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Monday, May 08, 2006
This is the second installment of what I intend to be a series of posts on alternative vehicle fuels if you are new, check here for inst. #1.

Biofuels: Ethanol
The great promise - the big lie

I had initially intended to do a single post on liquid biofuels (ignoring, for the moment, such things as biomass methane, which really stinks as a vehicle fuel). The three main contenders here are biodiesel, which is basically deesterified vegetable oil, from various sources, methanol, which, like methane, comes from sundry biomass sources, and ethanol, which, currently, comes from sugars and starches. (Also cellulose, but that's another matter - see below.) But even a brief treatment of all these would become feature article length in a heartbeat. As such, let us just concern ourselves with ethanol, which seems to be the current darling of both the pols and the MSM, for the moment...

Ethanol is created from the fermentation of sugar. That is important to keep in one's mind when contemplating ethanol production. Ethanol doesn't come from corn, at least not directly. First the starch has to be milled from the corn, and then converted to sugar, but let's worry about that later. Avoiding, for the present time, a course in basic organic chemistry, consider this: What we consider basic "table sugar" - disaccharide sucrose - consists of the constituent sugars: glucose and fructose. every molecule of ethanol from fermentation of glucose or fructose (C6H12O6) also yields a molecule of carbon dioxide:

C6H12O6 ====> 2(CH3CH2OH)+ 2(CO2)

This is important to remember, if one is to consider one's total carbon footprint. This came up a decade ago, with the short-lived electric car craze: as the electricity was frequently produced from the burning of fossil fuels, driving an electric car simply changes the point of production. So it is with ethanol, except now, rather than CO (ozone), it's CO2. Whatever, the production of ethanol produces massive amounts of CO2.

But that's sugar. And, here in the United States, with exception of Hawaii, and, to a lesser extent, Florida, we simply don't have the climate to grow sugar cane. Sugar also comes from other plants, most notably beets. And, while I haven't investigated the exact economics of this, I know we used to have a large sugar beet industry here in Orange County. I also know that, where beet sugar cheap to produce here in the US, we wouldn't have all those product labels listing "high fructose corn sweetener."

And don't you think, if we could produce sugar here in the US economically, we'd have been doing it long ago? Any student of the colonial period should know this: We owe our independence largely to the sugar industry in Latin America.

Well, now we are on to one of America's great staple crops: corn. Some have been saying that corn-based ethanol can "save us from foreign oil dependence." Some are even saying we can "replace gasoline with ethanol>"

Well, as for the latter, that is just absurd. Even President Bush has said, "You just got to recognize there are limits to how much corn can be used for ethanol. After all, we got to eat some." The fact is, if we converted our entire national corn production over to ethanol (and all our gasoline vehicles could handle it), we would just replace the gasoline supply. And that says nothing about diesel, home heating oil, etc.

Now, add to this the massive cost of creating sugar from corn. To create that ethanol requires an even greater fossil fuel input than it's worth. Coal producers are salivating at the new ethanol fad. And the enviro-leftists are starting to get this. But still, they don't get it. On the most recent installment of HBO's Real Time: Bill Mahr pronounced that since it costs us "nine times" as much to produce ethanol from corn as it does for Brazil to produce it from sugar cane, the fact that we are not buying ethanol from Brazil on "the corn lobby" (read: ADM).

Well, perhaps that's true. And man, I am no fan of Archer Daniels Midland. But we have to look at all these things in perspective. And that is being lost here. That was evident in tonight's episode of ABC's World News Tonight, where they unquestionably celebrated Brazil's "energy independence".

But wait a minute! Wasn't it just 5-10 years ago that we were deriding Brazil's destruction of the rain forest? And why was the rain forest being chopped down? To grow sugar cane, of course. The same can be said of Costa Rica, and most of the world's other sugar producers. And, of course, the cane fields are not nearly as good a carbon sink as the rain forest they supplanted. This says nothing about lost biodiversity.

So, we can't produce sugar cane economically in the temperate regions, and increasing cane production elsewhere in the world be an ecological catastrophe. And, we would just be switching dependence upon one set of questionable regimes for another. So, we are stuck with corn. But can't we just increase corn production? Well, perhaps. But we also have to consider that agricultural runoff has already turned Iowa's rivers to poison.

Then there's cellulose ethanol - which President *Switchgrass" Bush has brought to the forefront. This has some promise, as it can be made from biomass that is currently being discarded. But it is still an unproven technology. And, if this were the golden ticket that some make it out to be, then the question is begged, why is so much investment being in corn mills?
Kevin, we use large quantities of brown beet sugar in our processes at the company I work at. It is relativily cheap compared to white sugar and easier to use. We use about 15 tonnes a year in food processing. Thought I would let you know that beet sugar is alive and well in the US.
Yes, Chaz. France gets a large part of its ethanol production from sugar beets. Beets and cane yield about twice as much ethanol per acre as corn. Beets require about half the energy input to produce a given quantity of ethanol as corn. But cane requires only about an eighth.

But, whether the feedstock starch or sugar, any sort of increased ethanol production poses the very serious environmental problems associated with bringing more land under cultivation. These concerns are not being properly addressed.
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A blog dedicated to the personal musings of Kevin L. Connors - a pragmatic libertarian, engineer, businessman, and journalist.

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