Ian Bicking: the old part of his blog

On ethanol

Seeing Keith Ray's post on ethanol I remembered reading various second-hand accounts about the net energy output of ethanol. After a bit of Googling, I thought I'd post the relevant links:

It's complicated how exactly you should judge an energy source, but from what I can tell it's mostly a question of how bad ethanol is.

One argument is that at least you can use domestic non-renewable energy sources to manufacture ethanol, like coal (which itself cannot be used in cars). But the environmental impact (especially considering greenhouse gasses) seems atrocious, any way you cut it. I can see why there's some argument for ethanol based on energy independence, but I can't see any environmental justification. But biomass proponents have always confused me. I think biomass seems naturally wholesome, since farmers and corn and wood and peat are all very wholesome seeming. Still, ADM is about as un-wholesome a company as you can get, and that's where ethanol is really coming from.

Apparently ethanol is big in Brazil. I don't know exactly why (is sugar cane more efficient than corn?) -- but I suspect for the same reasons as in the US, that it's just a complex and wasteful way of subsidizing farming.

Created 04 Jul '05


A few points:

  • Anyone who can cite an excact percentage of ethanols energy return is most likely lying and have some sort of agenda. The truth is that ethanol can be manufacturered in a number of different ways, using a number of different raw materials, so ethanol does not have an "inherent" energy return.
  • Sugar cane is much more efficient than corn. The reason corn is used in the US is mainly because of farmer lobbying efforts. It is not an enviromentally friendly ethanol source. The oil industry is of course using this to slam ethanol as an energy medium/source in general.
  • Brazil sells ethanol on the world market for HALF the price of oil. I do not know how much is export subsidies and if they use coal in the production process, but still.
  • The energy return of a given ethanol production process is constant (and increasing in general as better processes are invented). The energy return of oil is constantly in decline. The return of energy of ethanol will surpass that of oil, this is certain.
  • EU and US subsidizes biomass production anyway. Not using ethanol will not save the energy spent in that production.
  • If zero net carbon energy sources are used for ethanol production, ethanol itself becomes zero net carbon. Oil can never acheive this.
# Fredrik

Brazil uses ethanol production as a way of hedging its exposure to the sugar price. In times when the sugar price is low and the oil price is high, it diverts sugar cane into ethanol production and increases the amount of ethanol added to gasoline locally so that it needs to improt less oil. When the sugar price rises it sells more actual sugar and produces less ethanol.

Given that Brazil has such a large sugar crop, this is a very shrewd move on the part of its government.

# Sean Hunter

It's not just that biomass "seems" natural. It absorbs carbon dioxide while it's growing, so the CO2 released when it's burned would be absorbed by the next crop.

That said, it's certainly true that some ethanol production has a negative energy balance. Corn isn't particularly suitable for ethanol. And, in the US, corn is very energy intensive to produce.

I understand that sugar-cane is much more efficient. The stated reason, here in Brazil, for shifting towards ethanol, was to become more self-sufficient and to avoid further oil shocks after the 70s. I'm not sure about the amount of coal available here, but I'd imagine that that goal would have been invalidated if there was a net energy-loss, and growing ethanol had used more imported oil than it substituted. I guess here it has a (maybe small) positive value.

# phil jones

Hi all,

I from Brazil. Lately we have produced "flex" cars that accept gasoline and ethanol (alchool). This cars are the most bought.

Well, I wait we undestand my english.

without more.

# Claudio Torcato

Yep flex is now very popular. We're hopefully going to get our car converted soon.

Alcohol is definitely cheaper than petrol. If it is energy negative, then the government must be doing a lot of subsidizing.

Meanwhile, WorldChanging are on this case here : http://www.worldchanging.com/archives/003042.html

# phil jones

Sept 22, 2005

Just what is the current price on the street for ethanol fuel in Brazil?

# Dave Dow

Five Ethanol Plants Receive $46 Million in Government of Canada Funding - link

In making the announcement, Minister Mitchell noted that projects supported under both rounds of the Ethanol Expansion Program expect to be producing a total of about 1.2 billion litres of fuel ethanol per year by the end of 2007. This would bring Canadian production to approximately 1.4 billion litres per year, seven times what it was prior to the launch of the program, and enough to meet the Government of Canada's climate change target for ethanol production two years ahead of schedule. This target is to have 35 percent of all gasoline in Canada contain a blend of 10-percent ethanol by 2010. Additionally, the $118 million in funding the Government of Canada has allocated under the EEP will result in close to a $1-billion investment from the companies involved in the projects.

comment: yawn. I will believe the govt is acting responsibly when it starts to force companies and consumers to adapt to a "less oil" future.

Bike rider, energy investor. Who says we can't profit off other peoples foolishness?

# Michael Watkins

I wish I had the links handy, but one paper on the net I saw said that corn-ethanol (as produced currently in the USA) produces 10% more energy than it consumes in production, but sugar-cane-ethanol (as produced currently in Brazil) produces 300% more energy than it consumes in production. That's a big difference. Brazil has had 30 years to improve its processes, and the USA is just getting started.

I also read that an inventor is seeking to test his system that uses the heat from composting to distill ethanol, which would allow farmers to produce their own ethanol, and be much more efficient in terms of energy expenditure.

I'm sure that after 30 years, the USA will have greatly increased its efficiency of producing ethanol, as well as other energy sources (for power-plants as well as cars) rivaling Brazil's current efficiencies. But it will take work and time, and must not be prevented from getting started.

# keith ray

No human brain can access all the data necessary to determine the net carbon output resulting from the use of ethanol from various processes. It takes a good computer algorithm to do that. However, one can get a general idea by just philosophizing about it.

For instance, accept that biomass carbon is being recycled no matter whether you use the energy to run automobiles or bacteria are using it to fill their own energy needs. When bacteria break glucose apart, a significant product is carbon dioxide. That causes the carbon dioxide produced by burning ethanol in an internal combustion engine a wash, or a near wash, with biodecomposition of biomass.

Carbon sequestered in gasoline from petroleum was done millions of years ago and, when released into the current atmosphere, causes a current increase in atmospheric levels of the carbon which cannot all be resequestered by plants at a rate fast enough to keep a balance. One need not have tests and statistics to realize these points.

A net zero in carbon dioxide change makes ethanol from biomass neutral as compared with emissions from coal, natural gas, or petroleum.

Current technology in conversion of biomass rich in hemicellulose (with a high xylose content), and cellulose (with a high glucose content), gives a truly economic road to ethanol for motor fuel with a net carbon neutral end use result. Though fermentation of glucose yields one molecule of carbon dioxide for one molecule of ethanol produced, and fermentation of xylose yields one molecule of carbon dioxide average in the three pathways use; two tons of biomass can yield one ton of motor fuel and the same amount of carbon dioxide as the same two tons of biomass burned in the field, or allowed to decay and compost.

# Frank Goodman

Pimintel's work is like comparing apples to oranges as he uses every conceivable energy input when calculating the cost for ethanol, down to how much heating oil is used to heat the farmers home! If you used the exact same methods for gasolie refining, well you would be in the $4-5 range.

# Dino Thomas

It's working on a mass scale in Brazil. It's helping the general public as well as the farmers. They're not kissing the Arabs' collective asses. Brazil is no small country. How much does it take to make us jerk our collective faces out of our asses to admit that this will work, has worked and is presently working??? How many more "feasability studies" by a bunch of phony titled pin-heads, funded by U.S. taxpayers will it take? We're in a bind. We're spending $2 billion/month on Bush's war (and were not even receiving any oil from Iraq), we're losing the very most precious assets we have: our dedicated, mostly youthful military servants. (Yeah, I know.. but I have failed to hear of one instance where DUB has suggested that his daughters should volunter to to go to Iraq to show their love and support for the Iraqi folks.)

Why don't we just stop the B.S. and produce Ethanol to operate our cars, light trucks, etc..??? This is a Major NO-BRAINER. Anyone who has ever taken one semester of Organic Chemistry can testify that this ancient technology works. Are we just too embarrassed to admit that Brazil has embraced this first?

# Phil Thomasson

No matter, what these critics say, Ethanol consumption is increasing in US, Brazil, China India, Europe etc, and at the same time Oil Prices are increasing.

In 2005, Chinese bought 6 million vehicles, this year, they may buy 7.2 million and as they buy more, more will be the Oil prices.

The good news on Ethanol front is that the Cellusosic Ethanol R&D is progressing at a much faster pace and also the devices to make a Gasolene vehicle run on Ethanol as well is coming to the marketplace.

# Max Reid