An Unfortunate Truth about Bioethanol (from Corn)


With thanks to George L. in St. Louis for the heads up, here is what The Economist has to say (in regard to US corn-ethanol efforts):

“Everyone seems to think that ethanol is a good way to make cars greener. Everyone is wrong”

The article does not dismiss all bioenergy, and it reports on new research and development that may provide economically-viable bioenergy supplies. The discussion of these potential new approaches is supportive and hopeful.

However, the article dismantles myths about corn-ethanol as a fuel. These include the matter, well-known by technologists but seemingly unknown to politicians or the public, that ethanol is a lousy fuel for many reasons. Not the least is the “hygroscopic” nature of ethanol- its property of absorbing water from the atmosphere. Automobile fuel with significant water content is bad for combustion efficiency.

It is time we realized that “natural” is not synonymous with “environmentally friendly”, or even “harmless”. It is time we stopped allowing senseless government subsidies of environmentally-wasteful corn ethanol programs that are driving up the cost of nearly all food, everywhere, in the US and around the world… without doing a single thing to solve any energy problem.

If you want to read more about the harmful effects on “normal people” of increased food prices, just see”Biofuelled: Grain prices go the way of the oil prices,” from The Economist print edition, or online at the link. The fact that demand for grain is exceeding supplies is explained in this article:

“The culprit is the growing use of grains to make biofuels, such as ethanol. … Ethanol distilleries (in the USA) now consume 1/5 of the Nation’s corn.”

But how can this be? Bioethanol is all natural. Isn’t that good? In a word, NO, and the stresses that corn-ethanol places on the environment, the food economy, and the cost of living are serious. Farm production may not be able to keep up with demand, and, the article reports, even if production is increased, it may not matter:

“… even if new land is planted, argues Jeffrey Currie of Goldman Sachs, it will not necessarily reduce the cost of grains. Since high oil prices and generous government subsidies ensure that biofuels are profitable, any extra grain will be used to make more (ethanol). That will not dent the oil price (…). Instead, the price of biofuels has risen to that of petrol (gasoline), and the price of corn and crude oil, the main feedstocks for the two, have converged.”

How can it happen that food prices are being driven up with NO environmental benefit? Among other things, we should consider the following points:

  • the convergence of pressure from large national and multinational farming companies and from small farmers
  • the readiness of politicians to use public funds to “give back” to their constituents and campaign contributors through huge subsidies
  • the undoubted joy in some circles that this behavior can be successfully linked, however falsely, to “improving the environment”
  • the willingness of the public to believe that anything “natural” has to be better than alternatives

For additional relevant articles in The Economist and many other news and scientific sources, see the World Headlines link under my blogroll heading. Comments and feedback are welcome, as always.

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

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  1. honestly, I’ve always been a little skeptical about the corn ethanol idea. This article brings to better light the answers to some of my questions!

  2. Thanks for the feedback, Jim

  3. I tried to include a dissenting opinion from some organization that calls itself “the truth dot org”. I couldn’t figure out why WordPress wouldn’t let me approve it- then I made the mistake of going to “the truth’s” site. It tried to download software on my computer without asking my permission. So DON’T GO THERE, this kind of software is usually spyware or worse! What should I have expected from “the truth”? Name calling doesn’t help the environment, and neither does blind following of any cause, so I’m happy to present the criticism.

    Here what the comment said (unedited):
    “This article was written by a complete moron taking checks from oil companies. Every study done shows that ethanol reduces CO2. ALL OTHER GAS EMISSIONS DEPEND ON THE CAR BEING TESTED. Ethanol does release less of all gasses in some cars.

    Ethanol is not the reason food prices are higher. Only an idiot would go on record saying that after the US Gov has come out and debunked it. Food prices are up due to fuel prices and inflation. That is an undisputed FACT. Anyone with half a brain can look at price charts of all commodities across the board. CORN IS LAGGARD. Sorry to burst your bubble their chief. You would have made more money buying almost any other commodity than corn.”
    ________________________________________

    I’ll add a few responses:
    -Sorry, no checks from oil companies to report or disclose
    -I’ll take my analysis of agricultural economics from The Economist over yours, Mr/Ms Truth. Especially when backed up by numerous other sources (read my other posts).
    -Puerto Rico is replacing sugar cane with corn for ethanol, even though sugar cane produces 15 times more ethanol than corn per pound. Why? Tax breaks for corn-ethanol. Does this make sense? Not for the environment.
    -If you would read the words on my page, I didn’t say anything about CO2. CO2 is one consideration to take into account when evaluating a fuel. If you want to breathe ozone and formaldehyde, which are generated in large quantities by ethanol as an automobile fuel, write your will now.
    -Ethanol is a clean fuel vs gasoline/petrol with respect to sulfur and nitrogen oxides (SOx/NOx, the traditional smog components), but ozone is also a traditional smog component. Formaldehyde is not generated directly by petrochemical gasoline (it can be formed by the action of ozone on volatile organic compounds, VOCs). Formaldehyde in particleboard/fiberboard and urea foam insulation was cited as a major health risk to industrial workers many years ago.
    -Here is part of what the EPA (yes the US GOVERNMENT EPA) has to say about formaldehyde (from http://www.cpsc.gov/cpscpub/pubs/725.html). You might want to pay attention to the terms cancer, allergic skin disease, asthma, burning sensations, skin rashes, etc.

    “What is Formaldehyde?

    Formaldehyde is an important industrial chemical used to make other chemicals, building materials, and household products. It is one of the large family of chemical compounds called volatile organic compounds or “VOCs”. The term volatile means that the compounds vaporize, that is, become a gas, at normal room temperatures. Formaldehyde serves many purposes in products. It is used as a part of:

    * the glue or adhesive in pressed wood products (particleboard, hardwood plywood, and medium density fiberboard (MDF));

    * preservatives in some paints, coatings, and cosmetics;

    * the coating that provides permanent press quality to fabrics and draperies;

    * the finish used to coat paper products; and

    * certain insulation materials (urea-formaldehyde foam and fiberglass insulation).

    Formaldehyde is released into the air by burning wood, kerosene or natural gas, by automobiles, and by cigarettes. Formaldehyde can off-gas from materials made with it. It is also a naturally occurring substance.

    The U.S. Consumer Safety Commission has produced this booklet to tell you about formaldehyde found in the indoor air. This booklet tells you where you may come in contact with formaldehyde, how it may affect your health, and how you might reduce your exposure to it.

    Why Should You Be Concerned?

    Formaldehyde is a colorless, strong-smelling gas. When present in the air at levels above 0.1 ppm (parts in a million parts of air), it can cause watery eyes, burning sensations in the eyes, nose and throat, nausea, coughing, chest tightness, wheezing, skin rashes, and allergic reactions. It also has been observed to cause cancer in scientific studies using laboratory animals and may cause cancer in humans. Typical exposures to humans are much lower; thus any risk of causing cancer is believed to be small at the level at which humans are exposed.

    Formaldehyde can affect people differently. Some people are very sensitive to formaldehyde while others may not have any noticeable reaction to the same level.

    Persons have developed allergic reactions (allergic skin disease and hives) to formaldehyde through skin contact with solutions of formaldehyde or durable-press clothing containing formaldehyde. Others have developed asthmatic reactions and skin rashes from exposure to formaldehyde.

    Formaldehyde is just one of several gases present indoors that may cause illnesses. Many of these gases, as well as colds and flu, cause similar symptoms.

    What Levels of Formaldehyde Are Normal?

    Formaldehyde is normally present at low levels, usually less than 0.03 ppm, in both outdoor and indoor air. The outdoor air in rural areas has lower concentrations while urban areas have higher concentrations. Residences or offices that contain products that release formaldehyde to the air can have formaldehyde levels of greater than 0.03 ppm. Products that may add formaldehyde to the air include particleboard used as flooring underlayment, shelving, furniture and cabinets; MDF in cabinets and furniture; hardwood plywood wall panels, and urea-formaldehyde foam used as insulation. As formaldehyde levels increase, illness or discomfort is more likely to occur and may be more serious.

    Efforts have been made by both the government and industry to reduce exposure to formaldehyde. CPSC voted to ban urea-formaldehyde foam insulation in 1982. That ban was over-turned in the courts, but this action greatly reduced the residential use of the insulation product. CPSC, the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and other federal agencies have historically worked with the pressed wood industry to further reduce the release of the chemical from their products. A 1985 HUD regulation covering the use of pressed wood products in manufactured housing was designed to ensure that indoor levels are below 0.4 ppm. However, it would be unrealistic to expect to completely remove formaldehyde from the air. Some persons who are extremely sensitive to formaldehyde may need to reduce or stop using these products. “

  4. I recommend that everyone read the posts at http://www.scienceinreview.com/2007/science-linked-bacteria-the-results.html
    for some other views on metabolic engineering of bacteria.

  5. I would like to address a few missing and broken links to your argument. When you have only one side in mind during your article and can not give any merit to the only fuel to break the 100 year stranglehold on the oil dominated transportation fuel market – it is just an argument not a debate or discussion. The ethanol program started as an intended consequence to do something about nation’s reliance on imported oil. Since that time we have had several wars in the oil producing region of the world, which has fueled terrorism, we now understand where the greenhouse gases are coming from, we have not discovered any more oil in the US, we are using 40 billion more gallons of gasoline each year, and the oil companies have not produced any alternative fuels out of anything. The issue is about oil not ethanol. Take out ethanol and nothing has been accomplished in 30 years by anyone or anything else. Ethanol is the only fuel that has worked to replace gasoline in 30 years – despite a lot of trying by a lot of people and industries. LPG, electricity, solar, natural gas, biodiesel, and the consumer’s willingness to buy small cars have not worked. Ethanol works and it is better than imported crude oil and gasoline. If you really want to avoid being full of formaldehyde I suggest your try and avoid the estimated 65 carcinogens in gasoline like benzene, toluene, and formaldehyde. Ethanol made in Puerto Rico from sugar cane or from corn in Iowa is the same ethanol and receives the same credits/incentives. Those incentives are available to anyone, including the oil companies, to make alternative fuels in any form from any renewable feedstock. If you believe in a free market, then adding 400,000 barrels of a product that costs less than gasoline to the motor fuel pool should help. In fact DOE says ethanol has lowered the price of crude oil by $2.50 per barrel – that’s $18 billion dollars this year. Other studies show that record oil prices have twice the impact on food prices when compared to ethanol. The oil companies have not made one drop of alternative fuels or anything else to help their customers since they invented lead additives, which took the government 70 years to take out. While you say you are not paid by the oil companies you are doing their work by spreading heated and misguided mistruths about the U.S. ethanol program. That is their intended consequence. I suggest you and others interested in all aspects of a very complex ethanol issue Google The Ethanol Fact Book. Ethanol is not perfect, it is just better than imported crude oil and gasoline. Ethanol is leading the way to a brighter future – not gasoline or imported oil. We need your passion and brains on the solution side of this oil equation problem.

  6. Thanks to the blog carnival at Sorting Out Science

    http://sortingoutscience.net/2007/11/30/philosophia_naturalis_15/

    for including this post! Best wishes, Jim

  7. stevenchen18

    Hi James,

    I have noticed that “The article does not dismiss all bioenergy…” That is good.

    I think the bio-energies, including corn-based ethanol, is still in its infant stage. A lot of parent supervision is needed. However, I would give them a lot of time and money to see if they are worthy or not. In my view, the most important role you can play is to make sure that other bio-energy options have a fair chance to grow.

    One of the criticisms of the corn based ethanol is that it caused the increase of food price. I do not support this argument. First, the price of food and other items are determined by many facts. Corn based ethanol is only a part, maybe small part, of them. Second, the food price is way too low right now. It is not sustainable even without corn based ethanol. The planet just can not provide low price of food, fuels and other things for a long time. The price will go up in an uncontrollable fashion if we try to keep it artificially low now.

    There are many ways to help the poor. Keeping the price low on food and fuels are the wrong ways.

    Let me know your thinking.

    Thanks.

  8. Steven: Thanks for your commentary. I don’t seem to be able to place my reply right after your comment. Oh, well.

    We agree on some things and disagree on others.

    The business about corn-ethanol making food prices go up is not my original thought. I cite an article from the Economist that goes into this in some detail. There are many other reports as well. As an anecdotal example, I heard just tonight about someone who has a commercial lawn mowing service in Nebraska, working for utilities and companies. He used to cut the grass and leave the cuttings on the ground. Now, he collects the cuttings, bale sthem and sells them as feed for horses because farmers are not growing enough wheat: the fields have all been converted to corn. Crop rotation, which keeps the soil healthy, has also been essentially abandoned in many parts of the country, and world, because tax subsidies make corn too valuable. The end result is going to be a far greater need for chemical fertilizer, and all of the problems associated with runoff or fertilizer into streams, AND may lead to some topsoil be ruined, as in the old dust bowl days, by a combination of lack of water (from the draining of the aquifer- see Environmental Defense article), lack of grassland and roots that hold the soil together, and lack of nutrients in the soil.

    Ethanol is crummy fuel at best and is a net energy drain when made from corn. This is being taught in freshman chemistry courses in top Universities all over the country. Ethanol has a fraction of the stored energy of gasoline per gallon (about half).

    I’m sorry to disagree, but there is nothing about thermodynamics that is in its infancy, even if corn ethanol is a new business: thermodynamics has been a well established scientific discipline for a very long time, dating back to the early 1800’s in many ways. Ethanol is not good fuel, so if we want to use it, we need to make sure it is produced in extremely efficient ways (which may or may not be practically achievable- hence the need for research).

    I’m all for spending money on R&D for biofuels. My point about the money is that, by spending tax dollars to subsidize a failed economic model for ethanol production (from corn) at the production phase , we are simply diverting money away from R&D and into the pockets of producers who are not, in any way, helping the environment or foreign oil dependence.

    Given the way the war is using up money (not to mention lives), there just isn’t much money left for R&D any more in this country. This is my profession, and people are quitting or losing R&D jobs in large numbers in the US. Investing in research and development of sensible, or potentially sensible, biofuels is the only way to make them a reality. Corn ethanol will never make sense, according to my opinion and to thermodynamic calculations now being done by 18-year old college students and their professors. It just isn’t hard to do this chemistry analysis (except for politicians).

    While I don’t have a problem “agreeing to disagree” with you on issues, and I know that we have common goals, I can’t agree with the concept that affordable food isn’t a viable way to help the poor. It is worth noting that it isn’t just US food prices that are going up, it is happening all over the world (see the Economist, for example, and the UN). In some countries, people spend 30-35% of their annual income on food, a much larger % than in the US (I heard this on NPR in the past week). These people can’t afford higher food prices.

    Thanks for taking the time to respond so thoughtfully! Best wishes, Jim

  9. Hi Jim,

    I know that you try to find real solutions. It is not easy. That is why we need to discuss.

    You might be right about the corn-based ethanol. However, my number one enemy right now is the fossil fuels. We might need political support from the farmers. If we could get the eighteen billion fossil fuel tax credit for the alternative energy, that would be nice.

    For the issue of food price, I really believe that each country should satisfy its own food requirement. If its land could not provide enough food for its people, they just have too many people. No matter how poor a country is, it should be able to provide enough food for its population.

    The following might be a little far from your topic. However, I think it is very important.

    Every time we try to do some thing about the environment, we would be told that it would hurt the poor. That is why I get very frustrated about the word “poor”. Let us face it; we will always have poor countries and poor people. The reason is very simple. The Earth just cannot support so many “rich” people. Because the huge population the Earth already has, most of the people have no choice but spending most of their time just to feed their mouth. They will be ok as long as the environment is still OK. (That was what I did twenty years ago anyway.) However, the poor people would be DEAD if the Earth gives up. That is why I am fighting so hard on the environment cause.

    I hope what I said make at leaset some sense to you and your readers.

    Thanks.

  10. mbuddha

    The MOST important issue IMO concerning ethanol and other biofuels that require land for production is deforestation. High demand for biofuel/ethanol is the leading cause of deforestation and destruction of rain forests is the Deforestation is the leading cause of increasing CO2.

    You can pontificate all day on ethanol being successful at replacing oil but we’re trading one bad fuel for another. Why is ethanol becoming a success? Because it’s profitable. Economies drive our energy sources and we need to find ways or offer incentives for waste products to be profitable. I don’t have an answer here, but biofuel/biodiesel that causes deforestation is defeating the purpose 100%. Biofuel/biodiesel that has little to no environmental impact, such as high oil algae from ponds or animal/vegetable byproducts from restaurants/farms is where we need to be focusing our energies at this time.

  11. mbuddha, again, I agree with you and I believe that everything I’ve written agrees with you.

    I believe that the answer is to stop supporting the production ethanol from food, stop competition between food and fuel, and do so with any other biofuel that competes with food also. Thanks for your feedback. Jim

  12. christine

    Except that there’s never been a war over corn….

  13. Christine, thanks for the comment. I’m afraid that I don’t understand your point, however. Are you saying that the fact that there has never been a war over corn ethanol makes it good fuel source, even though it makes no sense economically, from an energy perspective, from a humanitarian or food cost perspective, or environmentally?

    People who live in the Amazon basin may have a rather different perspective on war and agriculture, given the violent displacement of indigenous inhabitants by large and often international agricultural companies. In addition, there have been plenty of wars that have been at least partially about food prices, including a number of bloody revolutions, rebellions in Ireland, etc. There have also been de facto wars in the US between ranchers and farmers, though not lately.

    The fact is that there has been a dramatic increase in crime lately, reversing a trend that had shown crime decreasing since the early 1990s, and this increase in crime correlates at least partly with growing despair over the high cost of living in the US. So, in one sense, we are at war with each other over food costs. The government’s ethanol program shares the blame for this, as does its policy of spending our tax dollars on the war in Iraq. This war, by the way, has been accompanied by huge increases in oil costs as well as huge profits by oil companies.

    If you would care to elaborate, I’d be happy to discuss the situation more. Best wishes, Jim

  14. really interesting. see others thougts on bioethanol at http://www.biofuelshub.com/news/4-features/1021-bioethanol-a-continuing-conundrum to see if bioehanol is really helpful or not.

  15. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that I have truly enjoyed browsing your blog posts. After all I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again very soon!

    • Thanks for your kind remarks. Work hasn’t allowed me to pursue my other writing interests for a while, but I hope to get back to them some day.

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