In case you missed it, a gentleman named Burl Haigwood kindly left a long and detailed comment, and rebuttal, to my recent post on the health effects of ethanol as a fuel.

Because I do want to debate the issues, I thought it best to reprint his response and my related comments here, since otherwise they would remain buried in the comments section.

 

BurlHaigwoodCFDC said in response to An Unfortunate Truth about Bioethanol (from Corn):

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.

 

 

 

My Response to Mr. Haigwood of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition (CFDC)* is given here:

 

Thank you for taking the time to respond in such a detailed manner. You make many good points, and I’ll try to address them.

First, I am not approaching this subject with any preconceived point of view. Believe me, I would be very happy if ethanol turned out to be the answer to our problems. If corn ethanol were the answer to our problems, I would be even happier. I just want the problems solved, and I’d like to avoid using more nuclear power.

Each post on this blog tends to report on one or more related articles in the scientific or popular press (including the web). Each article has a focus, naturally. The totality of this blog represents my interests and matters that I think should be discussed, so I am delighted by your comments and by the fact that you took the time to read what I had to say.

You were absolutely correct when you said

“The issue is about oil not ethanol.”

 

But this is not complete. The issue is also about the environment and food prices.

I am well aware of the carcinogens in smog from gasoline/petrol. They are made worse in strong sunlight by a process that generates photochemical smog. I am grateful to my colleague Hal H. for informing me of the key discoveries in this field from UC Riverside (the link goes to one scientific article).

My blog was based in part on a new study published in the scientific journal Environmental Science & Technology, as reported on the website Highlight Health. This article predicts serious increases in respiratory problems caused directly by worsening air quality, if ethanol displaces gasoline/petrol as automobile fuel (specifically referring to E85, which is 85% ethanol and 15% petroleum). It is a new article. The results surprised me. On its own, I would have taken it seriously, but not as proof. However, Walter, who writes HIGHLIGHT Health does an excellent job researching for his blog, and he described other research, this time experimental in nature, on the growing ratio of formaldehyde to acetaldehyde in Brazilian air since the introduction of ethanol fuel.

I’m not sure exactly why the formaldehyde problem exists, but I will search the literature and report back. I believe that the formaldehyde is at least partly related to sunlight and ozone, as is photochemical smog in general. I suspect that the very high oxygen content of ethanol relative to petroleum is an important factor in formaldehyde generation, but it might not be. I’ll look into this more.

I would expect that car emissions could be improved so that ethanol-run cars did not suffer from this problem, though it would (or might) require new catalytic converters that, as far as I know, nobody is working on. Developing countries might or might not be able to afford the catalytic converters. The truth is that, with the zero or low nitrogen and sulfur content of ethanol-based fuels, cheaper catalytic converters might handle the problem and work well in place of current models designed to survive sulfur and nitrogen impurities.

So, while ethanol has some problems as a fuel, as I see it, these problems do not seem to me to be insurmountable. This hopeful statement is predicated on people admitting that the problems exist and resources being put into solving the problems. We’ll see what happens.

 

No, the big problem is corn. (Well, oil is a big problem, too.)

 

It is my conclusion, based on the articles I have read, that we are going to destroy the ecosystem in the Gulf of Mexico and in rivers and lakes and seas and bays around the world if we continue to grow corn for ethanol. Just the fertilizer alone places far too great a burden on the rivers and streams.

From my recent World Headlines and blogroll, take this New York Times article, for instance, which reports on a National Research Council (NRC) study sponsored by our most prestigious scientific body in the US., the National Academy of Sciences, and funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other organizations:

 

“Panel Sees Problems in Ethanol Production

By CORNELIA DEAN

Published: October 11, 2007

Greater cultivation of crops to produce ethanol could harm water quality and leave some regions of the country with water shortages, a panel of experts is reporting. And corn, the most widely grown fuel crop in the United States, might cause more damage per unit of energy than other plants, especially switchgrass and native grasses, the panel said.”

I hope that you read this whole story, Mr. Haigwood. Afterwards, I’d like to see if you still feel the same about corn ethanol. I look forward to continuing the debate.

Personally, I don’t think that we will find a viable solution to the energy and fuel issues without efficient conversion of cellulose-based biomass to fuel and raw materials. There is progress being made in these areas, as I have discussed before.

 

 

© James K. Bashkin, 2007

____________________________________________

*Note, the mission statement of the organization Mr. Haigwood is connected with is:

“The Clean Fuels Development Coalition (CFDC) is an innovative not-for-profit organization that actively supports the development of new technologies and the increased production of fuels that can reduce air pollution, stimulate our economy, and lessen our dangerous dependence on imported oil. Our goal is to drive the demand for clean low-carbon fuels, like ethanol, through a combination of efforts that include collaborating with industry, educating and communicating with the media and other strategic influencers, and support new legislative initiatives that will help us achieve our mission.”

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  1. I think Mr. Haigwood seems to be making a good point about the focus of the love affair with ethanol being its status as a homegrown alternative to imported oil. There is a difficult-to-price, but huge, cost to dependence on oil purchased from nations containing elements sworn to destroy our way of life. There are undoubtedly those in or near key oil-producing countries who would be thrilled to turn the spigot all the way off, though it would be economic suicide (they are, after all, suicide bombers — same idea).

    It would be unfortunate, however, if this significant benefit of bio-ethanol precluded research into other energy sources and how they might be integrated into the existing automotive model of personal transportation (whether internal combustion or electric or hydrogen).

    Also, government subsidies preventing market forces from properly allocating investment risk among various alternatives, by favoring particular forms of alternative energy, are unjustifiable, though special tax treatment across the board for non-oil energy R&D and implementation may make sense.

    The environmental issues seem not insoluble, but they need to be raised — and loudly, without expression of such concern by those such as Jim being viewed as unproductive naysaying and pessimism. Those associated with crop production are already issues needing solutions — after all, we already grow lots of corn, and chemical runoff, soil depletion and erosion, etc. are already issues.

    The biggest question in my mind is simply whether it has been proven that ethanol production consumes more energy than it produces. This would seem to mean that salvation from imported oil addiction would be an illusion. We would be merrily putting made-in-USA gas in our cars, while farm and transportation equipment, farm chemical factories, and/or ethanol plants themselves would be directly or indirectly (by forcing other energy consumers to use imported oil) consuming imported oil.

  2. Thanks George. Your question is certainly central to the issue. I have talked to a number of fellow chemists about it.

    This is really quite a complex question to answer. So, there are published answers that disagree with each other. One has to make assumptions in order to do the calculations, and the best set of assumptions is always in the eye of the assumer.

    So, at present, the best I can do is say that there are many chemists who have concluded that we lose energy by using ethanol as fuel, at least if it comes from corn or similar food crops (which require a lot of nutrients to grow and later to be of value as food). However, not everyone agrees, and even those who agree can site different reasons for their conclusions. I suspect that we lose energy with corn ethanol. I will try to be more definitive (one way or the other), but I have to keep searching and reading.

    Jim

  3. This seems to be a fundamental distinction between biofuels and other alternative energy sources, such as wind, solar, and water power. For all of the latter, there is an initial energy and financial and natural resource investment, and a near-permanent resulting power plant/source. The question is how long it takes to become energy-profitable, not whether it is so at all.

    What if corn-based ethanol were not energy-profitable (meaning more energy in than out), but financially profitable? Would this nevertheless be economically desirable?

  4. I’d say your have come close to capturing the distinctions. However, there are issues with wind, solar and hydroelectric power other than capital costs and profit. Wind and solar “farms’ can take up huge amounts of space. I have read (but not confirmed) that the Mojave desert will become one huge solar farm. This is a unique and beautiful place with a specialized ecosystem I guess I’ll have to say I’m glad I knew it when…

    The manufacturing of solar cells involves some pretty toxic chemicals and generates a lot of chemical waste. It is being improved constantly, but some technical people worry about the cost/benefit analysis from an environmental perspective.

    Hydroelectric power is seemingly the most benign, unless you live downstream. Farmers, towns, or even countries can have water shortage problems when rivers are tamed. Then there is the ?hidden? danger like the dam break at Taum Sauk reservoir in Missouri. This really destroyed a huge amount, including the environment.

    Nevertheless, the above issues are not threatening to the whole earth, they are “local” problems; often the risks are incurred by people who don’t receive the benefits.

    To address your final two questions, one can only use whatever moral compass is available. I’ll restate the question slightly: if corn-ethanol were financially viable (which it is now due to huge subsidies) but not helpful to the energy crisis/oil crisis/environment, would it be desirable?

    For robber barons, multinational corporations or individual farmers desperate for a profit, heck yes! For the rest of us, given the rising cost of food and the water shortages linked to corn ethanol, along with decreasing water quality from agricultural runoff and damage to farmland because crop rotation has stopped (and new pests that are thriving in areas that never grew corn before), and so on, my personal answer is absolutely no. Let’s hear what the world thinks!

    Comments, feedback anyone?

  5. How much Ethanol comes from outside of America? Does anyone have stats?

    I own Mercedes, Rolls Royce’s and they do not perform well on Ethanol.

    With a global economy do we really need US farmers anymore? The world is flat globalization have removed our manufactures base, why not farmers also?

    Shalom,

    — Prof. Leland Milton Goldblatt, Ph.D.

    http://drgoldblatt.blogspot.com/

  6. Well, Dr. G, as sarcastic (and possibly anti-semitic) as your comment seems to be, I’d say we do need US farmers, but perhaps even more important, we (and the farmers) need water to drink. So, we can’t ruin with fertilizer, or otherwise use up, all our water on ethanol production and expect to lead healthy lives. In any event, I don’t want to see other parts of the world ruin their environments for your (fictitious) automobiles, either.

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