More Skepticism About The Biofuels Panacea

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A short while back I expressed a bit of skepticism about the biofuels fad. The best I could figure out was that biofuels might eventually replace up of sixth of our current supply of transport fuels. On Sunday, the Washington Post published an op/ed–"The False Hope of Biofuels"–by two Polytechnic University of New York professors that comes to an even more dour conclusion:

But allowing a net positive energy output of 30,000 British thermal units (Btu) per gallon, it would still take four gallons of ethanol from corn to equal one gallon of gasoline. The United States has 73 million acres of corn cropland. At 350 gallons per acre, the entire U.S. corn crop would make 25.5 billion gallons, equivalent to about 6.3 billion gallons of gasoline. The United States consumes 170 billion gallons of gasoline and diesel fuel annually. Thus the entire U.S. corn crop would supply only 3.7 percent of our auto and truck transport demands. Using the entire 300 million acres of U.S. cropland for corn-based ethanol production would meet about 15 percent of the demand.

Whole thing here.

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  1. To be expected . . . with corn. But, for good biosource, what about hemp? 😉

  2. Are we talking about all biofuels here, or just ethanol? I was under the impression that biodiesel has been showing some promise, and I’d be disappointed to hear that’s not the case.

  3. To be expected… with corn. But, for good biosource, what about hemp?

    I’m in Michigan — we can’t use hemp in our cars. Ever.

  4. What about cooking corn oil and using it as biodiesel? How are the efficiencies then?

  5. I’m waiting for the day when my car’s outta gas i can just take a shit in the tank.

    that’s biofuel!

  6. How about using it for generating electricity, or heating homes?

  7. We’d better quit pinning our hopes on biofuels being a modern engery miracle and start buidling more nuclear power plants and drilling for oil in ANWAR and off of our own coasts,

  8. Screw all this carbon-based shit, anyway — let’s go nuclear, and let’s do it yesterday! Use the nuke plants to provide energy to produce carbon-based fuels for those portions of the economy that run on it.

  9. it appears that their estimates of corn production per acre and ethanol yield from same are based on the edible portion of corn, the ear. this isn’t viable since we need the ears for food. however, some are working on digesting the remainder of the plant for ethanol production. this would cause their estimates to be off, but by what factor, I cannot say.

  10. retraction of my previous statement: the portion Ron quotes appears to me to refer only to the ears, but later in their article, the authors do take into account the remainder of the plant

  11. The first thing the govt can do to increase the supply of ethanol is quit slapping protectionist tarrifs on imports of Brazilian ethanol made from sugar cane.

  12. Their estimates, as I recall, are for current methods of producing ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol, where you use much more of the plant, would yield more energy per acre and would not require diverting any land away from food production. Use the corn cob or wheat kernels or whatever for food, and use the stalk to make cellulosic ethanol, or some other cellulose-derived fuel. This would be good for farmers, as using more of the plant means you get to sell more of the plant and hence get more money.

    However, they do make a good point about the limits on that approach. If the stalks are used to make fuels instead of put back into the ground, that limits the productivity of the soil. So there would be a limit on how much cellulose you can harvest from a field. Still, the use of cellulose does change the numbers favorably.

    I assume that the future will require a balanced portfolio of biofuels, solar electricity, nuclear, and fossil fuels. Biofuels are really just another form of solar energy, and it seems foolish to overlook all of the energy coming from the sun. Invest in nuclear power, by all means, but the sun is there so use it when you can. I’m intrigued by the possibility of combining solar and wind on the same site: The window often blows at night or on cloudy days, and the sun often shines even when there’s no wind. Fill a field with layered solar cells (different layers for different wavelengths, so you use more mof the energy) and surround those cells with lenses and/or mirrors that focus the sunlight (cover as much of that acreage as possible with cheap reflectors instead of expensive photovoltaics), and the cost and efficiency start to get competitive. Combine it with wind turbines and you get some savings on infrastructure.

    I’d invest in a company that pursued that.

  13. Governments never should have begun subsidizing roads.
    For want of a road a car is lost. For want of a car the wanting of Middle East oil is lost.

    I never cared for roads anyway. Especially the ones with traffic signals on ’em.

  14. I was under the impression that biodiesel has been showing some promise, and I’d be disappointed to hear that’s not the case.

    Biodiesel shows promise in that it can indeed power a car; it’s just not going to be enough to keep our auto-dependent society going exactly as it is now when gasoline becomes too expensive to maintain our current status quo.

  15. Biofuels are really just another form of solar energy, and it seems foolish to overlook all of the energy coming from the sun.

    Of course, fossil is biofuel… just extracted at a much later time relative to the death of the source organism. Thus fossil is solar energy.

    Further, the sun is utilizing nuclear energy (fusion), so all (well, maybe not hydro) energy sources boil down to nuclear… ;o)

  16. What a surprise. Petroleum fuels are (still) a more efficient store of energy than ethanol.

    Look at the bright side- just think how cheap corn likker will be after all the fuel ethanol boondogglers go tits up.

    Keep your eye on the short- sellers.

  17. “Look at the bright side- just think how cheap corn likker will be after all the fuel ethanol boondogglers go tits up.”

    Don’t be so quick to write ethanol’s obituary.

    The whole thing is really just another form of farm subsidy. And look how long the other forms of it have been around.

  18. P Brooks,
    Don’t get overconfident.
    I have a deep interest in corn likker, and I notice most of the purchase price is already taxes. Do taxes ever go down?

  19. New post solely because in my last post I accidentally listed some Bible website as my address. Yikes.

  20. And, as they point out in this month’s “Smithsonian” magazine, we can only grow the corn with lots of fertilizer which is made from..that’s right..fossil fuels.

    EtOH is a fool’s gold SOP to Archer Daniels Midland.

  21. Actually, hydro is also ultimately solar-powered… the water is flowing towards the ocean because it was deposited on land by clouds formed from water vapor the sun caused to evaporate from the ocean.

  22. Use the Force you will to turn your turbines.

  23. thoreau: There were attempts in the direction you discussed as far back as the last energy “crisis” in the ’70’s. Hundreds of parabolic mirrors focused from ground level on a boiler in a tall tower in the Arizona / California desert (like what we see near the end of the movie Sahara). Enviromental lobby/regulation/law suits made it impossible to expand/perfect the energy production.

    Semi-non-sequiter: the current Reason issue, had an article on the same bio-fuels discussion. One point that seems to be missing from the stories about Brazil is that the ethanol production is running off the waste from their sugar export production, both celulosic & syrup waste, and powered by ethanol powered generators that use about 5%-20% (approx, my figures are suspect) of the fuel previously produced. Also, Brazil’s auto infrastructure is more compact & smaller per capita than the US.

  24. Sphynx-

    The concentrators that I’ve heard of don’t focus on a single tower (I remember seeing a documentary a long time ago about such power plants). Instead, you take a small photovoltaic cell, and put it at the focal point of a small parabolic dish (in some designs) or at the focal point of a cheap plastic lens (in other designs). The collection area is equivalent to a very large photovoltaic, but the cost is only a very small photovoltaic plus a cheap piece of optics. The optics don’t have to be very high quality, because nobody cares about perfect focusing or good image formation. As long as the light winds up somewhere on that chip, and at not too steep of an angle, you win.

    Why did the environmental lobby object to large solar plants in the middle of the desert?

  25. Jennifer, the way I look at it, entropy has us screwed, anyhow. Might as well go out with a bang, I say. Too bad we’re not having more fun on our 70-mile commutes.

    Of course, I discount the opinions of religious wackos 🙂 I think I just about busted a gut the third time I saw you post that guy’s site. It’s a live demonstration of that study that showed that only the letters at the end of words matter when we’re reading.

  26. We’d never serve people to other people. That’s disgusting. Besides, everyone knows that it’s more efficient to raise crops than cattle.

    However, on a completely unrelated note, we’d like to introduce to the world our newest product, Soylent Diesel!

  27. “Why did the environmental lobby object to large solar plants in the middle of the desert?”

    For the same reason that a certain bloated dipsomaniac objected to an offshore windfarm in the waters adjacent to Cape Cod.

  28. crimethink-

    Good point about hydro. Ditto for wind.

    Basically, I’m all in favor of anything that takes advantage of the energy that the sun is kindly hurling our way.

  29. If the stalks are used to make fuels instead of put back into the ground, that limits the productivity of the soil.

    Comment by: thoreau at July 3, 2006 03:58 PM

    the only value in letting plant material rot back into soil is that it restores mineral nutrients such as nitrogen, potassium, etc., easily replaced using chemical fertilizers or by growing a nitrogen-fixing ground cover crop such as clover. the organic molecules themselves all (well, 99.9+%) come from carbon dioxide in the atmosphere

  30. Biodiesel shows promise in that it can indeed power a car; it’s just not going to be enough to keep our auto-dependent society going exactly as it is now when gasoline becomes too expensive to maintain our current status quo.

    Not to mention that the sources for biodiesel — fats and oils — are already used for other essential commodities: Soaps and detergents.

    Biofuels made from garbage are a good idea, but for the most part biofuels rely on resource streams that are already quite valuable to society. It simply doesn’t make any economic sense to grow corn to power our cars when you can pump petroleum out of the ground.

    But then, that’s why there are corn subsidies, isn’t it?

  31. Thanks for the correction, biologist.

    Captain Holly-

    As was pointed out, some cellulosic biofuels (admittedly a technology in its infancy) would not disrupt other resource streams.

  32. I think I just about busted a gut the third time I saw you post that guy’s site. It’s a live demonstration of that study that showed that only the letters at the end of words matter when we’re reading.

    (. . . fuming silence coming from me . . .)

  33. I seriously doubt we are anywhere close to using up the actual total amount of oil trapped under the earth’s surface. 70% of the planet is covered by water and I expect there is plenty of oil in lots of places under the ocean floor out in the open sea. It just requires more advances in techology to be able to get at it.

    Or, I might add, the political will to do it (see Offshore Drilling, California).

  34. Sorry, Jennifer, but it did evolve into funny at some point. I fully expected Tim’s posting on the blog for you to repeat the error. Although I’m glad for you that he didn’t, I must admit to a mild disappointment as far as entertainment goes 🙂 In all honesty, I actually started to think someone was pretending to be you, just to promote Jesus.

    You know, you could turn this into a post topic of your own. I’m curious about how far this joker has gone to hijack misspelled domain names. Is he just focusing on Blogspot, or can I get to him by misspelling other domains, too? At least he wasn’t specifically preying on you, as I originally thought. That would’ve been extra-creepy.

  35. “The writers are research professors in Maglev Research Center at Polytechnic University of New York.”

    you don’t suppose these ‘Maglev’ guys have some sort of agenda when discussing a competing transport issue now do you?

    Nah…that never happens. /smirk

    seperately, the best direct alternative to corn is switchgrass and was barely mentioned in the article, dissmissed out of hand even.

    Switchgrass is native to the U.S., requires relatively little water and fertilizer, is perrennial, so it doesn’t need to be replowed…just give it a hair-cut. Given these traits it is an ideal ‘crop’ fro restoring depleted land.

    As an ethanol source for making biodiesel you don’t need to worry about it taking land. Just the oil making bit.

    Biodiesel has better energy density than gasoline. Palm trees and Jatropha tree/bush/hedge/thing are the best bets for the U.S. Again, they don’t require much water and fertilizer, and don’t need to be replowed…relative to heavily subsidized soy anyway (Scream Soy Lobby! SCREAM!)

    Combined with plug in hyvbrids…or at least some sort of reasonable regenerative braking. we should be able to meet our near-term mobile fuel needs.

    In development is Algae based oil with even better productivity than palm or jatropha.

  36. Fill a field with layered solar cells (different layers for different wavelengths, so you use more mof the energy) and surround those cells with lenses and/or mirrors that focus the sunlight (cover as much of that acreage as possible with cheap reflectors instead of expensive photovoltaics), and the cost and efficiency start to get competitive. Combine it with wind turbines and you get some savings on infrastructure.

    Couple little things:

    • Cover ground with reflectors or solar panels and almost nothing will grow on it. Fewer plants to take in CO2 and emit oxygen. The solution may be worse than burning gasoline.
    • What happens to the weather when you suck thermal energy out of large plats of land and pipe it to cities? Does the local loss of energy create a low-pressure cell and attract a perminant storm over your solar field?

    Right now, who knows? We haven’t tried it yet. But I remember when nuclear power was the clean, safe, cheap power of the future; so inexpensive they weren’t even going to charge per KW used. Any new technology will have unforseen impacts.

  37. Sam, I have to agree. Switchgrass and other cellulose sources will be a big part of the solution. More importantly, there is NO single solution, even though these authors seem to attempt to set up such a straw-man. Corn-based ethanol won’t solve the problem. More drilling won’t. Nuclear won’t. Solar won’t. Wind won’t. Cellulose, biomass, sequestration, bacteria, tides, geothermal, and fusion won’t. Hybrid and/or electric vehicles won’t. Improved efficiency, urban design, and public transport won’t.

    Together they will.

    I really think we are heading rapidly towards a tipping point where various renewables start becoming competitive with petro and coal in terms of price. I can easily imagine this beginning in as little as ten years. From that point, there is little the government needs to do – people and corporations will switch on their own in a tsunami of change. This is one reason I am not overly-concerned about global warming. It IS almost certainly real, but all the scenarios that predict apocalypse vastly over-estimate how dirty we will be in the future. By 2050, most energy will be renewable, and by 2075, we will be pulling CO2 or other greenhouse gases OUT of the atmosphere on net if they are still causing problems.

  38. Larry,
    you could try putting all those collectors and such…on the buildings which use that energy. (or over the roads and parkinglots for that matter…or in the roads and parking lots.

  39. Chad,
    I love your thinking. That which stands in the way of that future I think is too much supsidies (Sooy and Corn lobby) and too many regulations…we need to be able to adapt to the whole Peak Oil/Global warming wierdnesses (assuming the threats are real).

  40. you could try putting all those collectors and such…on the buildings which use that energy. (or over the roads and parkinglots for that matter…or in the roads and parking lots.

    Might work. But then you might end up with the storm permanently over the city. You might also need to leave the lights on under them, using much of the power generated.

    Or it might not. My point is that we don’t know what will happen, nor will we until we try.

  41. Sam, you are right…it is mostly about getting government out of the way. I think if we really axed all the subsidies, some renewables (wind and various biomass) would already be competitive with petro and nuclear, assuming the latter were forced to pay for their pollution. Note that as an added benefit, the tax revenue from the pollution taxes could be offset with an income tax reduction – taxing bad things is clearly better than taxing good things. Solar is probably a few years behind, though prices should come down soon as the market has been held up by a shortage of silicon. The market is correcting for this, of course, with every silicon manufacturer expanding as fast as they can. Expect electric+hybrid in just a few years, and far more models of the current hybrids. I would expect that most new cars will be hybrids of sorts in ten years, virtually all in twenty.

    The government does have more of a role to play in the road/transport network, of course. We really need to shift our resources away from pumping up the road grid to fifteen lane monstrosities and towards more public transport (of which I am a huge fan, having lived overseas twice and using a car less than once per month). It disgusts me when L os Angeles literally brags about its “world class expressway system”, or in real-world terms, “giant parking lot and pot-hole collection”. In the meantime, a Japanese city one twentieth the size has five times the rail lines, which get you just about anywhere you want in less time, with far less pollution and frustration, for a lower total cost.

  42. Larry-

    Solar works best in dry areas where few things grow anyway.

    As to sucking up all that energy, if plants grow then they absorb a lot of that sunlight and convert it into chemical bonds rather than re-radiating it into the air. Not to mention that air circulation will even things out quite a bit. I don’t see any big downside to solar energy.

  43. 10-15% of all of our energy consumption would be big deal. By way of comparison, all the oil in the the Alaskan wildlife refuge would amount to 1 or 2% for a decade or two.

    Also, if it became profitable to grow corn or some other crop for energy use, the amount of land in the US under cultivation would increase well beyond current levels. We have an enormous amount of abandoned cropland in this country, probably more than active cropland.

    Now, whether reverting all of that field and scrub and new-growth forest back to cropland is a good idea is a whole ‘nother question.

  44. BTW, that’s 1-2% of our oil usage, not our energy usage, that’s estimated to be in the wildlife preserve.

    Oil accounts for about half of our energy sources.

  45. Quoted from the article:

    “…it would still take four gallons of ethanol from corn to equal one gallon of gasoline.”

    I thought the ratio was more like 8 to 1, but maybe my data is out of date. Either way, ethanol seems to be smoke and mirrors.

  46. Any you whippersnappers heard o’ trains?

  47. Currently the internal combustion engine is around 20% efficient. Fuel cells are between 40-60% efficient. So, double or triple the BTU estimate for a more realistic picture of ethanol. The fuel cell will have the added benefit of reforming various kinds of alcohol as well. This is a bad sign for the ICE, not ethanol as a fuel source. Oh, and this is corn ethanol. Ethanol derived from a more sugar rich crop will decrease the needed real-estate. Say, sugar cane.

  48. But how much of the US can be used to grow sugarcane? Hawaii and half of Florida?

  49. P Brooks,

    I wrote in to my local paper coplaining about Ted Kennedy and his allies blocking the wind projects.

    “If Ted Kennedy and his allies succeed in blocking the Cape Wind project, Republican oil men from Texas are going to be shoving it in our face and calling us hypocrites for 30 years. And they’ll be right.”

    And they ran it.

  50. pigwiggle, the only problem is that we still can’t make a fuel cell that is powerful, cheap, light, and reliable enough to power a car yet. Unfortunately, despite tons of money for R&D (both public and private), this field is not progressing as fast as hoped. While there may be no show-stoppers, it is not clear that there is any solution to these issues on the mid-term (10 year) horizon. ICEs will be king for quite a while. I’d love an alcohol fuel-cell/electric hybrid, but that’s probably at least twenty years away.

  51. “But how much of the US can be used to grow sugarcane? Hawaii and half of Florida?”

    What, it has to be grown in the US? Please.

    “pigwiggle, the only problem is that we still can’t make a fuel cell that is powerful, cheap, light, and reliable enough to power a car yet.”

    That’s not true. Fuel cells have power things as disperate as submarines and spacecraft. It’s just market inertia.

  52. pw,

    In military and space applications cost is often not an object. So it is not market inertia.

    Given that this is a place where you would expect a lot of hi tech and economics savy market oriented libertarians, it is quite a surprise to see all the conspiracy theories come out.

    Look at the dope market. You can’t stop the flow. Why? Because there is profit available.

    If there is limited flow in a particular market then you can be sure that the cause is unprofitability at a price that would encourage the desired flow.

  53. Switch grass is not so good. The cutting and transportation costs are not favorable.

  54. ?In military and space applications cost is often not an object. So it is not market inertia.?

    When I say market inertia I?m not just talking about consumer skepticism. There *are* fuel cells that are efficient, light, cheap, and powerful enough to power an auto. But you can?t just pull out your ICE, slap in a fuel cell, and then run down to your filling station. The auto needs to be designed around the power plant, which will take time and money. The infrastructure to support the auto isn?t there; mechanics, accommodating fuelling stations, diy replacements parts, and so forth.

    It will happen. In the next year or two you will find direct methanol fuel cells in phones, laptops, and other small commercial electronics. As the technology matures in the marketplace (like he ICE did) it will only become more efficient and inexpensive. Very recently an Italian company was able to replace the expensive platinum reformers in alcohol fuel cells with a cheap Nickel blend, dramatically lowering the cost and increasing the range of usable fuels.

    I don?t believe biodiesel or alcohol will replace gasoline for the ICE, but the FC will replace the ICE and then alcohol should be commercially viable. I don?t favor subsidies. The market will prove this out.

  55. http://tinyurl.com/zrc6a

    Genetic engineering can solve much of the problems of ethanol and biodiesel production.

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