Note 15-October-2006: If you came here via a Google search for "ethanol lobby", you probably want to read this concise summary of the issue before digging through this post. You can always come back later.This is annoying. I've got two posts being editted (one on hydrogen, one to continue the analysis of the possibilities of a zinc economy) and distractions keep getting in the way. Fortunately, I'm getting a post out of this one. Recently, a mail from a very sincere but not terribly logical ethanol advocate was forwarded to me by James at Alternative Energy Blog. I picked apart some of the questionable claims and did a short analysis which showed that bio-fuels cannot possibly replace petroleum (quoted directly from my mail, lightly reformatted for the web):
Executive summary:Apparently not. The response was a list of enterprises making fuel ethanol, and their annual production. I replied that they were probably in it for the subsidy money. This attracted a fairly long and marginally literate screed, from which I shall paraphrase the author's remarks to avoid quoting without permission.
[deletia] Yes, you can derive energy from waste. No, you cannot use this to replace more than a small fraction of coal, oil and natural gas. To the extent that the waste contains energy derived from fossil fuels, the net benefit is even smaller. ... [referencing Going negative] I was talking about biomass as a source of CARBON, with most of the energy coming via a more direct route (from sunlight). You could have proven this to yourself with a little arithmetic, which would have shown that 600 million tons of biomass per year is nowhere near enough to replace US use of petroleum. Let's work it out just for show. Let's assume that all the biomass is carbohydrate, with a general formula of CH2O. If you converted the full 600 million tons to hydrocarbons by magical removal of the oxygen without adding more energy or losing any of the rest (impossible, but assume it for the sake of argument) this 600 million tons of biomass would make about 280 million tons/yr of syn-oil, or about 770 thousand tons per day. Figuring this as short tons and the density of the syn-oil at 0.8, that makes 873 thousand cubic meters of syn-oil per day or 5.5 million barrels. (Remember, this is with a process of impossible efficiency.) US oil consumption is approximately 20 million barrels/day, and then there's natural gas and coal. Even if you could manage this feat of removing oxygen from biomass and converting the carbon and hydrogen to syn-oil without losing any of it, you'd only replace about 27% of US petroleum consumption. You wouldn't even cut imports in half, and you wouldn't displace anything else. What you missed ... is that you can get a lot more out of the resource using a couple of levers to multiply the benefits from the inputs. In my blog example, the two levers are:
- Ethanol as currently made (from corn) is a loser.
- Biomass sources are insufficient to replace petroleum directly.
- Waste biomass can be a useful source of supplemental fuel and other chemicals, but most energy has to come from something else.
- The biggest advantages come from leveraging new energy sources and boosting efficiency, which can be done in very un-obvious ways.
Combine those two multipliers, and you go from a replacement for 27% of US crude use to replacing ALL motor fuel (roughly equal to US oil imports) and something like half of the coal-fired electricity too. [correspondent notes that THERE's a surprise is very down on ethanol and asks if I was being sarcastic in one piece or the other] I was being completely serious both times. The devil really and truly is in the details, and you've got to know your chemistry and physics to avoid getting completely lost. The laws of physics and thermodynamics are uncompromising and will break any attack you can throw at them without yielding, but you can sometimes find paths of lesser resistance which go around them like jiu-jitsu. "Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed." The problem with current corn-growser subsidy programs, excuse me, alcohol fuel programs, is that they attack Nature head-on. This is why they need something like 3 BTU of fossil fuel inputs to get 4 BTU of alcohol out. Don't you agree that such wastefulness really is worthless?
- Using carbon from biomass to make a *solar* process much more efficient. Much of the new energy comes from the sunlight, not the carbon feed. (At least, that's what the Swiss are claiming they've done.)
- Getting the energy *out* in the form of metallic zinc, which can be used in a zinc-air battery instead of a combustion engine. The Zn-air battery is far more efficient than an engine and yields much more useful energy out per unit of input. It's like getting a new type of car engine that's 80% efficient instead of 20%.
[subsidies are not to get people to make alcohol] They aren't? There's a 52 cent/gallon federal subsidy for ethanol used in gasohol (5.2 cents/gallon tax charged to 100% gasoline but not 90% gasoline/10% ethanol). Subsidies to the growers are in addition to subsidies for the fuel blenders. [correspondent knows because correspondent is a farmer] I was going to go into your reply to my analysis and ask you why you had no rebuttal to the facts I cited - facts which prove that what you desire is IMPOSSIBLE - but you just explained everything in 4 words: "I am a farmer" That shows where your interests are. It is actually BETTER FOR YOU if ethanol cannot fully satisfy demand, because this means that you can never wind up with the oversupply problem that exists now. Here, I'll prove it. Look at the 2004 USDA harvest figures for corn:That's it, folks. The ethanol lobby is as foul a pile of money-grubbing liars as has ever graced Tammany Hall or the the oil-for-palaces office at the UN. They are not even trying to solve America's energy problems, they are trying to make certain that the problem is never solved so that they can benefit from a demand that their scheme can never sate. You can confront them with facts, and they will ignore them and continue to push programs which benefit only themselves with the lie that this is good for the nation. These people disgust me. Related items:
I summed up the state by state figures and came up with 11.8 billion bushels total harvest. At a conversion rate of 2.66 gallons per bushel (per http://www.ethanol-gec.org/corn_eth.htm), you would only get 31.4 billion gallons if *all* of it was converted to ethanol. Total US motor gasoline consumption in 2003 was 134 billion gallons. (http://www.eia.doe.gov/emeu/aer/txt/ptb0513c.html). And given that each gallon of ethanol requires roughly 3/4 of a gallon-equivalent of fossil fuel (including about about 0.44 gallon-equivalent of natural gas, according to http://www.cvec.com/general_manager.htm), the net gain is perhaps 8 billion gallons-worth. That's a lousy 6%. In short: farmers will NEVER solve this problem, because it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE. Worse, farmers DO NOT WANT THE PROBLEM SOLVED because if supply catches up with demand they wind up with the same unprofitable crop prices they have now. Conclusion: FARMERS BENEFIT FROM PUSHING A "SOLUTION" THAT CANNOT WORK. [correspondent know what farmers are and are not getting paid for] I know what fixes your personal problem as a farmer. I know that this will never fix the problems faced by the nation as a whole. [correspondent includes article titled "Claims that Ethanol has a Negative Energy Balance are Outrageous"] So what? Even if ethanol from corn required NO fuel for planting, tillage and harvest, NO fertilizer and NO distilling, it would STILL never come close to replacing petroleum. And you want it that way.
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