Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Ethanol In Your Tank - It's Not The Answer

Putting Ethanol into gasoline to stretch gasoline usage might be Congress's simplistic short term fix on the road to energy independence, but doesn't anyone remember this study from Cornell University?

Cornell researchers said: Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates and that "Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, economy or the environment," says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. "Ethanol production requires large fossil energy input, and therefore, it is contributing to oil and natural gas imports and U.S. deficits." He says the country should instead focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion..
In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

* corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
* switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
* wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

* soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
* sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.
According to some mechanics, ethanol eats up the plastic-like lining of the fuel tank and injectors. So it may not be too great for the inside workings of your car either.

Maybe if our legislators at least took some time to read some of these research papers, they would not be so hasty in passing legislation like requiring more ethanol to be put in gas tanks. It might work as a transitional technology to stretch gas mileage - but it's not the wave of the future - and it is not a panacea. It kind of reminds me of mom putting more bread crumbs in the meatloaf to feed a few extra mouths. The extra fillers are not always a good thing when you have a steady diet of it. Maybe it's time to look for another main course.

Quite frankly I am quite annoyed at the Republicans in Congress who refused to allow a vote on a measure that would have required electric utilities to produce at least 15 percent of their power from wind, biomass or other renewable energy sources. Although I don't like the government meddling and requiring businesses to do anything, we need to start making some changes... and soon. We have a lot of technology at hand, and we should start taking advantage of it.


Dana said...

It reminds me of paying farmers to plow over their crops. Except rather than plowing them over we make them into something so it seems like we are producing something. But we would actually be better off if they had not bothered with all the transportation and refining to get rid of the corn.

Susan said...

It is insane and I am thoroughly disgusted with most politicians.
Ethanol is NOT the answer, but my dad, a corn farmer, is very happy with the corn prices as of now. Wish he could be happy for a better reason.
The subsidies are ridiculous. Our farm family has struggled with weather, prices, the middle man, et al; but government 'help' and manipulation isn't the long term answer, for sure.
But wind energy isn't the answer either. We have a huge wind farm to the north of us. (Farm land is always good for something besides crops. Subdivisions are starting to move in too. Where are ALL these people coming from?!) Besides the space those towers take up across the countryside, the energy gained is a tiny blip compared to substantial energy units such as nuclear plants (or coal fired). I think if the politics were deleted from the decision, nuclear makes sense if and when the storage space is approved by The Politicians.
Plus wind energy has to be backed up with more reliable sources (nuke or coal) because when the 'wind ain't blowin'....people still want their a/c and lights on.
Biodiesel looks SO appealing.

Eric Holcombe said...

Ethanol degrades some rubber o-rings, gaskets, etc. So, the "flex-fuel" capable cars aren't really all that different. The E85 has a nice high octane rating, but we aren't yet offering engines that can take advantage of the E85 fuel properties without also running on regular unleaded. That is an infrastructure thing and will take some time. Imagine having a car today that only operated on E85...
The ethanol allows higher engine compression ratios (more power from smaller engines), higher combustion temperatures (less unburned hydrocarbons). Yes, it isn't that great with our cars as-is, but its potential isn't realized yet. At best though, I believe they could maybe break even with gasoline on an economic basis.

I am a fan of the soy-based bio-diesel. Frankly, at this point in time, I don't mind paying an American farmer (or someone else in the 'downline') 27% more - just to keep the first 100% from going to Saudi.

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