefit to ethanol, if slight.
    3. Both sugars and starches in corn are converted. The unsolved puzzle is how to convert cellulose.

    And yes, there are many gas-fueled engines that have rubbers and plastics damaged by ethanol.
  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,691
    I think ethanol is hard on aluminum also. The reason car makers with lots of aluminum are not offering FFV. The 5.3L GM engine is all cast iron and safe to use with ethanol.
  • jkinzeljkinzel Posts: 735
    I’m not sure, but I don’t think there is enough land mass in the world to grow enough corn to make enough ethanol to fuel all the cars with E85.

    Ethanol is very corrosive and can not be pumped through the existing pipe line systems used by the oil industry. E85 has to be blended at local distributors and truck to the stations. It can, over time, damage some gaskets and metal parts on older engines.

    You can make ethanol by mixing Ever Clear in gasoline. Simple terms, E85 is moonshine and gas.

    I say, “drink the moonshine, eat the corn, and use bio-diesel for fuel.”
  • texasestexases Posts: 5,424
    Can't quite use Everclear - it's 95% alcohol, 5% water (the maximum alcohol % you can get using just distallation). Mix that with gas, and the 5% water will drop out and cause problems.
  • jkinzeljkinzel Posts: 735
    Thank you for the info. See, I don’t know everything. :P
  • nascar57nascar57 Posts: 47
    Hey Smithed,

    Read over your post and am trying to answer some of your questions. The first one about how much corn would be needed to run all of the vehicles on ethanol. To answer that, the US simply could not produce enough corn to run all of the domestic vehicles on ethanol. If every acre were planted to corn and used specifically for ethanol, we could only supply about 25-30% of our fuel consumption, with the current corn ethanol extraction processes. The emissions that are experienced from E85, are substantially cleaner than that of gasoline. The amount of carbon is much less with ethanol than gasoline. Farmers are starting to burn biodiesel in most equipment used to produce corn and truckers are now starting to burn biodiesel, so it is almost developing a sort of renewable cirle in the ag industry. But I will be the first to admit that this is not the long term solution, the ethanol from switchgrass is a much more sustainable route than corn, but we are not quite there yet as far as the feasibility to produce that. The GM Volt is also very exciting, if we can get vehicles like that on the road, will be great also. I just think it makes sense for us to have at least an alternative to gasoline. It is just closed minded to think that we should rely on gasoline and gasoline only. Its like investing in one stock and refusing to diversify. Especially when farmers are now getting paid what they really should for the commodities. The prices have been way too low for quite a long time, and we as Americans have gotten way too comfortable with cheap food, I have seen a graph that shows what percentage of income US pays for food versus Europe, it is essentially half. So really we still dont have it that bad, and the people that are benefitting from these high prices are AMERICANS, not the princes sitting over in Saudi Arabia as we Americans pay whatever they deem a "fair" price. I welcome this change. Oh yeah, one last question, the main molecules converted in corn are the starchy sugar parts of the kernel, the remaining is sold to ranchers and feed lots as DDG's(Dried Distillers Grains) which is a great source of protein for cattle. Brazil uses sugarcane which is also quite more efficient than corn, they have drastically cut crude consumption. Whatever way we go, lets get off gasoline and foreign oil and let the middle east keep their oil.
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    and we as Americans have gotten way too comfortable with cheap food,

    With all our convuluted farming subsidies it is probably impossible to say what we really pay for food. Sure anyone can look at their grocery bill but there are a lot of hidden costs involved that one way or another we eventually have to pay. But like all government giveaways, they're easy to enact and almost impossible to get rid of. So regardless of how misguided thay may be farming subsidies are here to stay.

    As someone has already pointed out the government's interference with the ethanol market has driven up the price of food. When I advocate higher fuel taxes it is criticized for being regressive and unfair to the poor. How is making food more expensive any better?
  • gagricegagrice San DiegoPosts: 28,691
    You are making a good case for helping the farmers. I am not sure if the small to medium sized farmer is so blessed by ethanol. As the price of feed may be more of a problem than a help. Most of the farmers that were around me in Minnesota were dairy farmers. I will do some research when I am back in the area. It really looks like the beneficiaries of ethanol are the mega farmers, ethanol processors and politicians.

    I was told on this thread in the past that the little farmer needs to sell out and get a life. Well farming is life for many of those people.

    You also forgot to mention the cost in natural gas to make fertilizer. And the negative affect all the fertilizer is having on the rivers and gulf.

    We are not going to get off gasoline in our lifetime so that is just wishful thinking. One of these days soon the Congress will pull the subsidies and we will have a repeat of the 1980s when 90% of the ethanol plants were closed. Sad part is we paid for those plants with our tax dollars while ADM & Verasun raked in all the profits.

    In addition the NUMBER ONE automaker in the World has no plans to build flex fuel vehicles. Toyota may know something we don't.
  • nascar57nascar57 Posts: 47
    Gagrice, do the math, the ethanol industry could easily survive without that subsidy right now. Go on cbot.com and look at the nearby and futures prices for corn. Nearby is sitting at $4.16. Ethanol is trading at 1.91. That puts the break even at $5.83 plus the additional revenue from sales of DDG's. This is helping EVERY grain farmer in the US. This is much different than what happened in the early 1980's. If you remember it was the Russian grain embargo which ignited prices back then, essentially a disruption in supply. Meanwhile today, it is a demand led rally which is much more likely to continue since demand is not near as volatile and supply is. By having corn prices go up, it has increased all commodity prices due to the fact that the other commodities have to buy acres away from corn. Here in my state of North Dakota, every farmer has a good chance to make a good profit if the crops hold out this year and its due to one thing BIOFUELS. As far as toyota not offering flex fuel. I geuss its up to them, but I myself am not going to back myself into a corner and buy only gas, I am thankful that GM offers consumers such as myself at least an option. Its up to us personally to use it, but it boggles my mind why all companies wouldnt do it, being such a cheap addition on a new vehicle, it is a no brainer as far as im concerned, but maybe I'm the only one on here that likes to be diversified and have choices. Until you come out to the big farming states such in the heartland such as North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana, Nebraska, Kansas and Oklahoma, dont bash the ethanol, it has all farmers buzzing and its very exciting to see optimism in the heartland of this country unlike anything I've seen in a long time. Think AMERICAN!
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