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The Inconvenient Truth About Ethanol



  • 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: 8,826
    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 Pahrump, NevadaPosts: 31,432
    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: 8,826
    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 Pahrump, NevadaPosts: 31,432
    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 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!
  • gagricegagrice Pahrump, NevadaPosts: 31,432
    I can assure you that I am all for the farmers making a decent living. Having tried it in the late 1970s I know it is an uphill battle to make a living. In fact the Carter administration dashed my hopes of making a living at farming. I still have the land and lease it to someone that farms and pastures on it. It does cover the property taxes and that is about all. What makes you feel that the high price of corn will not kill the ethanol market before it gets going? What makes you think the trading price of ethanol at $1.91 is a profitable price?

    The real problem as I see for any of the major automakers outside of the Big 3 building flex fuel vehicles is engine design. Most use aluminum and that does not do well with ethanol in high concentrations. I do not think you can use plastic gas tanks either.

    I do hope you are right and companies like ADM do not rape the small towns they have built in. There are about 90 such places with shut down ethanol plants across the Midwest, from the last go around.
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    Gagrice, do the math, the ethanol industry could easily survive without that subsidy right now

    Well then let's do away with this subsidy. If the ethanol industry can really survive on its own feet then I'm all for it. If it can't then it's a form of welfare. I have no doubt that the farmers in the heartland are buzzing with excitement. If the government came up with a program that paid surfers for how many waves they caught I suspect that the beachcombers in So. CA and Hawaii would be buzzing with excitement about this. It doesn't mean it makes sense.

    Your thankful that GM offers you a choice to buy these flex-fuel vehicles. It's time for a reality check. Why exactly do you think that GM builds these vehicles? Is it to offer consumers like yourself a choice or is it to exploit a CAFE loophole? GM is a huge global corporation that could give no more a rat's [non-permissible content removed] about the farmers in the heartland than Toyota or Honda. They have, however, painted themselves into a corner where the only way they can make a profit is to sell trucks and SUVs. Manufacturing these flex-fuel inefficient vehicles is motivated out of self preservation. Let me ask you this. Can you go out and buy a flex-fuel Chevy Cobalt? Why not when this is such a cheap modification for the manufacturer to make?

    It's not like I'm unsympathetic to the farmer. If someone's willing to work hard and expects to make a decent living then I can appreciate that sentiment. Unfortunately the government is creating a future bailout. I work in the tech sector of our economy. I don't remember a bailout following the crash. Why do farmers deserve a different status?
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    Farmers produce FOOD, which is an essential need of humans.

    I agree. And if you can't make a living selling something that is essential then that's utter incompetence. Farmers were producing enough food to feed this country long before government subsidies existed. I'm sure that would still be the case. The only difference is that without these subsidies only the most efficient farms would stay in business. As it is now some utterly incompetent farmers can squeak by and the efficient farms/farmers have their profits further padded at the expense of the taxpayers.
  • gagricegagrice Pahrump, NevadaPosts: 31,432
    Did you know that recovered product is 28 percent protein--currently used wet or dry as a cattle feed supplement

    Did you know that for a cow to utilize corn as feed they are injected with antibiotics? Corn is not all it is cracked up to be. I look at every label and refuse to buy any product with HFCS in the contents. If you were to do the same you would be healthier and pass by 90% of the products on the shelf.

    Ever wonder why corn is the preferred grain

    That is a simple one. For every seed corn planted you get 150 kernals in harvest. With wheat it is 1 to 50. Corn is a high yield crop.

    Do you know how much anhydrous ammonia is needed to push the bushels per acre that are currently being produced? Do you know where the bulk of the Natural Gas used to produce that anhydrous ammonia comes from? Did you know the price of this fertilizer has gone up by 50%.

    anhydrous ammonia

    Now do you know what happens to the excess fertilizer used to produce these bumper crops of corn?

    The dead zone is created by spring runoff, which carries fertilizer and other nutrients into the Gulf. Phytoplankton blooms around river mouths spread. When the creatures die and sink to the bottom, their decomposition strips oxygen from the water, creating inhospitable conditions for other marine life.

    fertilizer run-off

    I would rather have fresh shrimp than ethanol.

    Each year a swath of the Gulf of Mexico becomes so devoid of shrimp, fish, and other marine life that it is known as the dead zone.

    Scientists have identified agricultural fertilizers as a primary culprit behind the phenomenon. Researchers are now focusing on shrinking the zone.
  • gagricegagrice Pahrump, NevadaPosts: 31,432
    Maybe in your part of the country they are only getting 150 bushel corn. Iowa farmers are pushing close to 200 bushels. Mainly due to increased fertilizer use.

    I admit I left farming in 1979 as it was a disaster. I also understand your side of things. I would not be here making this fuss if ethanol was done in a reasonable fashion. Using the excess corn crop for fuel is fine. When it is mandated to be used it becomes an issue for more than just the locales that are involved. I have to pay more for gas because it is mandated that ALL gas will be mixed with ethanol. The logistics are horrible for transporting ethanol. It has to be trucked from the processor to the refiner and mixed just prior to delivery. Using it as an oxygenator is a total waste according to the EPA. Modern engines do not need oxygenated fuel to burn clean.

    What good are FFVs when there is only one station in CA that sells E85? If using E85 works for those in the Midwest I think it is great. Just don't force it on the whole country.
  • gagricegagrice Pahrump, NevadaPosts: 31,432
    Here is the fertilizer problem as I see it. Ethanol has increased the corn after corn planting. That more than doubles the required nitrogen to get a good crop.

    Nitrogen fertilization is essential for profitable
    corn production. It also is a major
    cost of production and can contribute to
    degradation of the environment
    . The economic and
    environmental costs of N fertilization are more
    important than in the past, and they are likely to
    become even more important in the future.

    Table 1. Rates of N usually needed if all N is applied
    preplant or before crop emergence (option for inseason
    application of N not exercised).
    Crop category N rate (lb. N/acre)
    Corn on recently manured soils 0-90
    Corn after established alfalfa 0-30
    2nd-year corn after alfalfa 0-60
    Other corn after corn 150-200
    Corn after soybean (no manure) 100-150
  • fezofezo Manahawkin, NJPosts: 10,357
    Thanks for killing a good topic.
    2013 Mazda 5 Grand Touring, 2010 Toyota Prius IV. 2007 Toyota Camry XLE, 2004 Toyota Camry LE, 1999 Mazda Miata
  • PF_FlyerPF_Flyer Pennsylvania Furnace, PAPosts: 8,995
    Why does this have to turn personal? :mad:

    Let's drop the personal edge to this now. If anyone can't do that and continues what has obviously become a personal matter, they will be risking their access to the discussions.

    Chances are that you're going to see things posted that you disagree with. That's life on the message boards. That's not an excuse to start name calling. It is possible to disagree without being disagreeable.

    I'm going to remove the posts where you're going at each other and any future postings along those lines are going to be removed without any further explanation.

    Get back to discussing the subject and stop discussing each other please.

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  • Steve EliasSteve Elias Posts: 2,185
    Years ago an aggie pal of mine predicted much of the current badness due to ethanol-as-fuel. He also included biodiesel-as-fuel as part of the problem, thusly tweeking my TDI-ophile nose. He claimed these renewable fuels would each consume farmland that would otherwise be used for growing food, and that food prices would increase, and low-income people would thusly be harmed.
    It appears to me that he was right on, at least with regard to ethanol-as-fuel. His Aggie-education is ancient just like others who left farming in 1979, but he runs a huge grain company currently.
    To try to end on an especially CHEERS note:
    my favorite ethanol-product lately is called STELLA ARTOIS. WOW IS IT GOOD !
    Try it and ruminate, but not as a ruminant.
  • Kirstie_HKirstie_H Posts: 11,077
    my favorite ethanol-product lately is called STELLA ARTOIS.

    Can't run a car on it, and you probably shouldn't run the car while you're on it, but it's my personal fave :) TGIF.


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  • bpizzutibpizzuti Posts: 2,743
    Oh come on, be nice.

    While the agreement is pretty much universal to go with biofuels, there ARE disagreements on WHICH type of biofuels to use, and upsides and downsides to each path.

    Personally, I think we should license Brazil's technology as step 1, and work towards building efficient, clean biodiesel engines for long term. Others think switchgrass is the best idea.

    Farmers, of course, like the corn idea. Who can blame them, if they'll get rich off of it, you know? ;)
  • texasestexases Posts: 8,826
    Sugarcane's certainly more efficient, but no need to license - we just don't have the raw material supply.
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342

    When you say "go green" are you referring to the environment or dollars?

    It's interesting that people that are opposed to our current ethanol policies are labelled as being anti-environment or not caring about our dependence on oil. In most cases that couldn't be further from the truth. In my case I try to look at this ethanol approach very objectively. How much are we going to invest and how much do we stand to gain. When I talk about investment I'm not only referring to government subsidies but higher prices paid for food. When I talk about what we stand to gain I'm referring to what kind of long term reduction in oil consumption can be expected. My feeling is that we will invest an enormous amount of money and realize minimal, if any, oil savings. So if the goal is to reduce oil consumption does this approach provide the most bang for the buck? I think the answer is absolutely no.

    Now on the other side it seems to me the strongest proponents of ethanol are not totally objective. There typically seems to be a self-serving financial incentive for supporting these policies.

    As far as GM's offering flex-fuel vehicles almost everyone believes this has actually led to an increase in oil consumption. The reason being is that very few of these vehicles ever see E85 in their gas tanks yet GM is now allowed to sell more of these inefficient vehicles. So again, when we are talking about going green are we referring to the environment or dollars?
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    Why does this have to turn personal?

    The reality is that people take money in their wallet very personally. The contentious nature of this thread should make that obvious. So that's what this ethanol issue has become. The environment and oil dependence have become secondary considerations.
  • gagricegagrice Pahrump, NevadaPosts: 31,432
    I seriously doubt there is any bias toward me. I get hacked out all the time for going off topic etc.

    The title of the thread does carry negative connotations with regard to ethanol. This energy bill has gotten me to read a lot more than I really wanted to about ethanol. I may share your feelings completely if I was still trying to make a living on my farm in MN. I am very curious how the farmers close to my farm are viewing this whole ethanol phenomenon. People outside of the Midwest are less optimistic than you are. Most of us see one government boondoggle following another. Our water supplies in many parts of So California are still contaminated by the last forced additive, MTBE. I just think more studies are needed before it is mandated for everyone as ethanol is. I hope the Dakotas have bumper crops this year.
  • oldguy70oldguy70 Posts: 97
  • larsblarsb Posts: 8,204
    Your take is:

  • oldguy70oldguy70 Posts: 97
    Sorry, in my haste I inadvertently hit the wrong key.
    First off, I'm not supporting one side or the other--not just yet.
    It is a controversial issue, and both pros or cons in the US have come forth with what appear to be good arguments to support either case.
    Depending on whose opinion, research paper, or learned experiences we see, either side can appear to be be quite convincing.
    Here's what I think.
    Right now the US is addicted to oil, and being held victim of the whims of oil producing countries. This isn't going away folks!
    There really aren't any long term alternate energy solutions up and running just yet--lots of ideas and research being done, some apparently viable ones---but it's going to be a few years before they come on line.
    That said, what are the alternatives right now?
    I see ethanol as a workable short term fix--it provides an immediate dependancy reduction on foreign oil of 10 percent. Not something to dismiss out of hand.
    In the long term, it bides us a little time to have better and more viable alternatives developed and come on line.
    I know a fair amount about ethanol, having been a producer, and I still maintain strong contacts in the business.
    Whether you support it or not, it offers some upsides and some downsides.
    Personally, I see the argument as a wash.
    The technology is improving quickly. Higher yields and much better operating efficiencies are happening, thus energy use to make it is decreasing.
    Adding moderate percentages with gasoline need not be harmful to existing engine and fuel handling components.
    There is an improvement in emissions over those of straight gasoline fuels.
    It uses corn--yes, a valuable food commodity for both people and livestock--but corn is renewable and available within our borders.
    Corn and other grain prices are going to rise--but so is the price of fossil fuel, so where's the argument there?
    Manufacture of ethanol isn't rocket science.
    Distilling alcohol is centuries old technology.
    Grind corn (or other biomass), cook it with water to gelatinize the grain, add yeast and other enszimes to convert starch to sugars, allow the mash to ferment to about 10% alcohol over a couple of days, run the mash up a distillation column to get % alcohol to around 96%, then dehydrate the last of the water using a process involving benzine--lo and behold--pure ethyl alcohol--you can mix it with water and drink it, or mix it with gasoline and run it in your car.
    (Personally I like mixing it with soda--as in scotch and soda!)
    Even though the technology is old, there have been remarkable innovations in getting higher yields--up to 14% in fermentations, and much faster turnover in fermentation times.
    Distillation energy use is really improving too.
    Techniques like vapor recompression heating sytems have dramatically reduced the need for energy.
    Most, if not all distillation currently uses steam to drive the process.
    Efficiencies are being gained by generating steam with turbines (aka jet engines), running steam throgh electrical generators before sending it to process--hence you get more bang for the buck be going on the grid with the electricity produced.
    More later--this is getting entirely too long.
  • bpizzutibpizzuti Posts: 2,743
    Corn and other grain prices are going to rise--but so is the price of fossil fuel, so where's the argument there?

    This is a fair point. Using ethanol will drive food prices up. NOT using it will drive pump prices up...and considering that fuel is also required to grow stuff, food prices will go up anyway.

    Still not convinced that corn is the best option though. What we NEED is a crop that produces more energy than it takes to grow it, basically. That's the crux of the problem. If it takes just as much gas to make ethanol gas, it IS a wash.

    Since we can't devote enough acreage to can sugar, I find myself wondering about sugar beets...the key is to grow something with high sugar content, so it can be distilled into ethanol, right?
  • tpetpe Posts: 2,342
    I find myself wondering about sugar beets

    I think that's what they are pursuing in Minnesota.

    A previous post mentioned how if ethanol reduced our oil consumption by 10% then that would be worthwhile. I agree. It is definitely possible for us to replace 10% of our gasoline with ethanol. Since ethanol has a lower energy content it would actually have to make up about 12-13 percent to account for a 10 percent reduction in gasoline. Anyway, still possible. The question then becomes, how much extra oil did we have to use to create this amount of ethanol. When we are talking about using corn for ethanol it was probably a wash. So it becomes a dog chasing its tail situation.
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