Trading One Addiction for Another?

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Ethanol may someday provide a significant proportion of our transportation fuels and help reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases that are warming the planet. Today the Chicago Tribune has a good editorial questioning the need for government subsidies for producing this fuel:

It is a good idea to encourage ethanol use, because it's a renewable resource that burns cleanly without the greenhouse gas problems of fossil fuel. Its expanded use could make us less dependent on oil from the ever-roiling Middle East. But if ethanol is going to be a significant, long-term fuel for this country, it's going to have to find its own place in the market. That won't come through a rigged system of subsidies and tariffs that protects domestic corn and sugar producers at the expense of American consumers….

Are we trading one addiction (oil) for another (government subsidies)?

Whole editorial here.

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  1. “Are we trading one addiction (oil) for another (government subsidies)?”

    If we get down to root causes, most of our addictions are to government subsidies. Populism determines the shape, but the subsidy is almost always the addiction.

  2. Jason’s exactly right: be it Social Security, sugar quotas or sporting arenas, subsidy is always the issue.

  3. . . . without the greenhouse gas problems of fossil fuel . . . own place in the market . . .

    If fossil fuel causes damage that fosill fuel makers or users can shift onto the world at large, then the market cannot be expected to lead to a wise allocation of resources.

    I am not a big supporter of corn subsidies, or neccessarily any energy-related product subsidies at all. I don’t know the best answer to providing energy over the longrun, but I do know that the free market will tend to incentivize destruction of the ozone because the ones that profit from that destruction are so dissimilar from the group that will pay for that.

    I luv free markets, both buying things in them and discussing their virtues here at HnR, but let’s not get carried away.

  4. Fossil fuels destroy the ozone? That’s a new one to me.

  5. whatever, fossil fuels are destructive of the environment, othermark. I’ll go wikipedia the details for you and post them here if you really are interested.

  6. other Mark-

    They do destroy the ozone layer, you just don’t know it yet. Only Dave does. The details will all come out in discovery.

    Yep, I’m naughty.

  7. My economic analysis stands. here is what the ozone-related environmental problem really is:

    Air pollution
    Main articles: Tropospheric ozone and Air pollution
    Ozone is not directly emitted by car engines or by industrial operations themselves. These sources emit hydrocarbons and nitrogen oxides that react with sunlight to form ozone directly at the source of the pollution being emitted and in the atmosphere’s boundary layer (1 to 3 km altitude). The mix of hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, and ozone are the major components of smog that frequently occurs in urban and suburban areas. Recent satellite maps of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) clearly show the worldwide distribution of polluted regions associated with industrial activity (automobiles, factories, and fossil fuel power generation).

    There is a great deal of evidence to show that ozone at the earth’s surface can harm lung function and irritate the respiratory system (WHO Europe reports, cited below). Ozone has been found to convert cholesterol in the blood stream to plaque (which causes hardening and narrowing of arteries). This cholesterol product has also been implicated in Alzheimer’s disease, suggesting a link between the inflammatory response associated with head injury and Alzheimer’s. Air quality guidelines such as those from the World Health Organization are based on detailed studies of what levels can cause measurable health effects.

    There is also evidence of significant reduction in agricultural yields due to increased ground-level ozone which interferes with photosynthesis and stunts overall growth of some plant species.[3][4]

    Although ozone was present at ground level before the industrial revolution, peak concentrations are far higher than the pre-industrial levels and even background concentrations well away from sources of pollution are substantially higher.[5][6]

    Ozone reacts directly with some hydrocarbons such as aldehydes and thus begins their removal from the air, but the products of ozonolysis are themselves key components of smog. Ozone photolysis by UV light leads to production of the hydroxyl radical and this plays a part in the removal of hydrocarbons from the air, but is again a step in the creation of components of smog such as peroxyacyl nitrates which are powerful eye irritants. Ultimately, ozone is one component of smog which is harmful in itself and contributes both to the production and ultimate removal of other air pollutants.

    Thanks to othermark for helping us understand the exact nature of the problem better.

  8. Dave W: Claiming that ozone is a pollutant in the lower atmosphere is quite different than claiming the burning of fossil fuels destroys the ozone layer.

  9. Yeah, Dave. Whatever one may think about various fuels, it’s usually a good idea to get the facts straight. There’s a big difference between producing dangerous ozone at ground level and destroying ozone high above the ground. The two processes have, um, nothing in common.

  10. Everybody,

    Mocking Dave W is certainly good sport, but the question remains whether a purely free market in the classical sense best accounts for real harm done to others via the inevitable commons of the air we all breath and the atmosphere we all share and depend on.

    Personally I think taxing activities based on their harm to the lot of us (while reducing other taxes for a revenue neutral result) and letting the market figure out the rest is a lot better than arbitrarily susbidizing supposedly preferred activities. But we may get the latter if we close our eyes to the problem.

  11. I said I stand corrected. What was critical for my economic reasoning was that burning fossil fuels is bad for the environment. It is. My economic analysis stands and the specific nature of (at least a part of) the environmental damage is explained in the wikipedia portion I quoted.

    Don’t be obtuse.

  12. Lets be clear-

    Burning fossil fuels doesn’t destroy the ozone layer- it actualy creates ozone which is a componet of smog.

    CFC alledgely were destroying the ozone layer- they are now illegal in the US and have nothing to do with oil energy consumption.

    Buring fossil fuels (or none fossil fuels like ethonal and wood) create greenhouse gases that may be contributing in a significant way to warming of the planet. This warming may be significant compared to the natural varation of the planet’s climate, or not. This warming may be bad or may be good for civilization on the whole.

    Ethonal is considered “green house clean” becuase it is assumed that when you burn it someone somwere is growing corn or sugar to replace it. The growing crop uses the CO2 and fixes it in the plant until you take it and burn it again, restarting the cycle. You could do the same thing by having a giant factory that created ethonal and just pumped it the ground. This would trap the carbon and let you use the coal and oil with out adding net CO2 to the atmosphere. Or you could have trains that went from the midwest to the pacific and simple droped crops and trees into the cold deep water. Of course you could feed the crops to people in poor countries, but you would have to find a way to capture there farts and burps. None of this would ever happen becuase people still fear the mothers and can’t get behind wasteing food.

  13. 1. Ethanol is not a non-renewable resource. Growing corn requires significant amounts of artificial fertilizer. Phosphorus, a mined resource, is an absolutely essential part of it and, like petroleum, its known reserves are predicted to run out in a few decades.

    With oil, the worst case scenario – i.e. plainly running out of it – will force us to switch to nuclear energy, perhaps even give up driving altogether and move back to the cities and otherwise significantly reduce our energy consumption. But we’ll survive.

    Phosphorus, on the other hand, is a building block of life. Without it, without artificial fertilizer, harvest yields will collapse to the pre-Green revolution levels with mass worldwide starvation as the inevitable outcome.

    Now, as with all mined resources, new phosphorus deposits will undoubtedly be found in the future, especially when rising prices give boost to new exploration and technological innovation. But if we need to restrict our consumption of any resource in preparation for any worst case scenario, we should be limiting our consumption of phosphorus, not oil.

    2. “In 2005, United States gasoline consumption was about 150 billion gallons per year. [1] An acre of corn can produce approximately 200 gallons (gasoline equivalent) per year. The United States would have to place roughly 750 million acres of corn into production to fully meet this demand. For comparison, this is nearly double the total area currently used for all crops in the US (430 million acres) and about one third of the total land area of the United States (2.3 billion acres). [2] There are currently about 80 million acres of corn planted in the United States.. For bio-ethanol to supplant most of the petroleum fuel, a much greater acreage would have to be put into production for bio-fuel feedstock. Assuming a required input energy of 100 (gasoline equivalent) gallons per acre, bio-ethanol production achieves a net 100 gallons per acre, rather than the 200 gallon per acre figure stated above. A sustainable bio-ethanol program for the United States could require 1.5 billion acres (more than half the land area of the entire country).” (wiki)
    —-

    The agricultural lobby and assorted ignorant enviro-loons must be the only two categories of people who seriously discuss ethanol as a source of energy.

    If anything, the use of ethanol as a fuel should be actively discouraged. Boycott it.

  14. Ethonal is considered “green house clean” becuase it is assumed that when you burn it someone somwere is growing corn or sugar to replace it.

    If that’s the case, I would say that’s highly dubious reasoning since it assumes not only that “someone somwere is growing corn or sugar” but that that someone would not be growing something otherwise, which of course is a ridiculous assumption.

    I would, however, take issue with the notion that human-caused global warming “may be bad or may be good for civilization on the whole” (assuming it is “significant compared to the natural varation of the planet’s climate”). Would you expect that you could let a three year old go at your laptop and he’d improve the work you were doing on it? Similarly, I don’t think adding a random (again, if significant) variable into the environment can reasonably expected to be helpful.

  15. Ethanol, is a pig in a poke. If we started burning it in any significant portion of our total energy consumption, not only would the price of ethanol go through the roof, but so would the price of food. A free market would optimize the production and use of ethanol, same as it does for everything else.

  16. “Would you expect that you could let a three year old go at your laptop and he’d improve the work you were doing on it? Similarly, I don’t think adding a random (again, if significant) variable into the environment can reasonably expected to be helpful.”

    To me this analogy assumes that the world has been designed perfectly for humans by a higher power, who somehow knew more then us “three year old” humans. Since everything that has lead up to the current climate was caused by inanimate forces and unknowing animals and plants, I think the three year old could stumble on something better, or not, who knows? Human beings have lived through climatic changes of much greater magnitude then what is happening now. What is perfect- the last ice age, our current interglacial period or the more recent little ice age. The world is in constant flux. If you go to Babylon, Iraq it is no longer anywhere near the Euphrates. Just 10,000 years ago most of New England was under a sheet of ice. People live in different climates from Riyadh to Reykjavik.

  17. Thanks to othermark for helping us understand the exact nature of the problem better.

    Hissss! Rowrr!

  18. has been designed perfectly for humans by a higher power

    maybe the adaptive mechanism has been conditioned by evolution of all animals over geological time.

    If Earth had sharper temperature swings than it has had, then it stands to reason that the evolutionary outcomes would have been different and “people” themselves would be different.

    That is why it makes sense to think we might be more adapted for natural temperature shifts than induced ones.

  19. So… we shouldn’t be panicked about Peak Oil, but rather Peak Phosphorus?

    It’s good to have my panics all in order on a Monday.

  20. To me this analogy assumes that the world has been designed perfectly for humans by a higher power

    No, it just stumbled onto a set of circumstances that led to human existence. Obviously, not all possible sets of circumstances are equally friendly to our being here.

    Human beings have lived through climatic changes of much greater magnitude then what is happening now.

    I think you’re changing the premise here. I’m using the premise that there is something unique and signicantly so in human caused global warming. Which I would think would boil down to the climate heating up either to unprecedented levels or more quickly than ever before (since humans were here). I’m not qualified to say if either is happening, but I think that introducing either would match my analogy of the three year old on your laptop as it pertains to whether such change would likely be good or bad. In lieu of either of those possibilities, I would agree that it’s within the parameters of what we are adapted to deal with and thus is as likely to get us closer to the ideal as further.

  21. Dave W.

    That is why it makes sense to think we might be more adapted for natural temperature shifts than induced ones.

    That’s why Inuit dress just like Yanomamo, right?

    Humans are pretty adaptable to a wide range of climates, don’t you think?

  22. Since observant Muslims are supposed to abstain from ethanol ingestion, are they allowed to drive ethanol fueled cars? Is it okay because they are not ingesting it? What about the fumes they inhale at ther pumps?

    For a fun discussion, try bringing up endogenous alcohol (the stuff produced by the flora and fauna in our gut) with a biologically literate observant Muslim.

    If God didn’t want us to drink alcohol, why’d he give us alcohol dehydrogenase and CYP450-2E1?

  23. Ron,

    Indeed, but our behavioral skills for coping with environmental change have gone well beyond clothing. with the use of fire and fans and even central heating and air conditioning, we have developed quite an array of natural behavioral responses to varying climate temperature beyond just our purely physiological responses (sweating and shivering).

  24. That’s why Inuit dress just like Yanomamo, right?

    Humans are pretty adaptable to a wide range of climates, don’t you think?

    I don’t know about that. Most of the climate adaptations I am thinking of relate to things that are not specific to humnas, but rather were evolved into us before homo sapiens broke off as a species.

    Warm bloodedness is one example.

    The fact that we can eat eat plants is another.

    The fact that we lost our fur and allowed the suns rays to fall directly on our skins is another.

    that is just off the top of my head as far as ways things might be evolutionarily different if our ancestors had to survive thru times of more extreme heat and cold than they did.

  25. … burns cleanly without the greenhouse gas problems of fossil fuel …

    I don’t understand.

    Carbon dioxide is a greenhouse gas. Ethanol is a hydrocarbon. If you burn a hydrocarbon, you (ideally) get carbon dioxide and water. Imperfect combustion leads to pure carbon and carbon monoxide.

    There may be fewer side reactions due to impurities, but I thought carbon dioxide was still the main culprit. Besides, wouldn’t there still be impurities (possibly containing nitrogen oxides and sulfur oxides) with ethanol? Just different amounts or ratios?

    mjs

  26. mjs,

    And let us not forget the production of CO2 that comes with production of alcohol (it is one of the by products of fermentation). Every beer or whisky or wine you drink has unnecessarily resulted in CO2 released into the environment.

    Drinking and Driving, while you may kill yourself or some one else, you most assuredly are killing the planet!

  27. Humans are pretty adaptable to a wide range of climates, don’t you think?

    Of course, but that doesn’t mean that there are no temperature ranges (or rates of change) that might make the world less hospitable to us. Short of killing us off, unprecedented conditions could very well cause a lot of economic harm by forcing us to adapt in ways in which we didn’t need to previously. Mammals adapted to the asteroid hit the earth took a while back, but that doesn’t mean it was much fun to go through.

    (Again, this argument only matters IF human caused global warming is creating circumstances unprecedented during most of human evolution, which I’m not commenting on.)

  28. If we started burning it in any significant portion of our total energy consumption, not only would the price of ethanol go through the roof, but so would the price of food.

    Not necessarily, not if production of the plants that produced it expanded to meet the demand.

    That said, I agree that any interference from the government that’s not intended to protect our rights will distort the market and lead to inefficiencies that will cost us money.

    But I think the question is whether market distortion is already happening as a result of infractions against people’s rights in the form of pollution externalities and whether recognizing these externalities can reduce market inefficiencies, at least in comparison with the more likely political solutions to be enacted if the likes of us don’t weigh in.

  29. Woozle,

    The agricultural lobby and assorted ignorant enviro-loons must be the only two categories of people who seriously discuss ethanol as a source of energy.

    If anything, the use of ethanol as a fuel should be actively discouraged.

    Meh, and most of the people who are against ethanol as a fuel are just ignorant of it’s potential, or too lazy to do even cursory research instead of reiterating what they hear form the talking heads.

    Have you ever heard of cellulsic ethanol?

    Here’s a wiki on it:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cellulosic_ethanol

    Cellulosic ethanol would be a much better solution than the current sugar(from corn) based production method. It also wouldn’t require much additional planting because it’s based on the “waste” from other agricultural and industrial processes.

    Doesn’t it at least make some sense to look into ethanol as a supplement to oil in the meantime until more viable alternative fuel and distribution networks are in place?

    Detroit doesn’t even need to change much about their engines to make them flex-fuel compatible. Same goes for the current US Gas distribution network, limited modification and it could be used to transport ethanol. Neither of these statements are true of Hydrogen from what I know.

    But hey, what do I know, I’m just some ignorant envro-loon.

  30. but I do know that the free market will tend to incentivize destruction of the ozone because the ones that profit from that destruction are so dissimilar from the group that will pay for that.

    What free market are you talking about? I’m not aware of any existing free market.
    It was a government court that threw out the orchardist’s lawsuit against the railroad for pollution damage to his trees.
    “We can’t let property rights stand in the way of progress.”

  31. ?Phosphorus, a mined resource, is an absolutely essential part of it and, like petroleum, its known reserves are predicted to run out in a few decades.?

    Why can?t the phosphorous bound in the non-ethanol part of the corn be recycled? Of course it can.

    ?If anything, the use of ethanol as a fuel should be actively discouraged. Boycott it.?

    Folks are developing ethanol-powered fuel cells that are more efficient than simple combustion. Further, it?s silly to compare the efficiency of a mature technology (combustion) with a relatively new one. Ethanol appears to be a very promising fuel.

    ?If that’s the case, I would say that’s highly dubious reasoning?

    The carbon being released into the atmosphere was there last season. No net gain in terms of a year or more.

  32. I remain utterly unconvinced that automotive ethanol is anything but a scam, designed to transfer wealth from the taxpayers to ADM, Gargill, and their ilk.

    Question: would an automotive ethanol distillery be self-sustaining in terms of energy, once it was up and running? That is, would the process “create” sufficient energy to power the production process and produce ethanol for fuel?

    What I have seen says that ethanol, with the possible exception of that produced from sugar cane, requires more energy to make than it releases when burned. That is why there is now a big dither about natural gas- versus coal- fired plants (whether there would, in fact even be any net gain in terms of pollution if the plants were powered by coal).

    Like the electric car in Los Angeles which does not eliminate pollution, but merely displaces it to a powerplant in Arizona, ethanol seems to be more of a transformation (at a net loss) of some alternate energy source into a liquid suitable for our existing internal combustion technology and infrastructure. If that is the case, the current economics don’t favor rushing the conversion. Like it or not, gasoline is an extremely efficient medium. Maybe that is how it captured the market.

    And let’s not forget that ethanol has an energy content inferior to gasoline; barring a significant downward adjustment of pump price, the end- user’s actual cost per mile of driving will rise.

  33. The carbon being released into the atmosphere was there last season. No net gain in terms of a year or more.

    What the hell are you talking about? I sure cannot tell. (And I’m the one you’re apparently responding to.)

  34. coolrobc: Meh, and most of the people who are against ethanol as a fuel are just ignorant of it’s potential, or too lazy to do even cursory research instead of reiterating what they hear form the talking heads. Have you ever heard of cellulsic ethanol?.. Cellulosic ethanol would be a much better solution than the current sugar(from corn) based production method. It also wouldn’t require much additional planting because it’s based on the “waste” from other agricultural and industrial processes.

    1. The wiki article says nothing about the cellulose content of corn.. or by how much the energy yield per acre of corn would increase with this technology. Considering that it’s unlikely that ethanol will never be able to provide us with more than a few % of our fuel needs (or we’ll have to cut back on our food consumption), I don’t see much relevance in this new technology.

    2. It still wastes phosphorus.

    pigwiggle: Why can?t the phosphorous bound in the non-ethanol part of the corn be recycled? Of course it can.

    1. How much will it cost?
    2. Are such technologies available?
    3. Will ethanol still be energy efficient after the extraction and recycling?

    Folks are developing ethanol-powered fuel cells that are more efficient than simple combustion. Further, it?s silly to compare the efficiency of a mature technology (combustion) with a relatively new one.

    You may be confusing two different technologies here. Ethanol is a combustible fuel, not all that terribly different from gasoline in its uses, and has been used in internal combustion engines almost from the instance of their invention.

    Fuel cells create energy by merging hydrogen and oxygen to form water and release energy in the processFor fuel cells to run, you need a steady supply of hydrogen and oxygen.

    An additional technology that would extract hydrogen from ethanol with a few modifications would likely be equally effective at extracting hydrogen from gasoline. Ethanol has no significant advantages here, I could speculate.

    Fuel cells for the automotive industry, given the generally brisk level of innovation in battery technology, appear to be another government-financed scam: hydrogen is one of the least desirable ways to store fuel.

    Hydrogen is NOT, it bears repeating, a source of energy. It needs to be extracted from something (fossil fuels, water) often at a significant energy cost.

    For as long as we’re sharing our science fiction dreams, why not contemplate the possibility of inexpensive nuclear fusion power by 2020? 🙂

    This would solve all our energy problems.

  35. I’m somewhat surprised that oil from shale isn’t brought into these discussions. Shale has a EROEI of 3, whereas sugarcane ethanol is at 1.7, and corn ethanol at 1.3.

    If we’re talking about the most energy efficient way to replace crude oil, ethanol ain’t it. Greens love it to be sure, but I’m not sure it’s more than hype.

  36. Woozle,

    First, if you read what I posted it says supplement, not replace.

    Aside from that, what does cellulosic ethanol have to do with corn?

    Yes, the corn stalks can be used for production, but the whole point of cellulosic ethanol is that it uses byproducts such as the corn stalks, wood chips, grass, and other inedible biomass that is indigestible and just ends up in a landfill. It doesn’t require corn.

    As far as your “still wastes phosphorous” comment; again the intent is that byproducts are used rather than producing material solely for ethanol production. If the phosphorous is being used in current production of food and other raw materials, how is it being wasted?

    fyodor: What I think pigwiggle are trying to say is that the carbon dioxide that’s released when ethanol is burned was taken out of the atmosphere by the plant that was used to produce the ethanol, which in turn is used by another plant to produce ethanol, etc. Kind of a circular reference, I know.

    The carbon released is reused by plants year after year, rather than releasing carbon that was removed from the atmosphere millions of years ago. It results in an annual neutrality of carbon emmisions when compared to fossil fuels.

  37. ??pigwiggle: Why can?t the phosphorous bound in the non-ethanol part of the corn be recycled? Of course it can.
    1. How much will it cost? ??

    Well, in my naive estimation you could just plow under the crap that is not ethanol and plant away, works for my vegetable garden. The ethanol is just CO2 and H2O; everything else should be right there in the plant or very near by.

    ?An additional technology that would extract hydrogen from ethanol with a few modifications would likely be equally effective at extracting hydrogen from gasoline.?

    We are back to the distinction between old and new carbon. Corn ethanol comes from atmospheric carbon fixed over the lifetime of the plant. If you grow the corn and burn the ethanol in the same year there is no net atmospheric CO2 change over that year. However, if you dig up oil and burn it there is a net gain of CO2 in the atmosphere.

    ?Hydrogen is NOT, it bears repeating, a source of energy. It needs to be extracted from something (fossil fuels, water) often at a significant energy cost.?

    Well, you are just flat wrong here. Corn ethanol is a kind of solar power; light is used to make EtOH from CO2 and water. You can hardly compare taking hydrogen from water with burning ethanol. With water you are starting at the bottom of an exothermic reaction. With ethanol derived from corn sugar you are starting at the top. The plant takes us to the top of the energy landscape with help from the sun.

    ?For as long as we’re sharing our science fiction dreams, why not contemplate the possibility of inexpensive nuclear fusion power by 2020??

    Methanol powered fuel cells are commercially available and, I believe, will prove to be a market driven technology. Don?t be surprised when you are carrying one in your cell phone. Ethanol is more desirable than methanol for several reasons. However, until recently the available catalysts used in methanol fuel cells were expensive (platinum and so forth) and unable to reform ethanol. An Italian group is currently bringing a nickel-based catalyst to market that can preferentially reform methanol or ethanol.

  38. Oh, and I guess it?s not clear. We are not talking about extracting hydrogen from alcohols for use in fuel cells. In a direct methanol fuel cell water and (I think) 5% methanol are fed directly to the cell. No extraction of hydrogen.

  39. What I think pigwiggle are trying to say is that the carbon dioxide that’s released when ethanol is burned was taken out of the atmosphere by the plant that was used to produce the ethanol

    If anything you said addressed my point that that only works/makes sense if the plant used to make the ethanol is necessarily an additional plant to what would be growing otherwise which clearly may not be the case as the crops used for ethanol may merely replace other crops or non-cultivated vegetation, I missed it.

    which in turn is used by another plant

    But that would be the case with CO2 released into the atmosphere from any source, including from fossil fuels, not just that released by ethanol burning! I don’t see the point of that at all.

    to produce ethanol, etc. Kind of a circular reference, I know.

    Hmm, do you mean “circular process“? The original claim I addressed was sufficient to describe such a circular process, but again, none of this addresses my objection. To be clear, I would expect a possible degree of additional CO2 eating foliage in the world as a result of using ethanol as a fuel, but I think it is ridiculous to claim there would be an extra plant in the world for each plant used for ethanol. Unless you show me wrong on that, and it’s an economic issue not a chemical one, I would submit the entire claim of carbon neutrality falls apart. Well, unless you can show that the few extra plants in the world as a result of ethanol being used as a fuel would consume as much carbon as all the ethanol being burned. Up to now, you’ve seemed to imply there’s a one to one correspondence, ie that each plant uses the same amount of carbon that would be released by burning that very plant. While I can see the potential for it to be a higher ratio than that, I can also see the possibility that it’s lower too. In sum, just because the plants that produce ethanol consume carbon from the atmosphere means nothing without knowingt a whole lot more details.

  40. If ethanol (and/or biodiesel) are ever to be a viable source of energy, it will most likely be because of some bio-engineered algae that’s produces ethanol much more efficiently than is currently possible. (It would be really cool if we could engineer an algae that eats garbage while producing ethanol.) Nevertheless, the only way that bio-engineering research will happen is if ethanol gets it’s foot in the door of the American energy market.

  41. Wait a second!!! coolrobc, you’re saying that no additional phosphorous is needed to produce ethanol because it can be made from plant byproducts — meaning NO ADDITIONAL PLANTS! Meaning NO additional consumption of carbon from the atmosphere as a result of burning ethanol instead of fossil fuels!

  42. Nevertheless, the only way that bio-engineering research will happen is if ethanol gets it’s foot in the door of the American energy market.

    What?? We need to subsidize a product into the market for entrepeneurs and investors to see its future market potential? I don’t think so.

  43. ?But that would be the case with CO2 released into the atmosphere from any source, including from fossil fuels, not just that released by ethanol burning! I don’t see the point of that at all.?

    It?s very simple. You can either take CO2 out of the air and then put it back very soon after, or take it from the ground and put it in the air. The latter results in a net atmospheric carbon gain. The number of CO2 eating plants in relation to ethanol producing plants is irrelevant. It is all about where the carbon originates; in the atmosphere or in the ground.

  44. When you burn corn you release greenhouse gases. When you eat corn you release greenhouse gases. When the corn dies in the field and rots it releases greenhouse gases. This carbon dioxide is then taken up by other life forms until they meet there end, and it starts again.

    A lot of people think the world was in balance before we started to burn fossil fuel. This is not true- if there was no consumption of fossil fuels there would not be a fixed amount of carbon in the atmosphere. Volcanios and natural oil seeps add CO2, and tectonic activity can trap carbon in limestone, coal, ect. These effects can vary through time and this is part of the reason we have warm periods and cold peroids in geological history.

    The issue today is that we have taped into “frozen” greenhouse gases in that were not part of the cycle on a human timeframe. We have essently taken greenhouse gases out of the earths storage system and put it into the atmosphere.

    The real question for me is will the results of human activity on the climate have enough magnatude to overwhelm the natural variation? Or are we getting our panties in a bunch about it being a little warmer when in 400 years Boston may be under a mile of ice? I imagain at some point in the next 1000- 10000 when this interglacer period starts to end we are going to be setting fire to coal seems and poring HCL on limstone moutains in a last ditch effort to save billins of people from freezeing and starving to death. That would make a great TBS sunday movie.

  45. The number of CO2 eating plants in relation to ethanol producing plants is irrelevant. It is all about where the carbon originates; in the atmosphere or in the ground.

    Nonsense. The atmosphere doesn’t care where the carbon originated! Carbon is carbon. The atmosphere is only affected by how much you’re putting into it versus how much you’re taking out. If no extra plants are grown as a result of ethanol burning, then no extra carbon is taken out of the atmosphere as a result of ethanol burning, and burning ethanol would add just as much carbon to the atmosphere as burning fossil fuels. It is simple, but it’s the simplicity of arithmetic. Subtract as much as you add and you get zero. But add more than you subtract and you get a positive number. Unless you grow additional plant matter, you won’t be subtracting any more carbon from the atmosphere than you are now, and your model depends on just as much additional carbon getting taken out of the atmosphere as added by ethanol burning.

  46. Actually, sam’s post finally got me to see what pigwiggle and coolrobc did not. I guess the corn byproducts would release carbon into the atmosphere anyway, one way or another. So if you release it by burning it instead of releasing it by letting it rot while burning fossil fuels instead, you would have a carbon neutral situation. I see that now and I apologize for not understanding sooner. But FWIW, I would say that the notion that plant product will release carbon, and the same amount of carbon, whatever is done with it, is key to making your point.

  47. “But FWIW, I would say that the notion that plant product will release carbon, and the same amount of carbon, whatever is done with it, is key to making your point.”

    I see that now.

  48. re: “We are back to the distinction between old and new carbon. Corn ethanol comes from atmospheric carbon fixed over the lifetime of the plant.”

    Hmm. Could we counter greenhouse carbon dioxide by growing corn (or sugar cane or whatever), harvesting it, then burying it deep underground?

    Honest question. Not a troll.

  49. Mike Laursen,

    Could we counter greenhouse carbon dioxide by growing corn (or sugar cane or whatever), harvesting it, then burying it deep underground?

    Not being an expert, I would guess that would be extremely inefficient, and the gas would get into the atmosphere eventually.

    Unless — we somehow could FOSSILIZE deceased plant matter! That would “freeze” it and remove it from the atmosphere as has been done with fossil fuels.

    Of course, as sam points out, it all goes back and forth eventually….

  50. Unless — we somehow could FOSSILIZE deceased plant matter! That would “freeze” it and remove it from the atmosphere as has been done with fossil fuels.

    You act like fossil fuels are an accident of nature. Don’t you know that the oil we pump out of the ground today was intentionally put there by the highest order sentient dinosaurs?

    They too saw the need to be carbon neutral, so to make up for the fossil fuels used by their highly advanced economy, they intentionally cultivated, harvested, and buried vast forests.

    Of course, once the dinosaurs developed the iridium enriched fusion power plant, they no longer needed carbon-based fuels. Then came the horrible reactor accident… and only the cockroaches and mammals survived.

  51. Q: “Could we counter greenhouse carbon dioxide by growing corn (or sugar cane or whatever), harvesting it, then burying it deep underground?” M laursen

    A: “Not being an expert, I would guess that would be extremely inefficient, and the gas would get into the atmosphere eventually.” fyodor

    Actually, there are ongoing projects which are pumping CO2 into the ground as an attempt at underground storage. I am not particularly knowledgeable about it, but remembered reading some coverage. Just googled “CO2 pumping” and got a couple of hits, including one from the 6/24/03 Christian Science Monitor.

    I believe that at least some of the CO2 pumping is associated with increasing the efficiency of extraction in oilfields.

  52. Are we trading one addiction for another

    Perhaps.

    But at least one addiction will not be putting money in the hands of people who like to subsidize terrorists…

    We take what we can get…

  53. There are many folks looking for practical ways to scrub and store CO2. One method is to pump air through sodium hydroxide and then store the CO2 as sodium carbonate. Sodium hydroxide is cheap, sodium carbonate is relatively stable; I think the logistics of pumping air is the problem. There are also other ways.

  54. I am addicted to modern civilisation and the technology which is both its cause and effect; including, but not limited to; the internal combustion engine, electricity on demand (24/7), and INDOOR PLUMBING.

  55. correction:

    “…limited to: the….”

    stupid keyboard

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