The Times Blunders on Ethanol (Even After I Explained it to Them)

Last week I tried to explain why the choice of plant, whether it be a food plant or a non-food plant, that is used to make ethanol is mostly irrelevant to whether ethanol mandates raise fuel prices, at least with current technologies.  I wrote:

Food prices rise not because food is converted to ethanol per se, but
because the amount of grains going into the food supply decreases.  The
issue is the use of farmer's time and resources and the use of prime
cropland to grow plants for fuel rather than food for consumption.  The
actual crop used to make the fuel, whether corn or switchgrass, does
not matter to food prices -- it is the removal of farmers and cropland
from food production that matters.  The only way cellulosic ethanol is
likely to improve food prices in substitution for corn is by being more
efficient per acre in fuel yields than corn  (which may turn out to be
the case, but has not yet been proven in this country).  But even so,
incremental improvements in yield don't help much, because we are
talking about enormous (40-50% or more) amounts of US cropland that
would have to be dedicated to fuel, whatever the plant technology, to
meet the current ethanol mandates.

I almost didn't post this the first time around, because I thought it was so obvious.  But on Sunday the NY Times blundered right into the same silly assertion:

This does not mean that Congress should give up on biofuels as an
important part of the effort to reduce the country's dependency on
imported oil and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. What it does mean is
that some biofuels are (or are likely to be) better than others, and
that Congress should realign its tax and subsidy programs to encourage
the good ones. Unlike corn ethanol, those biofuels will not compete for
the world's food supply and will deliver significant reductions in
greenhouse gases.

Of course, the ability to produce such biofuels with these magic powers has never actually been demonstrated, but I am all for them when and if someone invents them.  Efficient conversion, for example, of corn stalks, rather than corn itself, to fuel would be great and would solve this trade-off.  This technology does not exist today -- and only a lot of hand-waving can translate cellulosic ethanol successes in switchgrass to corn stalks.  Also recognize that even this has costs hidden to us non farmers, because corn stalks are used for a variety of purposes today.  My guess is that cellulosic ethanol from corn may be economically feasible, but only after some genetic modifications of the plant itself.


  1. Frederick Davies:

    You know, if after all the Franken-food scares in Europe, it turns out that the only way to make ethanol work as a fuel is by using generic modification, I am going to laugh until I am blue in the face.

  2. Don Lloyd:


    " whether ethanol mandates raise fuel prices..."

    Didn't you mean to say food prices here?

    Regards, Don

  3. Erik The Red:

    I have no idea as to the veracity of this (to say nothing of its efficiencies, etc.), but I found the following quote in the Wikipedia article on Cellulostic Ethanol:

    "Another Canadian company, SunOpta Inc. markets a patented technology known as "Steam Explosion" to pre-treat cellulosic biomass, overcoming its "recalcitance" to make cellulose and hemicellulose accessible to enzymes for conversion into fermenatable sugars. SunOpta designs and engineers cellulosic ethanol biorefineries and its process technologies and equipment are in use in the first 3 commercial demonstration scale plants in the world:[21] Verenium (formerly Celunol Corporation)'s facility in Jennings, Louisiana, Abengoa's facility in Salamanca, Spain, and a facility in China owned by China Resources Alcohol Corporation (CRAC). The CRAC facility is currently producing cellulosic ethanol from local corn stover on a 24-hour a day basis utilizing SunOpta's process and technology."

    also (sounds like it's still in the theoretical / lab stage):

    Other enzyme companies, such as Dyadic International, Inc. (AMEX: DIL), are developing genetically engineered fungi which would produce large volumes of cellulase, xylanase and hemicellulase enzymes which can be utilized to convert agricultural residues such as corn stover, distiller grains, wheat straw and sugar cane bagasse and energy crops such as switch grass into fermentable sugars which may be used to produce cellulosic ethanol.

    (blah, blah, blah)... sounds expensive, but we'll get efficient later (or so they promise):

    Construction of pilot scale lignocellulosic ethanol plants requires considerable financial support through grants and subsidies. On 28 February 2007, the U.S. Dept. of Energy announced $385 million in grant funding to six cellulosic ethanol plants.[31] This grant funding accounts for 40% of the investment costs. The remaining 60% comes from the promoters of those facilities. Hence, a total of $1 billion will be invested for approximately 140 million gallon capacity. This translates into $7/annual gallon in capital investment costs for pilot plants; future capital costs are expected to be lower. Corn to ethanol plants cost roughly $1–3/annual gallon capacity.[32][33]

    I'd still file it under "unlikely to save the world," but I'm interested in knowing what happens with that experimental facility in China.

  4. Dale:

    Dadgummit, Warren, I don't know why you miss the obvious. Wasn't it "Back to the Future III" that had the fuel converter thingiemajig on the DeLorean clearly takes biomass and converts it into useable fuel. This technology has been around for decades...

  5. Xmas:


    I think you mean the "Mr. Fusion" home fusion generator. It extracted and used the hydrogen in food waste to create clean, efficient electricity.

    I wonder if its only waste product was iron(that'd be really efficient fusion power).

  6. Erik The Red:

    The only problem with Mr. Fusion is that it produced "jigga-watts," which as far as I can tell is a unit of measure related to Will Smith's hip-hop career.

  7. Kum Dollison:

    Well, let's see:

    Your T-Bone went up $0.15, and

    My Gas went Down $0.40/gal.

    Guess which side I'm on.

  8. TJIT:

    Kum Dollison,

    You are on the side of taking more money from consumers and taxpayers to give it to corngrowers and agribusiness. Which provides more money to corngrowers and agribusiness at the cost of increasing world hunger, increased environmental damage, and increased dependence on imported oil.

    Not a good side to be on.

  9. Brad Warbiany:

    One question...

    What do those corn stalks get used for now? Compost? Fertilizer? Waste?

    It may be that they're discarded now, and thus this is an economically efficient use of them. But if they're currently used for something productive, it still means you're removing it from whatever use it's going towards. Hence, prices for that productive use will rise.

  10. SuperMike:

    I looked it up on wikipedia, and corn stalks are made into something called "silage", which is basically partially fermented vegetable matter. Cows eat it.

  11. Ralph:

    Interesting bumping into your site. Also interesting a reader of yours would quote Wikipedia where anyone can post an article on recycling penguin dung then quote their article as "according to experts......"
    Also the use of a reference to anything China is doing certainly has great peril in accuracy. They have been "" the world for centuries.

    No one mentions the efforts of the US congressmen and Senators who have personally invested heavily in the early stages of ethanol manufacturing plants, then passed the requirements for us to use ethanol in fuel, then passed massive subsidies to the producing companies so an otherwise unprofitable market venture makes them assured money (your taxes), then invested in commodity futures as they knew food prices would rise. And they also invested in European money as they knew the dollar would drop.

    As recently noted in the press, John Kerry helped avoid near investment disaster for his fellow ethanol investors when he sent the letter to the State Department stating that if Iraq sold the oil in the negotiated - ready for signature - US agreement without Iraq having a "Hydrocarbons Policy", America was just invading Iraq for it's oil. His office sent copies to all the middle eastern press who made it politically impossible for Iraq's government to sell to America. The oil now goes to China.

    Why the letter to the State Department? As reported by the press, Obama went directly to Iraq and asked the leaders to not let American soldiers leave until he was elected - negotiating foreign policy with foreign governments leaves one open to charges of treason. A "leaked" letter to the State Department leaves no such stigma.

    Also, it takes 1.3 gallons of fuel to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. Therefore, anyone using 1 gallon of ethanol actually consumes 2.3 gallons of fuel. Ethanol has significantly lower energy per gallon as does gasoline. In areas of the country where drivers still have access to unpolluted gasoline, it is commonly reported that 85% Gasoline polluted with ethanol has around 18% loss in energy per gallon (loss of mileage). Doing the math, a driver still requires about a gallon of gasoline to go the same distance as 1 gallon of pure gasoline - at the cost of 1.18 gallons. No savings at all in emissions.

    Another billionaire, T. Boone Pickens now is in wind farm commercials. Although a blight on the landscape - no "environmentally concerned citizen" wants to be anywhere near them - wind farms also get their profits from government subsidies, and this oil man wants a share.

    As Californians are generally environmentally conscious, I propose a mandate that all California public municipal and county parks be required to have at least one wind generator. Is this way, transmission losses between source and users can be minimized, and all Californians can personally experience the grace and beauty of today's wind generation technology.