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It’s Final — Corn Ethanol Is Of No Use

Alternative Energy

OK, can we please stop pretending biofuel made from corn is helping the planet and the environment? The United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released two of its Working Group reports at the end of last month (WGI and WGIII), and their short discussion of biofuels has ignited a fierce debate as to whether they’re of any environmental benefit at all.

The IPCC was quite diplomatic in its discussion, saying “Biofuels have direct, fuel‐cycle GHG emissions that are typically 30–90% lower than those for gasoline or diesel fuels. However, since for some biofuels indirect emissions—including from land use change—can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products, policy support needs to be considered on a case by case basis” (IPCC 2014 Chapter 8).

In 2013 the U.S. used 4.7 billion bushels of corn (40% of the harvest) to produce over 13 billion gallons of ethanol fuel. The grain required to fill a single 25-gal gas tank with ethanol can feed one person for a year, so the amount of corn used to make that 13 billion gallons of ethanol did not feed the almost 500 million people it was feeding fifteen years ago. This is the population of the entire Western Hemisphere outside of the United States. Some estimate that 30 million people are actually starving as a direct result of biofuel production (The Telegraph). Source: YES! Magazine

The summary in the new report also states, “Increasing bioenergy crop cultivation poses risks to ecosystems and biodiversity” (WGIII).

The report lists many potential negative risks of development, such as direct conflicts between land for fuels and land for food, other land-use changes, water scarcity, loss of biodiversity and nitrogen pollution through the excessive use of fertilizers (Scientific American).

The International Institute for Sustainable Development was not so diplomatic, and estimates that the CO2 and climate benefits from replacing petroleum fuels with biofuels like ethanol are basically zero (IISD). They claim that it would be almost 100 times more effective, and much less costly, to significantly reduce vehicle emissions through more stringent standards, and to increase CAFE standards on all cars and light trucks to over 40 miles per gallon as was done in Japan just a few years ago.

With more than 60 nations having biofuel mandates, the competition between ethanol and food has become a moral issue. Groups like Oxfam and the Environmental Working Group oppose biofuels because they push up food prices and disproportionately affect the poor.

Most importantly, the new IPCC report is a complete about-face for the UN’s Panel. Its 2007 report was broadly condemned by some environmentalists for giving the green light to large-scale biofuel production, resulting in environmental and food supply problems.

The general discussion on biofuels has changed over the last few years. In December, Senators Feinstein (D-CA) and Coburn (R-OK) introduced a bill that would eliminate the corn ethanol mandate within the Federal Renewable Fuel Standard (Oil&Gas Journal) that requires blending ethanol into gasoline at increasing levels over the next decade. It was met with stiff opposition from heavily agricultural states, but had strong support from the petroleum industry. However, now that the tax credit and import tariffs have expired and ethanol is holding its own economically, it remains to be seen if the industry can stand up to this pressure.

So where is the U.S. today in corn ethanol space?

In 2000, over 90% of the U.S. corn crop went to feed people and livestock, many in undeveloped countries, with less than 5% used to produce ethanol. In 2013, however, 40% went to produce ethanol, 45% was used to feed livestock, and only 15% was used for food and beverage (AgMRC).

The United States will use over 130 billion gallons of gasoline this year, and over 50 billion gallons of diesel. On average, one bushel of corn can be used to produce just under three gallons of ethanol. If all of the present production of corn in the U.S. were converted into ethanol, it would only displace 25% of that 130 billion.

But it would completely disrupt food supplies, livestock feed, and many poor economies in the Western Hemisphere because the U.S. produces 40% of the world’s corn. Seventy percent of all corn imports worldwide come from the U.S. Simply implementing mandatory vehicle fuel efficiencies of 40 mpg would accomplish much more, much faster, with no collateral damage.

In 2014, the U.S. will use almost 5 billion bushels of corn to produce over 13 billion gallons of ethanol fuel. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon gas tank with ethanol can feed one person for a year, so the amount of corn used to make that 13 billion gallons of ethanol will not feed the almost 500 million people it was feeding in 2000. This is the entire population of the Western Hemisphere outside of the United States.

In 2007, the global price of corn doubled as a result of an explosion in ethanol production in the U.S. Because corn is the most common animal feed and has many other uses in the food industry, the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, corn-based sweeteners and cereals increased as well.  World grain reserves dwindled to less than two months, the lowest level in over 30 years.

Additional unintended effects from the increase in ethanol production include the dramatic rise in land rents, the increase in natural gas and chemicals used for fertilizers, over-pumping of aquifers like the Ogallala that serve many mid-western states, clear-cutting forests to plant fuel crops, and the revival of destructive practices such as edge tillage. Edge tillage is planting right up to the edge of the field thereby removing protective bordering lands and increasing soil erosion, chemical runoff and other problems. It took us 40 years to end edge tillage in this country, and overnight ethanol brought it back with a vengeance.

Most fuel crops, such as sugar cane, have problems similar to corn. Because Brazil relied heavily on imported oil for transportation, but can attain high yields from crops in their tropical climate, the government developed the largest fuel ethanol program in the world in the 1990s based on sugar cane and soybeans.

Unfortunately, Brazil is clear-cutting almost a million acres of tropical forest per year to produce biofuel from these crops, and shipping much of the fuel all the way to Europe. The net effect is about 50% more carbon emitted by using these biofuels than using petroleum fuels (Eric Holt-Giménez, The Politics of Food). These unintended effects are why energy policy and development must proceed holistically, considering all effects on global environments and economies.

So why have we pushed corn ethanol so heavily here in the U.S.? Primarily because it was the only crop that had the existing infrastructure to easily modify for this purpose, especially when initially incentivized with tax credits, subsidies and import tariffs. Production, transportation and fermentation could be adapted quickly by the corn industry, unlike any other crop.

We should remember that humans originally switched from biomass to fossil fuels because biomass was so inefficient, and took so much energy and space to produce.  So far technology has not reversed these problems sufficiently to make widespread use beneficial.

What else can we use to produce biofuel?

Like Switchgrass, Napier grass (shown here growing in Alabama) is a more environmentally friendly source for ethanol than corn, with a higher energy density.  Source: NREL, Warren Gretz (David Bransby shown)

Two leading strategies involve ethanol production from the degradation of cellulosics, and biodiesel production from algae.

The common alcohol, ethanol, has been harnessed by humans for millennia, made through the microbial conversion of biomass materials, typically sugars, through fermentation. The process starts with a solution of fermentable sugars, fermented to ethanol by microbes, and then the ethanol is separated and purified by distillation.

Fermentation involves microorganisms, typically yeasts, that evolved billions of years ago before Earth’s atmosphere contained oxygen, to use sugars for food and in the process produced ethanol, CO2 and other byproducts:

(sugar) C6H12O6  →  2 CH3CH2OH + 2 CO2   (ethanol + carbon dioxide)

Microorganisms typically use 6-carbon sugars and their precursors, glucose and sucrose. But because sugars and starches are foods, a better alternative for ethanol production should be from non-food cellulosic materials, such as paper, cardboard, wood, and other fibrous plant material. Switchgrass and napier grass have been studied extensively as the best alternatives.

Cellulosics are abundant and much of the supply is considered waste. Cellulosics are comprised of lignin, hemicellulose, and cellulose. Lignin provides structural support for the plant and encloses the cellulose and hemicellulose molecules, making it more difficult to process for fuel.

Thus, efficiently making ethanol out of cellulosics requires a different approach than for corn.  They can either be reacted with acid (sulfuric is most common), degraded using enzymes produced from microbes, or heated to a gas and reacted with chemical catalysts (thermo-chemical). Each has its variations, some can be combined, and all are attempting to be commercialized. Still, these processes are stuck at about twice the price per gallon produced compared to corn. Recently, special microorganisms have been genetically engineered to ferment these materials into ethanol with relatively high efficiency.

It’s no wonder we just went with corn!

Another less discussed biofuel strategy is biodiesel replacing petroleum diesel. Biodiesel is made by combining almost any oil or fat with an alcohol such as ethanol or methanol.

Biodiesel can be run in any diesel engine without modification and produces less toxic emissions and particulates than petroleum diesel.  It causes less wear and tear on engines, and increases lubricity and engine efficiency, and releases about 60% less CO2 emissions than petroleum diesel.

Rudolf Diesel originally developed the diesel engine to run on diesel from food oils such as peanut and soybean, but animal fats and any other natural oil can be used.  However, almost a hundred years ago, the need for fuel outstripped the supply of natural oils and petroleum become the only abundant source available.

Making biodiesel from any oil is relatively easy. The trick is to find a good source of bio-oil, like fast-food restaurants, or algae. Source: CEHMM, Carlsbad NM

The most common natural oils used are rapeseed and canola oil, but a particularly promising candidate is oil from algae. Algae production uses non-productive land and brine water and produces over 20 times the oil production of any food crop. An acre of algae can produce almost 5,000 gallons of biodiesel. It does not compete with food crops for arable land or potable water and could produce over 60 billion gallons/yr that would replace all petroleum-based diesel in the U.S.

However, all algae production facilities presently sell their crops to the food and cosmetic industry at a much greater profit than they would get from the fuel industry.

I guess for biofuels, as for any other source, there’s just no such thing as a free lunch.


20 Comments on "It’s Final — Corn Ethanol Is Of No Use"

  1. Makati1 on Fri, 15th Dec 2017 7:18 pm 

    Biofuels for any use, except as food for animals or humans, is a sick joke and a huge waste of resources.

  2. Go Speed Racer on Fri, 15th Dec 2017 10:31 pm 

    Biofuels like ethanol are fantastic.

    They allow rich people to burn the food
    supply in Cadillac Escalades, driving
    to and from their private Church.

    The poor will plead for their lives,
    starve and die, while we burn up their food
    driving to the granite-lined bank to
    check our safety deposit boxes.

    This is a fantastic arrangement. What’s
    not to like. Increase biofuel activity immediately.

    Trump and The Republicans

  3. deadlykillerbeaz on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 2:37 am 

    Distilling grains into ethanol will always be around. Seagram’s will make sure of that. Everclear® will always be there for the perfect Harvey Wallbanger.

    A Model T could run on ethanol.

    Corn ethanol was developed into an industry because there was a lot of corn nobody was buying which meant the price was low, $1.68 ca. 1987 if I remember correctly.

    In order to have a price increase and price stability, you can create a market, which was done. Gotta do something with the surplus corn that nobody wants.

    The US government provided funding, subsidies, then the corn ethanol content in the gasoline was mandated, ten percent.

    Ten percent of the gasoline market is going to be a money maker.

    The market has matured, the price of corn is low, it is deja vu all over again.

    Tough on small engines.

    Had old gas in the lawnmower gas tank, turned orange, wouldn’t mix with new gas, there were two distinct layers of liquid in the clear glass jar, had to empty the tank, the engine wouldn’t fire with the bad gasoline.

    Didn’t have the octane value, went caput.

    Besides, you don’t feed cattle corn, you give them beer for the very best prime cuts.

  4. Go Speed Racer on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 3:56 am 

    Doesn’t that make the hamburger taste like beer?

  5. Cloggie on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 5:13 am 

    Biofuels are acceptable as a by-product of agriculture.

    For the rest… solar conversion efficiency per m2 is something like 3% for crops, but 15% or higher for solar panels:

    So, planting crops for energy alone is madness. Furthermore the earth has more than enough deserts in North-Africa, Arabia, China, SW-USA, Australia, SW-Africa to plant all the solar panels you need for your energy needs. In fact your “merely” need an area like Spain covered with panels to meet current total planetary energy demand. Finding space is not the problem. And China and increasingly India volunteer to build these panels for the global market, where Europe goes for wind infrastructure.

  6. Davy on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 6:37 am 

    If we could make biofuels useful locally in equipment, space heating, and cooking they would be of use as an alternative to fossil fuels and a way to help power a local economy. Efficiency is low but it is a liquid fuel. I imagine the numbers for solar to hydrogen are not much different than biofuels. Both are a storage device for energy production. Both are ways to take intermittent energy production and store it. Grains rot and have a storage cost. They have a transport cost. The movement of biofuels any distance makes them uneconomic. I imagine the same will be true for the production of liquid fuels by renewables since the efficiencies are poor.

  7. Steve Binns on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 7:42 am 

    Good points. I think that the supply of corn is currently very high, and that prices are very low, so there’s minimal impact on food supply. If prices were lower, there would be less production, which would be an environmental benefit.

  8. JimW on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 10:04 am 

    We knew that ethanol from corn produced no net energy 40 years ago. With the farm fuel, fertilizers, harvesting, transport, fermentation and manufacturing, the energy cost equals the energy value of the ethanol. Plus, ethanol degrades the mileage you get in your car. Why did it took that long to realize the waste?

  9. JimW on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 10:04 am 


  10. David Bird on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 10:31 am 

    Its the ultimate price stabilization program. Set a minimal price for corn, the easiest crop to grow and manage and it will stabilize prices of all competing crops. And, the mandate gets around concerns that direct subsidies distort trade. And feed a person for a year? really? have these people ever eaten field corn? YUCK….. this is not sweet corn. We do not have a world food shortage problem, we have a logistical problem. And, at present corn prices are below the cost of production.

  11. michael on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 10:40 am 

    my diesel pick up died on the freeway after i filled with “bio-diesel” had to be towed, drain fuel tanks(2) change filter, and filled with regular diesel. Fired right off and ran perfect. When I filled with the bio-diesel I noted a warning “do not use if temperatures are below xx degrees”. What good is a fuel if I can’t keep my truck running and it is only good in warm weather..

  12. Bozo on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 11:48 am 

    All of you tree huggers are probably in denial. What a huge waste of money and energy based on junk science and the religion of environmental quackery.

  13. Davy on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 12:11 pm 

    Bozo, ah, in denial of what? If I knew what you are saying I am in denial of then I can debate you. What is a huge waste of money? Please give me the junk science and on what? Explain the religion of environmental quackery?

  14. fmr-paultard on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 12:33 pm 

    there may be a case for bio-diesel in absence of anything better and if it doesn’t affect food sources. corn is also not a good source because the first priority of plants is to establish roots. Cutting them down just means repeating the cycle unnecessarily. A better way would be selecting plant species that are disease resistant and harvest them through management. This means leave the trees alive with already established root.

  15. Apneaman on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 12:37 pm 

    Side show.

    Bozo, I bet you could not pass a grade 8 science test if your life depended on it. Government educated half wit.

    New Science Confirms that Harvey’s Record Rains Were Made Much Worse by Climate Change

    “Hurricane Harvey barreled into Texas on August 25th of 2017. Over the next six days, it dumped 52 inches of rain across parts of the state, resulted in 800,000 emergency calls for help, caused 80 souls to be lost, and inflicted over 190 billion dollars in damages.”

    $190 billion dollars for 1 AGW Jacked event.

    AGW Jacked consequences will break the bank regardless of anything the humans do.

  16. Apneaman on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 12:40 pm 

    Humans VS AGW Jacked consequences.

    “If 8,144 men and women, 1,004 engines and 27 helicopters can’t control the massive fire just north of Los Angeles after a dozen days, we best cowboy up and learn a few things.

    Some 27 million trees died in California in the last 12 months, according to a new study by U.S. Forest Service officials. That brings the state’s total to 129 million dead trees — what firefighters call fuel for wildfire.”


  17. Apneaman on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 12:46 pm 

    Great pictures of stupid humans enjoying their dopamine hits while surrounded by evidence/consequences of their doom.

    The Big Melt

    “From 1960 to 2017, the Alpine snow season shortened by 38 days—starting an average of 12 days later and ending 26 days earlier than normal. Europe experienced its warmest-ever winter in the 2015–16 season, with snow cover in the southern French Alps just 20% of its typical depth.

    Last December was the driest in 150 years of record keeping, and the flakes that did manage to fall didn’t stay around long. The snow line—the point on a slope at which it’s high enough and thus cold enough for snow to stick—is about 3,900 ft., which is a historic high in some areas. But worse lies ahead as scientists predict melt even at nearly 10,000 ft. by the end of the century.”

    Any deniers out there care to explain why there is no snow in the Alps in winter?

    I thought not.

    Ok there is a little snow, but it’s human made.

    “In the Dolomites, it takes 4,700 snow-blowers to keep trails covered for skiing”

  18. Apneaman on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 12:52 pm 

    Chris Martenson – Peak Prosperity podcast

    William Rees: What’s Driving The Planet’s Accelerating Species Collapse?

    Spoiler alert: It’s us

    “At the dawn of agriculture, just ten thousand years ago, human beings accounted for less than 1% of the total mammalian biomass on the planet. Today, there’s been a sevenfold increase, roughly speaking, in the biomass of vertebra species on the planet — but most of that is human-induced. Today, human beings account for about 32 – 35%of the total biomass of mammals, a much greater biomass than at the dawn of agriculture. But when we throw in our domesticated animals and our pets, humans and their domesticated animals amount to 98.5% of the total weight of mammals on planet Earth.”

    If you’re a Cancer & you know it clap your hands – CLAP! CLAP!

  19. onlooker on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 12:58 pm
    How about asking does human stupidity know no
    Am I in Dantes Inferno in the level ring of ironic humor

  20. Apneaman on Sat, 16th Dec 2017 1:21 pm 

    Summer madness arrives in Australia as temperatures hit the mid 40’s C (113 deg F) in Sydney

    “Demand for ambulances has risen by 40 per cent across the Sydney metro area today, with temperatures in the western suburbs hitting 40 degrees Celsius.
    By 2:30pm Penrith had reached 43.4C, while several suburbs in Sydney’s west had reached 40C, including Badgerys Creek, Bankstown, Camden and Horsley Park.”

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