The Ethanol Enigma
David Morris, AlterNet
April 25, 2002
Ethanol is the homegrown, renewable fuel both conservatives and liberals love to hate. They might change their minds if they better understood its remarkable history.
Before the Civil War ethanol, derived from corn or molasses, was one of the nation's best-selling chemicals. It was used primarily as an industrial solvent and illuminant.
To finance the war, President Lincoln imposed a Spirits Tax of $2.08 a gallon. Ethanol had to pay the tax because it is liquor, although at 200 proof it makes for a very potent drink. Other poisonous illuminants, like the newly introduced kerosene, were taxed 10 cents a gallon.
The Spirits Tax wasn't lifted until 1906, after the oil trust was formed and the automobile industry was born. Nevertheless, ethanol made a modest comeback. By the end of World War II ethanol production had returned to pre-Civil War levels.
Then, in 1919 disaster struck again, this time in the form of the 18th Amendment. Prohibition didn't actually prohibit the manufacture of fuel ethanol, but the Treasury Department issued very few production permits for fear that the ethanol would be diverted into the illegal alcohol market. To this day, the ethanol we put in our gas tanks bears a legacy from that era. Just before it leaves the refinery ethanol must be poisoned to make it undrinkable.
In the early 1920s, ethanol suffered still another setback. Oil and car companies desperately sought an additive that would permit gasoline to burn uniformly in powerful engines. Ethanol was an attractive candidate. But to do its job well it needed 5 to 10 percent of the gas tank.
Oil companies were not about to relinquish that share of the transportation market to farmers, even though American agriculture had just plunged into a severe economic depression that would last two decades. Instead, the companies chose lead.
In 1924, despite the protests of many in the public health community, Ethyl Corporation, a partnership of Standard Oil and General Motors offered leaded gasoline. By 1940, 70 percent of all gasoline contained lead.
With the end of Prohibition in 1933 ethanol production slowly revived. Then Japan cut off America's supplies of natural rubber. The nation's breweries were drafted into service to manufacture ethanol to make synthetic rubber. By 1944 ethanol production had reached 600 million gallons.
After World War II the market and political constituency for ethanol disappeared. The price of oil plummeted. The Marshall Plan generated an export market for American crops. Once again bioethanol vanished from the market.
Thirty years later twin oil shocks and the realization that leaded gasoline was a public health hazard combined to give ethanol another lease on life. Congress gave ethanol a handsome tax incentive, although not nearly as handsome as the incentives given for the gasification of coal or the production of nuclear power.
The incentive made the price of ethanol competitive with unleaded gasoline but the major oil companies still refused to give up a share of the gas tank.
The ethanol industry reemerged primarily by selling its product through independently owned and cooperatively owned gas stations, almost all of them in the Midwest.
The phase-out of leaded gasoline furnished ethanol another opportunity to become the octane-enhancing additive of choice. Instead, oil companies chose to increase octane by increasing the portion of light aromatics like benzene, toluene and xylene in their gasoline. By 1990 as much as 40 percent of gasoline was comprised of these highly toxic chemicals.
When it was discovered that benzene caused cancer, the 1990 Clean Air Act required oil refineries to minimize its use. The same act also required them to add oxygen to gasoline sold in highly polluted areas of the country.
Ethanol, an oxygen-containing octane enhancer, was ready. Instead, the oil companies embraced another 100 percent fossil fuel-derived product: MTBE. In l996, the country began using massive amounts of MTBE. Within months communities discovered MTBE in their ground water. By 2000 14 states, led by California, had passed legislation to phase out MTBE.
With the phaseout of MTBE, the ethanol industry geared up for a major expansion. Much of that expansion has occurred in farmer-owned facilities. In Minnesota, for example, 10 of the 14 biorefineries are farmer-owned.
By the end of this year, nine of the 11 ethanol facilities in Iowa will be farmer-owned. Farmer ownership gives taxpayers the biggest bang for their buck. Ethanol incentives overall increase corn prices about 10 cents a bushel, but when the farmer owns the biorefinery he may receive an additional $1 a bushel.
In 2000, California asked permission to allow oil companies to abandon oxygenates and reformulate gasoline once more, this time to increase the proportion of chemicals called alkylates. Last year President Bush denied its request.
Which brings us to this week's vote in Congress.
Over the past few months a compromise has been fashioned between the oil and ethanol industries. A provision of the energy bill would allow California and other states, to rely on 100 percent gasoline. In return the nation as a whole would have to meet a modest renewable fuel standard.
Is it a perfect solution? No. Nothing coming out of Washington ever is. Will it be a boon to midwestern corn farmers? Yes, in the short term. But in the long term ethanol will be made from rice and wheat straw, municipal garbage, grasses and many other raw materials.
We should strive to have a biorefinery in every rural county, not only in Minnesota and Iowa, but in Massachusetts and California and New York. Will a renewable fuel standard benefit Archer Daniels Midland? Yes. But if the nation designs incentives that encourage modestly-sized, farmer-owned facilities, competition will fluorish and local economies will prosper.
And after 150 years of struggle, a renewable fuels standard would mark a true coming-of-age of biofuels in America.
David Morris is Vice President of the Minneapolis and Washington,
D.C. based Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He has written one book
and many reports on ethanol and currently serves on a federal
advisory council to the United States Departments of Energy and
[Apologies for inaccuracies in the following, but much of it is from memory and off-the-cuff. Please report inaccuracies to email@example.com.]
Some notes on Ethanol, in response to an informal email question:
I am one of the chief grand-poobah loudmouths discussing ethanol investments on the internet, but my first response must be that the issue is complicated and I don't have all the answers. I can tell you some of the things, on various sides of the issue, that they'll tell you, and a couple they won't.
Of note this week, if you go to evworld.com, you can see an interview the last two weeks with the CEO of Medis Technologies, an Israeli-New York company trying to make ethanol micro fuel cells.
Ethanol is one of the strangest issues I've seen. Consumer advocates in California have lined up *with* the Oil Companies to oppose ethanol and support RFG without ethanol. On the other side, George Bush, both father and son, traditional Oil men, have been genuinely and heavily supportive of ethanol, ostensively a pro-environmental stance.
Brazil has a heavy commitment to ethanol, through sugar cane and they have had "mixed results" (a phrase I saw to summarize their situation which seems to fit some of what I've read). In the past they've tried both pure-ethanol vehicles (hydrous ethanol which I think is about 95% ethanol) and vehicles which run on gasoline-ethanol mixtures (using anhydrous ethanol). Today I think typically maybe 20% of a gallon of gas there may be ethanol but I don't know. I saw an interesting graph which emphasized that as we progressed from the 80's to the 90's, Brazil did realize some economies of scale in their ethanol production efforts, but that these economies started to "flatten" out on the charts.
It's one thing to supplement your oil consumption, but it's another thing to attempt to replace all of it. I think Brazil might have had some ideas of entirely replacing all oil consumption, but I don't think they're shooting for that now, and I don't think we can realistically think about such things presently for the States. I think ethanol in the states, so long as it is made from present crops at present rates, would not be more than a supplement to our fuel supply, an oxygenate to improve the air quality of heavy-traffic areas in some climate conditions, weathers, and an octane-booster (actually an important use presently). We cannot replace 20 million barrels of oil per day (about 38% of our total energy use) by putting corn through the paces in the present situation. At least my opinion is that this is not realistic at present. For another thing, it's hard on the top-soil. My own personal thought is that eventually ethanol might theoretically be manufactured from other sources, such as solar-to-hydrogen-to-hydrocarbons or alcohols.
Ethanol and methanol are alcohols, not technically hydrocarbons. The chemical formula of ethanol is CH3CH2OH. It is ethyl alcohol or, one page tells me, grain alchohol. Methanol is wood alcohol (poisonous and corrosive, used in racing) is CH3OH. Methane is natural gas which is CH4. There are 76,000 BTU or so in a gallon of ethanol (approximately 105,000-114,000 BTU in gas, 140,000 in diesel, give or take).
MTBE (CH3)3COCH3 is made from methanol and I don't-know-what-else (Butane?) and that's the stuff that's getting into the groundwater and into the wells. It is the competing "oxygenate" with ethanol. Note that both MTBE and Ethanol have these oxygen atoms which are what helps them "oxygenate" gasoline, making the oxygen atoms more readily available in the combustion process inside the engine chambers. MTBE's problem in competing with ethanol isn't just that it's alleged to be carcinogenic and that it fouls water supplies, but apparently that it seems to really get into the ground and flow toward those water supplies quickly because of its chemical properties. Ethanol doesn't have quite the same properties, I think.
MTBE is somewhat made in the Middle East, such as in Saudi Arabia, (I used to hear numbers greater than 50% but I think they were a bit high), and I think is also made in North America for the US market. You'd think that it would be seen as a patriotic issue to use ethanol and not MTBE, but so far I don't see or hear many folks really concerned about the matter. Gas pumps throughout Southern California routinely carry MTBE and not ethanol in their 10 or 15 percent or so mixtures. I've never once seen any ethanol mixtures here in Southern California.
The next oil company proposed alternative to the entire oxygenate concept is to not use any oxygenate at all but simply the next generation of super-clean reformulated gas which they say will burn very cleanly and thus meet clean-air goals. I don't think they really minded the oxygenate program that much when it allowed for the use of MTBE, which allowed them to use up such fossil fuels as natural gas and butane in making their product, even arguably allowing them to use what might have otherwise been "waste". But now that MTBE is being phased out they're fighting very hard not to have to replace it with ethanol. I especially have enjoyed the part where they profess that their reason for fighting for RFG over an ethanol mixtures is because they are concerned about consumers getting gouged by Midwestern Farmers. They're concerned about our wallets. Yes, it's certainly a concern, but it's a risk I'd like to take, rather than continuing to ship so much of my money overseas. Ethanol is a 100% domestically-made fuel.
A year and a half ago, when Chicago and other Midwestern cities were forced to use some ethanol, and there were some disruptions such as refinery problems and pipeline problems, the oil lobby and the ethanol lobby traded accusations as to why prices had so badly spiked upward. Indeed, some new methods and much work was necessary to integrate the ethanol mixture process into the whole fuel-delivery system. But it was rather sad to see the refineries and gasoline makers so anxious to blame the entire matter on the mixing of a competing product with theirs. In the end, the price came down and we have not heard much further about ethanol supposedly causing fuel-pricing-catastrophes, so with some planning I think it could be integrated here in California though not without difficulty and cost. Getting it here is a big problem and mixing it is another.
There are really no cars at all widely available for sale in the United States which do not use fossil fuel as their basic fuel source. None. Virtually all fuel sold for transportation in the states is made by the Oil companies, to this day. Electric cars, if put into wider and better production, would shift the fuel debate to the power plant (i.e., how is the electric energy generated?), but so far car makers have refused to make electric cars more widely available, so the point is somewhat moot. It's a myth that good solid electric cars are widely available. They most certainly are not. Even the Ford Th!nk is presently only available for lease and is not suitable in some models at present for driving on the highway. Hybrid cars thus far have not been grid-chargeable and so are 100% fossil-fuel-powered.
Ethanol is perhaps the only non-fossil transportation fuel for sale in the United States, aside from electricity. Since there are no ethanol-only cars produced here in the states (that I'm aware of), it is still impossible to run a 100% fossil-fuel-free vehicle outside of owning a rare electric vehicle. With ethanol, generally you're looking at trying to buy a 15% ethanol-85% gasoline mixture. (It maybe 10% ethanol, I'm not entirely sure). But that 10-15%, where one can find it, irks the oil companies, since they do not make it or profit from that part of the sale (as much as they would like) and it is virtually the only inroad anyone has made to making a transportation fuel available anywhere in the US which is not made by the Oil Companies.
I have heard of diesel engines which run on some sort of 100% biofuel, but the engine makers seem to be taking their sweet time about certifying those engines under warranty to run on such fuel. Maybe that's not the holdup? I'd especially like to see the farm-tractor diesel engine makers get their behinds in gear and make such machinery reliable and affordably availiable to farmers, so they could use biofuels in the making of biofuels and thus "close the loop" and eliminate a big use of fossil fuels in the making of non-fossil-fuels. It would almost be analagous to organic-farming do-googder type methods being practiced in the making of foods and fuels. Then again, this might amount to an over-use of biofuels, causing an over-reliance on them and over-farming. I don't know.
Yes, ethanol *is* the same alcohol you consume in your beer and Vodka but it can also be denatured to make fuel or other chemicals. As a consumable drug it is regulated by the ATF, must be kept in bonded warehouses etc., when it has been denatured it is not subject to these restrictions. I wonder sometimes if the restrictions on consumable ethanol help drive up the price overall and make it less price-competitive with gasoline and if this is something that pleases the oil companies. For fuel in cars, I think the usual way of denaturing ethanol is adding between 1 and 5% gasoline.
Ethanol naturally contains a relatively small amount of sulfur, ...less than most gasoline and diesel. Thus, an irony came up in the California legal battles when the Lobbyists (often the Western States Petroleum Association, WSPA) attempted to say that one problem with ethanol is Sulfur. In fact, by legally forcing ethanol makers to mix gasoline with ethanol, the problem was not being helped by the oil companies' own product (although the amount it was worsened was negligible, as a matter of principle the oil companies should not be whining that ethanol has any sulfur issues when their fuels have worse sulfur issues much of the time.) In almost all fuel efforts, it is critical to have the lowest possible amount of sulfur. This is true for virtually any fuel discussion I have read... it is something to really keep in mind, not only for internal combustion engines but also for fuel cell discussions. In the oil business, they refer to crude as "sweet" or "sour" and this is a reference to its sulfur content.... that is an indication of how important it is to know the sulfur content of a proposed fuel.
While we can educate ourselves about the chemical formulas and energy contents of these chemicals, it is very difficult for us, the common man not involved in the industry, to get a straight answer about the price for ethanol. It is not published anywhere that I can tell, and does not appear to have the price-listings of a widely-traded commodity on the commodity exchanges. The ethanol lobbyists and proponents, such as ethanolrfa.org, hope for ethanol to compete with oil and graduate to being world-class-commodity, but they have not taken wider measures to have their commodity more widely listed and traded. As of this writing on 12-11-2001, ethanol is about $1.10 per gallon, per a posting in an internet discussion group by someone who has access to industry information.
Ford, GM, etc. have produced cars *capable* of using ethanol (flex-fuel) but which generally do not have access to the 85% ethanol mixture because generally the oil companies and gas stations refuse to carry this mixture. There are less than 200 such stations so the cars do not accomplish much except serve to help the auto companies satisfy CAFE requirements, because technically they qualify as some sort of alternative fuel vehicles. You do see a lot of 15% or so ethanol mixtures to satisfy this or that oxygenate requirement, or sometimes to help boost octane. Keep in mind that every molecule of ethanol replaces some gasoline and we shouldn't be naive. It is not a fossil fuel. The oil companies don't make it and don't like replacing their product with it and thus losing sales to it.
Perhaps the biggest mistake I see in lobbying for biofuels and ethanol in particular is the underestimation of the excellent and persistent abilities of the petroleum lobby. The WSPA, here in California, seems to be very good. If you think you've won against them, then you're probably just on your way to losing. They don't quit, and they're often way ahead of their opponents. In trying to follow ethanol lobbying efforts and electric vehicle lobbying efforts, it is always noticeable that the Oil Companies have a monopoly on the production and distribution of transportation fuel here in the United States. They try to portray that consumers have some choice, but in fact, consumers have virtually no choice. There simply aren't any widely available alternatives to using Petroleum or Natural Gas for transportation, and when it comes to ethanol, that means that the Distribution Points (Gas Stations) are only going to offer it when forced to do so. Even then, they'll only offer it as a token gesture sometimes. For example, you may see it in the nobody-pays-for-it-premium 91 octane grades, but then it won't be in the other grades at the same station, right near the farmers who are trying to lobby for it. And you can pretty much forget about trying to find an 85% mixture unless you're in an area that has just worked very hard to fracture the Oil Monopoly minutely.
Some of the ethanol producing states have internal conflict about what to do about the refusal of gas stations to install E-85 pumps more widely. Governors and other politicians feel that any attempt to force the stations to carry E85 more widely amounts to a breech of the principles of freedom and free markets. They don't want to have anything to do with "mandating" the use of the fuel or the distribution of the fuel. On the other hand, they don't seem to have a problem pressuring the entire rest of the country into using ethanol in "oxygenate" programs and making this a make-or-break issue for farm-state political support of federal candidates. It works out to a tacit acceptance of Federal mandates and using force against citizens of other states, but a refusal to address oil company monopoly situations within their own borders.
Ethanol is heavily federally subsidized to the tune of 54 cents or so per gallon (an understanding of the financial mechanics of this subsidy eludes me). This seems like a huge amount of money to me. Some fossil fuel opponents point out that fossil fuels are arguably heavily subsidized, not only through war expenses to protect assets and possible future global-warming-insurance payments, but through more conventional little-guy-can't-follow-this-stuff-so-easily tax subsidies and such to oil drillers and the like. An example might be that the House Energy Proposal recently included a proposed $33 Billion (!) in some sort of tax breaks to Fossil Fuel companies seeking expansion in Alaska and other US areas. At present, the ethanol subsidy is generally considered to be absolutely critical to the continued increase in production you are seeing here in the states, and without it we'd see a falloff in ethanol-as-fuel efforts. I believe that the renewal of that subsidy is coming up in a few years and that Bush has pledged support of it. Questions about renewing this subsidy probably (I am assuming) are just part of the larger overall debates about any federal ethanol mandated use.
At the Federal Level, things are changing for ethanol. Another netizen summarized thusly:
Re: Daschle's legislation
by: whiskey6257 12/06/01 05:55 pm
There are currently two 'oxygenate' programs in effect. The 'Reformulated Gasoline Program' (RFG)is a year round program designed to reduce ground level ozone (oe smog). This program requires certain geographical areas to have motor fuel contain up to 2% oxygen by weight.
The other program, The Federal Oxygen Program, is a wintertime program designed to remove fuel particulate from the air during the months when these areas are most likely to have atmospheric inversions, trapping the airborne particulate in the metropolitan areas and causing danger to human respiration. This program requires oxygen content by weight to as high as 2.7% of the fuel blend.
During the wintertime, the programs overlap in some geographic areas. The highest oxygen requirement prevails.
It has been known, that in exchange for legislation to incorporate a renewable energy requirement,the RFG Program would become obsolete. Although not carved in stone, the Fed Oxygen Program shouldn't be affected since it has been so succesful.
The process of negotiating all of the tems between all of the interested and affected parties will probably be called RegNeg, as it was when the RFG Program was negotiated. This was a cumbersome process whereby all of the parties (fuel suppliers, EPA, citizen action groups, legislators, farmers, ethanol suppliers, .......etc.) met over months of meetings and hearings to determine the final Regs. Much of the applicable data was covered and is known from the RFG Regneg, but as the world gets more complicated and fortunes are involved, this RegNeg, if that's what they call it, will be significant also.
At this time, ethanol's position is much better than when RFG rules were being determined. There is much more support for ethanol, so ethanol manufacturers should win bigtime. 150% mandated growth over 10 years is a nice base of growth to start with.
I have had a hard time getting really straight answers on the pros and cons of ethanol as an "oxygenate", what emissions it has, what chemicals are necessary to mix it with petroleum products, etc. I have heard that there are actually some bad emissions associated with ethanol fuel mixtures, and that its use in gasoline is not uniformly good in cleaning up the air of a region, but I can't seem to get a straight answer about this. Emissions of "aromatics"? It does have a higher volatility than gasoline and, I guess, a greater tendancy to evaporate if unchecked. I do think it reduces carbon monoxide in winter in some regions and is generally considered to be a decent net positive in helping to clean up a region's air. Often the clean-air arguments are carried out separately from the global warming arguments and the waste-disposal arguments so they do not take any cognizance at all of ethanol's other positives... its renewability (no Carbon released from the ground into the atmosphere), its use of some agricultural waste, its changing of agricultural economics to provide another market for farmers.
There seems to be some problem with transporting ethanol in the same containers and pipes as petroleum because it seems to sort of "attract" water and this requires separate handling of some sort. If it is transported in the same pipelines as petroleum products, this causes some problem in the lines, so it cannot be mixed with petroleum from the get-go, but only late in the process nearer to the point of distribution to the gasoline station (so my understanding goes). Thus, for example, schemes for transporting ethanol to the west from the midwest are made somewhat more complicated because the transportation cannot easily be done in existing petroleum industry containers or pipes (or so my understanding goes). This causes a price and logistics issue for proposals to bring ethanol from the midwest to California and naysayers have used it to try to shoot down any progressive efforts to incorporate ethanol moderately into the national mix (although they don't seem to mind importing MTBE from Saudi Arabia...somewhat less than 50% of MTBE is imported, I think).
Ethanol can also be mixed with Diesel Fuel. I believe this is known as Oxy-Diesel. I am not knowledgeable about the chemistry of doing this, and keeping the ethanol mixed together with it, but I think sometimes these mixtures take some doing and some special ingredients. A typical mixture might be around 20% ethanol, but I've heard of higher-percentage mixtures. Oxy-Diesel, which uses ethanol, should not be confused with biodiesel, which does not use ethanol but rather some sort of oil derived from plants such as Soy and mixed with Diesel or perhaps used 100% on its own in some cases. This is an excellent and progressive biofuel area and is also heavily backed by ADM (as is ethanol) but I make the distinction so the two different bio-efforts are not confused.
Ethanol and other biofuels can be made from more than just corn or sugar or what-have-you. There is some argument for "switchgrass" being used to make ethanol, I guess partly because it is hardy, grows in areas not otherwise given over to as much agriculture, etc. I don't know all the arguments for that one, but such proposals have an eye to drastically increasing the percentage of our energy nationally that we get from such fuels, and if the fuel is coming from the sun and the land is not presently much more than waste, than why not give a listen to such proposals? I wonder how much biofuel could be made from hemp? Are these sustainable visions... could the topsoil sustain intense energy production as well as food production? For my own sake-of-discussion, I sort of assume there would be a limit to the production we might want to do, to maintain a fully-sustainable paradigm, but that we're not yet near that limit if we include lands which are presently not much more than waste.
A heavily-used anti-ethanol argument is that more fossil-fuel energy is used in the manufacturing of ethanol than is ultimately produced, and so ethanol is therefor really not a "renewable" fuel. There are indeed some fossil fuels used in making ethanol, such as in making the fertilizer for farm fields, the fuel for the tractors, coal and natural gas for steam and energy in the ethanol plants. However, I believe the fossil fuel anti-ethanol argument is somewhat in error and ethanol is indeed, on balance, renewable, although some effort could be made to make it in a more renewable sustainable fashion, such as using biofuels in the tractors that farm the fields.
12/19/01: Driveability: Awhile back the local Southern California newspaper printed a letter-to-the-editor from a local who had taken a drive through the Midwest, tried an ethanol mixture for the first time (the Oil companies have somehow never used any around San Diego, hard to figure why) and found that, in their view, it seriously mucked up their car's normal operation. I don't recall the specific symptoms they reported, but I think they were using a mild E10 or E15 mixture and somehow their car immediately did not operate optimally. Although clearly ethanol is not the same chemical as gasoline and may have some drawbacks in operation, particularly in a system not optimized for its use, I'm not sure what to make of this report.
I think part of it depends on weather conditions. Also note that most vehicles are certified to run something up to about a 15% mixture (just as they are often run on a mild mixture of MTBE and gasoline). E85 can only be run on a vehicle designed to run it. This I think adds a few hundred to the price of the vehicle. Running pure ethanol (E95 plus some slight mixture of something?) is an entirely different matter and is not really done too much in the US. I think this amounts to using "hydrous ethanol" (ethanol in its close-to-pure form). EThanol mixed with gasoline is I think anhydrous ethanol.
I did speak to a guy who runs an ethanol race car (against? methanol?, gasoline... not sure) and he was totally psyched... got great performance, etc. Perhaps part of the moral of the story is that a car running on some ethanol mixture can run well, but it does need to be somewhat optimized for it, or designed for it, or certified for it. The gas tank, o-rings, etc. of an old-school gasoline powered vehicle not designed for E85 use will not really be able to handle E85. As for E10 or E15, I think the vast majority of modern vehicles are certified to use it. As to real-world experience with it, and whether it presents any drawbacks, I think I'd like to hear more annecdotal statements, pro or con.
One user had this to say:
If a major is selling ethenol enhanced fuel it is generally blended with "sub-octane" no-lead. It is cheaper and meets the octane posting when tested in the lab. Cars computer responds by providing more fuel and milage drops. Performance is considerably better if blended with 87 octane NL. Many people swear the milage is better off the 90-10 blend. Could blend 15% but now the price diff is too high. E-85 is an entirely different animal. Most cars fuel line components will not stand the alcohol that strong. Rubber o rings appear to be primary culprit (grommets, unions, joints, ) BTU is lower on ethenol than gas, when mixed w/ sub octane no lead it really isn't anything special.
I think you can see that ethanol is one of those hard-to-get-the-straight-poop-from-anyone-issues. However, let me summarize by saying that I am for moderate and continued effort to use some ethanol and I am for exploring the possibility of making ethanol in newer and better ways and not just from corn and other foods. The DOE has stated that a key to whether ethanol will be economically viable on a larger scale is whether economically viable methods can be developed to make other cellulosic biowaste into ethanol (presently very expensive). Not only should we be able to accomplish these additional ethanol production methods if we try hard, but we should also be thinking of more exotic ways of making the fuel such as making it from H2 made from solar (in effect: fulll-on artificial photosynthesis). While we may eventually reach this worthy (and extremely un-talked-about) goal, it should be pointed out that even with our present from-nature arguments, ethanol production presently amounts to making a liquid fuel from solar energy. One could make the argument that it is an important form of solar energy that we have already implemented well ahead of much photovoltaic and solar thermal construction. Ethanol can also be made from Coal, I believe (although this isn't as desireable because coal is not renewable and contributes more to global warming).
In the debate about bringing ethanol to California, as an oxygenate, a couple of the mysteries can be quickly cleared up: Yes, California has a lot of agriculture but the foods grown here do not lend themselves to ethanol production as easily as do the corn of the midwest or the sugar cane of Brazil. There is talk of producing ethanol from biowaste and other methods in California, and it can presently be done, but the methods apparently are not as far along yet and at present cost more money. The DOE has stated that, overall, a key to making economically competitive (without the present large subsidization) is that new methods of processing cellulosic waste into ethanol be brought online. At present, that seems like it fits in with California's desire to make some ethanol in-state, but the present costs are several times higher than making ethanol from Corn in the Midwest and work seems to be progressing slowly at best. It has a nice waste-to-fuel theme, but it is still tough to produce ethanol, say, from the waste-husky part of a plant (that is how I think of it anyway.... not sure if that's an accurate picture).
In the State's efforts to research the claimed oxygenate benefits of Ethanol, one opinion has been that reformulated (more highly refined gas) without ethanol has a better chance of yielding clean air than oxygenated gasoline which is seen as sort of an outdated technology. Oxygenated gasoline with ethanol does probably reduce wintertime CO (I think it was). The state has also been claiming that forcing use of ethanol would probably cause price "spikes" as high as $.50 per gallon. A couple of years ago such price spikes were seen in the midwest, but they occurred partly because the refiners were only too glad to drag their feet in transitioning to ethanol mixtures. Eventually prices did come back down, although it isn't clear to me if they did come all the way down to the levels of gasoline without ethanol. When ethanol is used as an oxygenate I think it's kind of a seasonal thing.
MTBE and ethanol, as oxygenates, are not part of the renewable-fuel justification for using ethanol. In California, it appears that the governor's office is largely ignoring the issue of renewability and looking only at the clean-air issues. At the Federal level, while the fight with California rages, the interesting thing is that the push seems to be to sort of set aside the Oxygenate requirement but to sort of replace it with a nationwide renewable standard. This would also go in hand with an attempt to make the nationwide fuel mix more uniform... a very desireable goal since at times the "boutique" mixes throughout the country cause logistical and pricing problems.
Also, bear in mind that when ethanol is made from corn, it is far from the only useful thing that is made.
I should add:
A big issue with hydrogen, the hydrogen economy, fuel cells, etc. is that hydrogen is difficult to store in a way that is adequately energy-dense and safe. As a liquid, it needs to be kept at very low temperatures and bled off to relieve pressure, every once in awhile. As a gas, it needs to be kept in special tanks, and the amount of energy is good but not great. Also, you've got some safety issues there, and some pressure-issues. As a hydride, things aren't perfected adequately yet, per the Daimler engineer I spoke to. For one thing, present hydride storage is heavy and requires the use of some energy to get the hydrogen out.
In a way, you can see hydrocarbons and alcohols as ways of "carrying" hydrogen to a fuel cell. Thus, if you hear about natural-gas-powered fuel cells, this is in a way treating natural gas (CH4) as a carrier and storage of hydrogen until it is needed. If we look at all of these chemical formulas, we see relatively few Carbon atoms and many Hydrogen ones: an oil executive I heard speak recently mentioned that if we are going toward a Hydrogen economy it can be seen as a century-long progression from Petroleum products rich in Carbon, toward Hydrocarbons and alcohols with a higher proportion of Hydrogen (this is not to completely ignore the more exotic fuel-of-the-future proposals, such as zinc-air batteries, which may not involve Hydrogen this much, but just to summarize some of the more-prevalent Hydrogen-centric discussion). Ethanol does ok on the hydrogen density issue (3 to 1 ratio to Carbon atoms), but is bested by Methanol and Methane, in that respect. However, methane (natural gas) is not presently easy to store in as dense a form, so ethanol might not carry as many hydrogen atoms per molecule, but I suppose it might be able to deliver greater gross energy amounts than gas, per storage area volume or weight, to a project or vehicle.
Ethanol is arguably a fuel made directly from solar energy (i.e., the energy of the sun is saved via photosynthesis in the hydrocarbon bonds of plants and then ultimately processed into ethanol). Perhaps is the first liquid fuel commonly made from solar energy. In the future, such a process may take the form of sun-photovoltaics-hydrolysis-hydrogen-etc. (i.e. artificial photosynthesis, as it were). But at present, we are using nature's way of doing this processing.
Ethanol Investing: For years the only real pure-play way to invest in ethanol in the U.S. was symbol HIPC, but they have recently been bought out by Abengoa, a Spanish company. ADM is often mentioned as the ethanol play, because they make the most in the US, but ethanol is only a percentage of their multinational business and so the stock price movements do not necessarily reflect the success or failures of their ethanol and biofuel-from-soy efforts. Other companies whose efforts in ethanol are a part, but not all, of their business: MWGP, WMB, MBRW (not sure). Other relevants... SSPC.ob (very iffy commitment to serious business, but they seem to claim to be a pure-play), DYMTF.ob (some sort of strange bio-oil from wood waste and such).
Until very recently, ethanol was treated as a weak-sister in the fuel cell arguments. It was said that for some odd reason it was more difficult than some other hydrocarbons and alcohols to "reform" for use in a fuel cell. I always thought that this might or might not be so, but from my experience in following the oil lobby, I knew that I should at least question an assumption that was being used to obscure one of the only fuels that they didn't happen to manufacture. (Two others, Hydrogen and Methanol, can and are easily manufactured from Natural Gas, at present, so the oil companies don't dislike them that much).
For smaller fuel cells, it is possible ethanol won't be such a problem, if Medis's breakthrough is really as big a deal as all that. It is unclear if ethanol is still problematic for larger fuel cells, but I am hopeful that once the oil company arguments are removed, that it will be given some fair consideration, and mentioned more often, as a potential fuel cell fuel, alongside the fossil fuels being discussed such gasoline, diesel, propane, natural gas and the renewable-neutral fuels such as Hydrogen.
If ethanol is given fair consideration as a fuel cell fuel, this won't help augment its supply. That is a separate issue, an agricultural and manufacturing issue. Looking at it skeptically, at present, it's hard to imagine our farmers not only feeding every U.S. citizen without the fear of the occasional famine but also providing fuel for every mile driven in the US without the fear of the occasional shortage. But if additional methods are devised for making ethanol, then I have no idea how much of our energy it might help provide.
Another netizen comments:
There are probably many factors as to why Ethanol hasn't gotten more attention as a fuel source for the future, but I believe one of the major problems is the massive governmental regulation of it as a regulated substance. There are pretty extensive record-keeping regulations for every drop produced, and it's disposition. They want to be very sure to collect the outrageous amount of beverage tax on it. If you can absolutely prove every drop produced is used for fuel, with a papertrail for backing, you can get a refund of the beverage taxes. Fuel-grade Ethanol markets for $1.25. Check the price on a gallon of drinking whiskey to figure the amount of tax. Also remeber that drinking whiskey is only 50% alcohol at 100 proof, so compare the price for 2 gallons of whiskey against one gallon of fuel. Failure to maintain the mandated records, is a very serious offense. No book-keeper or accountant wants to risk Felony jail time for a book-keeping error. The manufacaturer doesn't either. Unless there is a large profit potential, who wants to make the Capital investment?
My comment on this: I didn't know that it was so ridiculously bureaucratic as all that (can you imagine taxing production of gasoline in such a way and then demanding some bureaucracy for a supposedly full refund). This serves to remind me that while the folks who run the nation's political structure claim to want to look for every possible fuel source, they also cannot be bothered to decriminalize growing and processing of hemp for biofuel and other uses.
Some excerpts from a discussion board:
) The big obstacle I've run into lately in arguing for biofuels or attempting to do so, is the old "ethanol takes more BTU to make than it results in" argument. Even dismissing Pimentel's stuff, the more mainstream findings, including a paper I tried to quote at DOE, seem to claim that ethanol requires nearly as much energy to make as is put into it in fuel and such.
Well, the obvious rebuttal to this is simply: "Look at Brazil." And, of course, we seem to have a major problem in the US with both ethanol and biodiesel because of the farmer/welfare lobby, which has created mountains of cheap corn and soybeans, so both those farmers and the know-nothings in government keep pushing biofuels made from them. In reality we know that those are lousy choices for biofuel feedstocks in the first place. Corn based ethanol is viable *only* because of the crop price supports -- but that's totally irrelevant, for one, because until we are able to kill off all that corporate welfare, ethanol will be produced from corn and profitably for someone. Heck, right now corn is the cheapest heating fuel available by a long shot.
But all those arguments are simply ridiculous. Why even bother with corn or soybeans? Other than they don't know what else to do with them, I mean. There are a multitude of fantasiccally better crops for both ethanol and biodiesel. Does Brazil grow corn for ethanol? Of course not. Why should we? How about sorghum, sugar beets, or, best of all, cattails?
Don't waste your breath arguing for corn/ethanol. The morons/thieves in government, and the welfare parasite farmers could care less about reality, they just want to continue with their disgusting symbiotic relationship.
No Motie...no confusion here.
Are you aware that distiller's grains are fed to livestock? Are you also aware that the vast majority of arable landmass is dedicated to livestock? Are you aware that the primary product of low-oil yielding soybeans is feed meal for livestock?
In a nutshell, the vast majority of all agriculture is dedicated to livestock - even in the midst of "farming for fuel" issues. Just from the total caloric inputs vs. caloric yield equation, you might consider taking a look at Rifkin's "Beyond Beef" or Robbin's "Diet for a New America."
The simple facts of the matter are that most of what you and others call "energy crops" at present are actually primary livestock feed sources. The fact that ethanol can be derived from the grain prior to the feeding of livestock, or the fact that the oil extracted from soy can be turned into biodiesel while the primary product goes to livestock are in themselves declarative that what many perceive as wasteful practices are actually rather utilitarian.
Unfortunately, many people, inclusive of Pimental, Club Sierra, and other self-interest groups fail to acknowledge the multiple end uses of all the primary and coproducts, essentially pigeon holing the "mechanical" energy issue and errantly declaring energy products from crops as being "wasteful."
Balderdash...Pure Hornswaggle and Tommy rot...!
What would be wasteful is if the distillers grains or soy meal were just thrown on the dung heap, rather than utilizing them - which is not what happens in "the real world."
Perhaps if one these people want to make declarations as to wasteful agrarian energy practices from the caloric inputs vs caloric outputs perspective, they should start with that Bacon Egg and Cheese Biscuit they had for breakfast, the McNuggets or Whopper they had for lunch or that roast simmering on the stove for dinner.
But then, that's getting too personal. It's much easier just to address "energy issues" in the main, as we've all been in the habit of attacking traditional dirty energy supplies such as coal, oil and nuclear. Why shouldn't biodiesel or ethanol be made an equally visible target? It sure conveniently takes the heat off our personal dining practices, which in their market entirety are the driving mechanisms of most agriculture - considerably more of an impetus than our automobiles are.
Maybe we should put a few farmers to work on ways to feed the by-products of coal, oil and nuclear to livestock, so we can get as maximum a utility factor from them as we do from corn and oilseeds.
I agree that much of the grain produced in the world is directly fed to livestock and there are advantages and disadvantages here:
advantages: a)the nutrients found in meat are more available to our bodies than those found in plants (especially proteins and fats)
b)dairy cows fed distillers grains will produce more milk with higher protein (the stuff is extremely expensive because of that by the way)
c)animal manure is the most efficient fertilizer compared to those made from oil! (and this should be the #1 consideration for renewable fuels since not all oil becomes gasoline but a major chunk is converted into ammonia and other fertilizers which increase yield while sacrificing the microorganisms which are the "lifeblood" of organic farming.
disadvantage: a)except for feeding to dairy animals for milk production, the use of grains to feed cattle for meat is a very inefficient one.
my conclusion: BALANCE