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Once-Darling Ethanol Losing Friends In High Places 586

Posted by timothy
from the political-economy-case-in-point dept.
theodp writes "It's now conceivable, says BusinessWeek's Ed Wallace, that the myth of ethanol as the salvation for America's energy problem is coming to an end. Curiously, the alternative fuel may be done in by an unlikely collection of foes. Fervidly pro-ethanol in the last decade of his political career, former VP Al Gore reversed course in late November and apologized for supporting ethanol, which apparently was more about ingratiating himself to farmers. A week later, Energy Secretary Steven Chu piled on, saying: 'The future of transportation fuels shouldn't involve ethanol.' And in December, a group of small-engine manufacturers, automakers, and boat manufacturers filed suit in the US Court of Appeals to vacate the EPA's October ruling that using a 15% blend of ethanol in fuel supplies would not harm 2007 and newer vehicles. Despite all of this, the newly-elected Congress has extended the 45 cent-per-gallon ethanol blending tax credit that was due to expire, a move that is expected to reduce revenue by $6.25 billion in 2011. 'The ethanol insanity,' longtime-critic Wallace laments, 'will continue until so many cars and motors are damaged by this fuel additive that the public outcry can no longer be ignored.'"
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Once-Darling Ethanol Losing Friends In High Places

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  • by Bedouin X (254404) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:43PM (#34671614) Homepage

    The "newly-elected" Congress hasn't been seated yet.

  • by amorsen (7485) <benny+slashdot@amorsen.dk> on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:48PM (#34671646)

    Ethanol is a relatively safe octane booster. As long as temperatures are not too high, it is a great idea to add some ethanol to the fuel, even if you lose a little bit of range.

    With current production methods you really should not try to use it for its energy content though, except perhaps if you have access to a lot of area where you can grow sugar cane. Wasting corn on making ethanol should not be encouraged.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:51PM (#34671668)

    Here's a great article about what is happening today with ethanol:

    http://www.zerohedge.com/article/too-much-alcohol

    "He explains that the legal limit is 10% but that all the fuel distributors cheat and mix in some extra alcohol so they can make a buck. When the mix gets to 15% it’s toxic for two cycle engines. And that is what killed my machines."

    Kiss your chainsaw or gas boat motor goodbye. And your car engine, if the EPA gets their way of increasing the "limit" to 15%.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:01PM (#34671718)

    That is correct. They are not seated in office yet. The extension of the subisidies the article mentions and the Republicans the author tries to blame have not been sworn in. I felt that his idiotic attempt at bashing Republicans was pathetic and cast a negative light on the entire article.

  • Re:Easy (Score:2, Informative)

    by Opportunist (166417) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:08PM (#34671762)

    Well, the electrical car can actually help the issue a bit, since large engines in power plants can run more efficiently than small ICEs. Not to mention that the former can run on non-polluting power sources (solar, water, wind...).

    But the true solution is simply to make cars run on less fuel. We have to aim for a car that gets 50, 60, 100 mpg.

  • Re:A note (Score:4, Informative)

    by 0123456 (636235) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:16PM (#34671814)

    I don't care to argue about eco friendliness, what I care about though is where my money goes. In my case the choice is between brazilian farmers and some saudi trillionaire.

    America imports twice as much oil from Canada as from Saudi Arabia...

  • Re:Thank God (Score:5, Informative)

    by icebike (68054) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:28PM (#34671870)

    Have you ever actually tried to eat the grade of corn used for corn ethanol? I thought not, but believe me, don't try it, you won't be able to, it's a grade lower than that used for silage/cattle feed. It's grown on land too marginal for real human crops and tastes.

    Ah, No. Not true.

    Ethanol has taken over prime farm corn land.

    Ethanol has actually driven up the price of silage corn, and beef.

    It is most often the exact same corn as silage, because there is no point in switching to a lower grade. The seed, planting, and harvesting costs the same, and you cut your market options by growing anything other than cattle grade corn.

    We don't directly eat silage either, so just because it does not taste good to humans when eaten directly is a hollow argument. It tastes pretty good when you eat the cow/pig.

    I'm sure this is where the vegans jump in and pontificate about eating animals, but thats not what this thread is about.

  • by That's What She Said (1289344) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:36PM (#34671942)

    Lucky you. You don't have a sugar cartel controlling supply and jacking up prices like we do.

    Yes, we have. This cartel makes ethanol and sugar. When they're losing on the sugar, they jack up alcohol prices and vice-versa.

    They employ some of the poorest people in Brazil, who work their asses of for cheap money.

    It seems the USA and Brazil are not that different...

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:39PM (#34671970) Journal
    The senators representing America's corn-belt states are actually a pretty even split between republicans and democrats, hence "R/D". Is that illogical? While their positions on god, guns, and gays may differ along party lines, their positions on corn ethanol tend to be homogeneous across them(the cynic might remark that, on that issue, those senators can basically be treated as "Senator Cornfed, ConAgra/ADM"...)

    I hope your little ignorant ass is replaced by an agricultural robot.
  • by bgarcia (33222) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:53PM (#34672056) Homepage Journal
    You're correct that the money matters, but don't dismiss looking at MPG as well. Let me explain it in more detail.

    With the 10% Ethanol mix, his 12.25 gallon fill-up contained 11.0 gallons of gasoline. He was able to travel 265 miles. That gives us 265/11 = 24.1 mpg, where gallons refers to only the gasoline portion. Yes, I'm ignoring the ethanol portion of the fill-up on purpose.

    With pure gasoline, he went 300 miles on a 12.25 gallon fill-up, giving 300/12.25 = 24.5 mpg.

    Do you see what happened? At best, the ethanol does absolutely nothing useful! At worst, it actually makes your car use even more gasoline. You don't even need the other arguments about it costing more and eating away at engine components to realize that it's a complete waste.

  • by hargrand (1301911) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:53PM (#34672058)

    You must not be following current events (nor have passed basic reading comprehension).

    And you're clearly blind to blatant, overt sarcasm.

  • by goombah99 (560566) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @06:00PM (#34672092)

    First the jury has been in for a long time that in terms of Energy per dollar Corn or sugar based ethanol are never going to be a good idea in the US for feedstocks that come from the food chain. However cellolosic ethanol (switch grass, poplar tree, cellulosic waste, etc...) may be quite a good idea. There are strong arguments for them that have yet to be defeated. They need less irrigation and can be grown on lands or seasons otherwise unsuited for crops.

    The big bug-a-boo with these is that they are waiting for a scientific breaktrhough for a process to change cellulose into simple sugars or directly to ethanol or gasoline. There's lots of ways to approach this but all of them are not at the efficiency needed yet. It's not an easy proposal: if digesting cellulose was super easy then more bugs would do it already. It's actually not the cellulose that's the biggest problem, it's the lignose which is about 30%+ of the plant thats slightly harder to deal with biochemically.

    It's likely that some breakthroughs will occur. Theres lots of irons in the fire. Some of them may scale. But if you had to do it tommorrow chances are you'd bet on the wrong pony if you went with one particular approach.

    Thus the primary role that starch and sugar based ethanol plays now is that it seeds the pipeline with ethanol now, so the infrastructure will be in place when cellulosic ethanol comes on line.

    Now why ethanol and not something else more energy efficient. Butanol for example. Or other liquid fuels. THe problem is that when you ad up the cost of replacing our fleet of existing internal combustion engines and fuel infrastructure it's a huge huge huge sum. You can't just pick the "optimal" fuel purely from an maximal energy standpoint. You have to have a way there that does not start with a non-starter like chucking out all the existing engines. Hence Ethanol looks like the common denominator. It's not bad. It's easier to produce ethanol from grains now than it is butanol or gasoline. and it works in the cars we have up to a point.

    As long as we are comminting to cellulosic ethanol, some use of food crops to produce grain-based ethanol now is justifiable. It just can't continue in the long run.

    Another route is commit to bio-diesel from algae. This too has some issues to solve to make it scalable. It can use lower quality water. it can use low grade lands. it is easier to "dry" than ethanol because it is not water soluble so there's less energy waste in turning it into fuels. And you might be able to think of some byproduct for the waste stream from algae (maybe animal feed or fertilizer). SOme of the challenges here are very simple sounding, though no one has entirely solved them yet: how do we quadruple the lipid yield, and how to we get enough CO2 into the water (without burning fuel to create it and pump it.).
    There is enough bad land to fuel the entire nation if we can solve those scaling products.

    It has a path forward through the trucking system (diesel) and through aviation fuels and military fuels. The latter can pay premium prices to subsidize the product effectively since those fuels are more expensive than consume fuels.

    Eventually however that path requires replacing the automobile fleet. But given the path forward in the near term this may not be a non-starter.

  • by Becausegodhasmademe (861067) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @06:28PM (#34672254)

    I'm a biotech student who's very interested in this stuff. For anyone looking for an expanded explanation of the challenges facing cellulosic ethanol this blog post [blogspot.com] might be interesting. I've also written about the possible affects that large scale biofuel production may have on food security [blogspot.com].

    Cellulosic ethanol would be a big contribution to solving the impending energy crisis. Domestic waste and agricultural waste could be recylced into fuel to supplement demand to some extent, but in order to meet demand grain originally destined for food would have to be diverted. If not regulated properly this would likely cause an increase in global food prices. In a world with circa. 1 billion people starving, this is obviously less than ideal.

  • Re:Quoting Homer (Score:5, Informative)

    by Pharmboy (216950) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @06:38PM (#34672320) Journal

    Then you don't understand it. All my generators have been four stroke, as is the boat. Living in a small town, gas without ethanol is not available locally, and in North Carolina, they were mandating ethanol years before the feds due to pollution. Running Stabil in fuel is nice and is done year round but doesn't change the chemical reality that ethanol is hygroscopic. Most engines have steel parts. Water rusts steel. Engines that aren't run regularly and have tanks that vent to the atmosphere build up water. Not quite sure why you don't get it. It would appear the majority here do.

  • by ProfessorPillage (1964602) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @07:38PM (#34672570)

    You mean someone who can get comparable mixes and run controlled tests... Like NREL?

    http://feerc.ornl.gov/pdfs/pub_int_blends_rpt1_updated.pdf [ornl.gov]

    They found a decrease in fuel economy of 3.68+/-0.44% at 95% confidence for E10, which is consistent with the ~3.5% decrease in energy density for the fuel.

    I would argue that their tests on 16 vehicles are much more reliable than comparing unknown amounts (only counted the number of miles to get near empty) of unknown fuels (one of which might have about 10% ethanol), in unknown driving conditions using one vehicle, even if it is just one study without peer review.

    Now, there is certainly evidence that the manufacture of ethanol consumes as much or more fossil fuel than the energy content of the ethanol. But that's the cost (along with the resulting additional emissions) we should be comparing to the tailpipe emissions reductions from Ethanol blends.

  • Re:Quoting Homer (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday December 27, 2010 @12:37AM (#34673838)

    Because the problem is likely not rusting as you claim. Water is everywhere in the latter half of a combustion engine, esp. a 4 stroke where the byproducts stays in the piston chamber longer. It's IN the damn combustion equation. *There's more water from the combustion process of regular gasoline than what the residual fuel (of which ethanol is 10% or less typically) in the engine when shut down will suck up.*.

    If your engines are dying from rust, you either have a bad mix, or an engine that WOULD HAVE FAILED ANYWAYS.

    That said, ethanol is not all golden. The problem is diverse:

    * small engines tend to be made with inferior, cheaper steel that'll rust sooner

    * small engines lack quality control compared to car engines; proper small engines, however, have been designed with ethanol in mind for years, despite what people say. Not nearly as long as cars, but we're still talking on the order of at least a decade (I've read even earlier, as in early 80s). Mfgs, otoh, have taken advantage of the ethanol smack talk, so when their shit fails, they pass the buck. And people believe it.

    * small engines tend to run hotter, by their nature (smaller mass of metal), and worse, they are air cooled, ethanol fuels runs hotter; engine fries, warps, etc.

    * small engines generally lack onboard computers to compensate for fuel mixture issues

    * small engines often have more plastic parts, which ethanol likes to eat, which then gets spit into the engine or the fuel line, carburator, etc.

    * places that sell gas OFTEN GET THE WRONG MIX--yeah, believe it or not, this sometimes takes out cars (fuel tanks, lines fail)--so imagine that wrong mix in a small engine (I believe this was covered on /. last year)

    * in addition, the water grabbing nature of ethanol isn't really taking place IN the engine, it's that it absorbs water from the atmosphere IN THE TANK. This takes a long time, but still happens. This pushes the combustion equation (Le Chatlier, spelling will be off) to the left side of the combustion equation; makes your engine run leaner, hotter, and more prone to failure. As has been well document, putting water in the input of your engine increases fuel efficiency, but at the sacrifice of engine failure (this is very very well document and was done in WWII to extend range in engines). Your smaller engines do NOT like this.

  • by panopea (937339) on Monday December 27, 2010 @01:23AM (#34674066)

    I work in the marine engine trade. (western U.S.) Ethanol has been a boon to the gasoline engine repair and maritime rescue business. It is estimated by marine trade originations that gasoline and ethanol mixed fuels currently cause about 70-85% of engine failures. Not really a type of additional work we want.These engines (and outboards) and fuel tanks were never designed for this fuel. Unlike modern autos, marine fuel tanks are vented and absorb moisture rich air. Water related corrosion adds to the alcohol damage. I do not think anyone has worked out just the cost in lives lost at sea, lost boats, and the damage to the marine trades has resulted from this fuel. We only get to work on the boats that made it back.

  • Re:Agreed (Score:4, Informative)

    by toddestan (632714) on Monday December 27, 2010 @02:35AM (#34674300)

    The only reason we have this much food available is mechanized farming which is highly dependent on fossil fuels (both to run the machinery and to make the fertilizers). Take away the cheap fossil fuels and there would be mass starvation.

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