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AskPablo: Corn-Based Ethanol

| Monday July 2nd, 2007 | 18 Comments

corn.jpgJason keeps bugging me about my take on the issue of corn-based ethanol. This week I am finally going to take this one on. My gut feel is that it is the devil. Producing an energy-intensive crop that could feed starving people around the world (or at least feed the livestock that will become my next burger) to make a liquid fuel does not make sense to me. Corn farming is notorious for biocide use, genetic engineering, and endless square miles of sterile monoculture. The ammonium nitrate fertilizer, without which corn could not thrive, is a relic of World War II explosives production. This manifestation of the “military-agricultural-industrial complex” is also carbon intensive since it is made from natural gas.


Professor Patzek at Berkeley has long been an opponent of corn-based ethanol. His paper “Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle” is an exhaustive exploration of the energy inputs into the production of corn-based ethanol. Patzek is one of the many people that claim that corn-based ethanol requires more input energy than it yields. This, of course, would mean that our current national excitement about ethanol is completely stupid. If true, does this really mean that we are importing more foreign fossil fuels to make the fertilizer and grow the corn than we actually get out of it?
According to USDA’s Agricultural Economic Report Number 814 “The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update” only 17% of the energy used to produce ethanol comes from liquid fuels (gasoline and diesel). This means that for every unit of energy from imported liquid fuel that is used to make fertilizer, grow corn, and make ethanol, we get 6.34 units of energy out. So Patzek is completely wrong? No, this is the conversion rate from liquid fossil fuels to ethanol, but what about natural gas?
When you take into account the massive quantities of natural gas that are consumed to produce the ammonium nitrate fertilizer the conversion ration drops to 1.34. This means that we get a little bit more out than we put in, but no where near as impressive as one would expect based on all the hype. Once again proving that “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably isn’t true.” Using different assumptions and a broader system boundary in your analysis you could probably get a result that is less than 1.0, meaning a net negative energy conversion.
How are we going to power our vehicles when oil runs dry or becomes too expensive? The need for a liquid fuel to replace gasoline is clear and the answer does not lie in edible sugar or oil-producing plants, and certainly not in coal-to-liquids. The answer, in my opinion, lies in cellulosic ethanol. Corn stalks, switchgrass, hemp, and forestry waste can all be used to provide a more sustainable liquid fuel source for our thirsty vehicles. The cellulose in this woody biomass can be converted into a gas, and then into a liquid fuel. In fact there are already several working pilot plants producing cellulosic ethanol.
This week I am not going to do any lengthy calculations to prove my point. Others have already done a lot of work on this subject and I have provided several links to their work. Earlier this month the Wuppertal Institute published an interesting paper entitled “Towards a Sustainable Biomass Strategy” with additional insight into the matter. Since this issue is as much political as scientific I look forward to hearing a lively debate in the comment section below. What do you think the future of liquid fuels looks like?
Pablo Päster, MBA
Sustainability Engineer


▼▼▼      18 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • Marie

    I’m wondering if we could get fuel from the tobacco plant rather than corn. By switching the use of tobacco plants to fuel, we’d be able to keep the industry/workers in place while also helping to limit the supply of cigarettes.

  • Nick

    Nice work Pablito!

  • John

    There’s no question that corn-derived ethanol is not a sustainable or a long-term solution to peak oil or to reducing the carbon impact of liquid fuel use. However, when it comes to a liquid fuel replacement for gasoline and diesel, it’s pretty much the only viable option in the United States. Other technologies (butanol, hydrogen) are either non-commercial or a complete pipe dream, and some alternatives (biodiesel) run into the same food v. fuel debate.

    A more likely solution for transportation fuel is to switch to electricity as our primary fuel, since there’s really not enough biomass to displace all the liquid fuel we’d need to replace the 180 billion gallons of transportation fuel we use each year (U.S.). If electricity was the primary fuel, with a renewably-fueled liquid fuel backup engine, then we might have enough biomass to make cellulosic ethanol (if it ever gets commercial) or at least to use corn ethanol as a smaller portion of our fuel (despite it’s poor energy balance, it’s the only commercial renewable fuel we’ve got so far).

    Note: while corn is used to feed animals that feed people, it’s really disingenuous to imply that corn-based ethanol uses “people food.” It’s feed corn that’s converted to ethanol – people don’t eat it. And for those caring about sustainability, feeding corn to cattle to make beef isn’t much better than making ethanol with it.

  • Niosi

    Indeed… plus the majority of corn now is used to make High Fructose Corn Syrup for (mostly) junk food. It’s hardly a trajedy to lose that. It’s also easily solvable simply by reducing import tarifs on sugarcane (Cuba anyone?) – that would more than make up for the lost corn, and if the farmers were being paid for ethanol, they wouldn’t lose anyway.

  • J√∏rgen

    Ultimately, corn is a raw material for a bunch of stuff. Whatever provides the highest profit to the processors like ADM and Cargill is what it will be used for, whether it be food, plastics, fodder, or fuel or Christmas decorations. Most of the corn grown is not of the variety that humans would eat as food (as in eating corn as a vegetable).
    Therefore, land area is what we are really talking about and whether that land area can be used in a way that provides income security to farmers as well as in the current system, maximum profits to whoever pays the lobbyists.
    If we recognize that, then we need to have a clear vision of how we can maximize the benefits we all ca gain from the use of the land area available to us. Corn is definitely not the most optimal use of the land, but as long as the farm bill guarantees profits from it, farmers have income security and the lobbyists get paid.
    The farm bill should be used as a document to show leadership in developing technologies towards optimum use of the land by providing incentives for developing maximum efficiency technologies as well as rewarding farmers who take the risk of growing crops for those new technologies.

  • http://www.superfactory.com Ken

    The manufacturing guys over at Evolving Excellence just posted an interesting viewpoint on the “excess of corn”… tieing it to “an obesity of waste,” whether that’s a waste of overproduction or overconsumption. Ethanol or food.
    http://www.evolvingexcellence.com/blog/2007/07/the-obesity-epi.html
    Ken

  • J&S/Peoria/Illinois

    Morning everyone;
    I am a small time farmer (400 acres) from Peoria County; Illinois, and an investor in 3 ethanol plants.
    After suffering thru 20 years of low corn prices of $2-$2.50; I decided to invest in my industry & to provide an additional market for my product.
    Corn based ethanol is not “THE” answer to our energy problem; but it is a step in the right direction. Current average cost of ethanol production is $1.45 / gal. This comes from the front page of “Farm Week” vol.35; No. 24. ; up from $.95 / gal in 2002. “USDA expects production to rise from a current 5 billion gallons to 8.8 billion gallons in 2007-2008 and 10 billion gallons by 2008-2009.” (Actually; current production is closer to 6 billion gallons)
    “20% ; The estimated percentage of US corn crop used for ethanol in 2006, vs. 6% in 2000.”
    The latest USDA projections for corn crop acreage increased by 19% from a year ago;dated June 29)
    Every new ethanol plant that comes into production is more efficient than the last one.
    Nowadays; we can squeeze 2.80 gal from a bushel of corn. Each acre (at a yield of 150 bu/ac.) has the capacity to produce 420 gal. of ethanol.
    Sure; sugarcane is more efficient; but I can’t grow cane. I can grow corn.
    Logistics is the problem. Collin Peterson may have a solution;
    http://www.marshallindependent.com/News/articles.asp?articleID=13788
    The ethanol boom is having a major impact on the midwest;
    http://www.kansascity.com/business/story/174740.html
    A re-vitalization of rural America. Now; perhaps I can spend money on capital purchases.
    Just look at what it’s doing to John Deere stock…J&S

  • J&S/Peoria/Illinois

    Morning everyone;
    I am a small time farmer (400 acres) from Peoria County; Illinois, and an investor in 3 ethanol plants.
    After suffering thru 20 years of low corn prices of $2-$2.50; I decided to invest in my industry & to provide an additional market for my product.
    Corn based ethanol is not “THE” answer to our energy problem; but it is a step in the right direction. Current average cost of ethanol production is $1.45 / gal. This comes from the front page of “Farm Week” vol.35; No. 24. ; up from $.95 / gal in 2002. “USDA expects production to rise from a current 5 billion gallons to 8.8 billion gallons in 2007-2008 and 10 billion gallons by 2008-2009.” (Actually; current production is closer to 6 billion gallons)
    “20% ; The estimated percentage of US corn crop used for ethanol in 2006, vs. 6% in 2000.”
    The latest USDA projections for corn crop acreage increased by 19% from a year ago;dated June 29)
    Every new ethanol plant that comes into production is more efficient than the last one.
    Nowadays; we can squeeze 2.80 gal from a bushel of corn. Each acre (at a yield of 150 bu/ac.) has the capacity to produce 420 gal. of ethanol.
    Sure; sugarcane is more efficient; but I can’t grow cane. I can grow corn.
    Logistics is the problem. Collin Peterson may have a solution;
    http://www.marshallindependent.com/News/articles.asp?articleID=13788
    The ethanol boom is having a major impact on the midwest;
    http://www.kansascity.com/business/story/174740.html
    A re-vitalization of rural America. Now; perhaps I can spend money on capital purchases.
    Just look at what it’s doing to John Deere stock…J&S

  • BILL

    With current “abundant” rains in the south , flooding corn crops , destroying same , washing away precious topsoil , washing fertilizers into the Gulf , broadening the Louisiana seaboards “dead zone” , think nature dealt a large blow to corn and ethanol , higher prices are in sight , dropping the energy factor of ethanol to a minus factor . Again what idiots , evil idiots, would use food stuffs for fuel. You know why , because food and fuel are not included in CPI . This is Dubyas inflation fighting fuel , see no one will get SS raises , or COLA’s increases based on rampant food inflation . Selfish dishonest deceitful man indeed , taking advantage of the masses . Thanx Dubya !! Bill K.

  • http://www.liquididea.com William Hertling

    What about algal oil production? I saw a presentation by Al Prost, an engineer previously associated with Arizona State University on algal oil production. It seems that yields of up to 200 (barrels? gallons?) of oil/fuel per acre are possible from algae production, compared to less than 10 from soy, corn, or other vegetables.

  • J&S/Peoria/Illinois

    Morning everyone;
    If your interested in bio-diesel produced fron algae; follow this link;
    http://www.oilgae.com/
    I had been following this devolopment until my computer crashed, & I lost all my links. Mt understanding is that a firm in Mass. devoloped a method ; formed a company; then sold the world distribution rights to a South Africa company. They in turn, sold US distribution rights to an outfit in AZ. Someday, South Africa may be exporting oil.
    If you live in sunny Calif. ; you may be interested in this link;
    http://www.openenergycorp.com/
    As to the topic of corn-based ethanol ; I present this link;
    http://www.farmdoc.uiuc.edu/manage/newsletters/fefo07_11/fefo07_11.html
    Notice the correlation of the price of oil to the breakeven price of corn for the ethanol plant producer. Crude is now closer to $70/bl; instead of their use of $65/barrel.
    One bushel of corn produces 2.8 gal. It also produces app 17 lb of DDGs; which is used as cattle feed.
    Just recently,the first closed loop e-plant started in Mead, Neb. Link;
    http://www.renewableenergyaccess.com/rea/news/story?id=46414
    40-50% of energy that a e-plant uses is for the drying of wet DDGs to a dry form; easier to move & easier to store. By eliminating this step increases the profitability of E3 Biofuels.
    Sincerely; J&S/Peoria County/Illinois

  • J&S/Peoria/Illinois

    Morning everyone;
    If your interested in bio-diesel produced fron algae; follow this link;
    http://www.oilgae.com/
    I had been following this devolopment until my computer crashed, & I lost all my links. Mt understanding is that a firm in Mass. devoloped a method ; formed a company; then sold the world distribution rights to a South Africa company. They in turn, sold US distribution rights to an outfit in AZ. Someday, South Africa may be exporting oil.
    If you live in sunny Calif. ; you may be interested in this link;
    http://www.openenergycorp.com/
    As to the topic of corn-based ethanol ; I present this link;
    http://www.farmdoc.uiuc.edu/manage/newsletters/fefo07_11/fefo07_11.html
    Notice the correlation of the price of oil to the breakeven price of corn for the ethanol plant producer. Crude is now closer to $70/bl; instead of their use of $65/barrel.
    One bushel of corn produces 2.8 gal. It also produces app 17 lb of DDGs; which is used as cattle feed.
    Just recently,the first closed loop e-plant started in Mead, Neb. Link;
    http://www.renewableenergyaccess.com/rea/news/story?id=46414
    40-50% of energy that a e-plant uses is for the drying of wet DDGs to a dry form; easier to move & easier to store. By eliminating this step increases the profitability of E3 Biofuels.
    Sincerely; J&S/Peoria County/Illinois

  • Ian T

    Regarding algal oil production: There was a recent article in “Nature, 31 May 2007″ about the potential of algae biodiesel. The take home message was that it could produce magnitudes more oil per acre then soya, canola or oil palm, but the technique to reliable and efficiently do it on a large scale has not been perfected. A few companies, such as Solix, are trying to make this potential a reality.

  • wondermike

    Ethanol production is being pushed by the politicians in farm growing states that have most to gain in the very short term with the emphasis on corn harvests. Ethanol fuel per gallon has less than half the energy concentration that regular gasoline or diesel has, therefore one has to pay double for it just to stay even. When the oil and distilled fuel imports coming into this country get disrupted it means agriculture will be disrupted as well.

  • c

    to those that say the corn going into ethanol isnt really food better check the price of milk, cheese and cornmeal (a big deal south of the border)

  • J&S/Peoria/Illinois

    Morning everyone;
    Ethanol production is being pushed by economics; pure & simple. Ave. cost of production is $1.45/gal ( Front page of Farmweek,vol. 35. No.24) At a reduced figure of .67 ; coparatiable cost is $2.14/gal. I recently purchased E-85 gas for $2.68 vs. $3.19 for regular gas.
    The American farmer has responded by planting an additional 14 mil acres of corn to meet this growing demand.
    This discussion may be moot; as we are facing a drought; Link;
    http://drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html
    We are at the whims of mother nature.
    Producing corn on an acre (using no-till) is much less destructive to a soil’s profile & tilth than with soybean production.
    If farmers are offered $9 / bu for beans next year (at a reduced cost of inputs vs corn inputs); many will go back to a normal 50-50 rotation. Link;
    http://dgroups.agriculture.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=messages&webtag=agmarketing&tid=14636
    Ethanol production from cane also has problems; Link;
    http://archive.gulfnews.com/articles/07/07/09/10137842.html
    Silva & Pinto are now defending their position; link;
    http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/81801.html
    Be careful for what you wish for. IF the $.51 blenders’ credit is dropped; then there would be no economic incentive to invest in new startup e-plants and you’ll be faced with higher pump prices.
    Supporting the building of these e-plants is increasing the supply of this gas additive; thus
    decreasing our reliance of overseas crude oil. Link;
    http://www.lenconnect.com/articles/2007/07/11/news/news10.txt
    How many new oil refineries have been built in the last 30 years ? ; not one. Instead, oil companies are relying more on importing the gasoline supplies.
    Sincerely; J&S/Peoria County/Illinois

  • J&S/Peoria/Illinois

    Morning everyone;
    Ethanol production is being pushed by economics; pure & simple. Ave. cost of production is $1.45/gal ( Front page of Farmweek,vol. 35. No.24) At a reduced figure of .67 ; coparatiable cost is $2.14/gal. I recently purchased E-85 gas for $2.68 vs. $3.19 for regular gas.
    The American farmer has responded by planting an additional 14 mil acres of corn to meet this growing demand.
    This discussion may be moot; as we are facing a drought; Link;
    http://drought.unl.edu/dm/monitor.html
    We are at the whims of mother nature.
    Producing corn on an acre (using no-till) is much less destructive to a soil’s profile & tilth than with soybean production.
    If farmers are offered $9 / bu for beans next year (at a reduced cost of inputs vs corn inputs); many will go back to a normal 50-50 rotation. Link;
    http://dgroups.agriculture.com/n/pfx/forum.aspx?nav=messages&webtag=agmarketing&tid=14636
    Ethanol production from cane also has problems; Link;
    http://archive.gulfnews.com/articles/07/07/09/10137842.html
    Silva & Pinto are now defending their position; link;
    http://www.earthtimes.org/articles/show/81801.html
    Be careful for what you wish for. IF the $.51 blenders’ credit is dropped; then there would be no economic incentive to invest in new startup e-plants and you’ll be faced with higher pump prices.
    Supporting the building of these e-plants is increasing the supply of this gas additive; thus
    decreasing our reliance of overseas crude oil. Link;
    http://www.lenconnect.com/articles/2007/07/11/news/news10.txt
    How many new oil refineries have been built in the last 30 years ? ; not one. Instead, oil companies are relying more on importing the gasoline supplies.
    Sincerely; J&S/Peoria County/Illinois

  • http://www.thepumablog.com Steve Puma

    Pablo,
    Very nice. I’m not sure that I agree that we need a liquid fuel to replace oil (for automotive transportation). My feeling is that we need to make a wholesale move to electric cars as soon as possible, with the electricity coming from concentrated solar and wind. Plug-in hybrids are the necessary in-between step.