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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 Trip6 (1184883) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:43PM (#34671610)

    ...and so it ends up everywhere, from our stomachs to our gas tanks. High-fructose corn syrup anyone?

    • by MrLint (519792)

      Indeed the problem is the money funneled into corn. This is a foodstuff being turned into fuel. There are better uses for this.. oh like food!

      I shudder to think the amount of money lining rich people's pockets on this wasteful redirection of resources. I have always considered cellulosic ethanol a much better avenue for research, as the input could end up being mostly 'by-product' from existing agricultural processes.

      • by Gerzel (240421)

        There are better uses for the money. We have enough corn. So much that they are searching for uses.

    • by GooberToo (74388)

      All too often people on slashdot conflate so many issues. This is one of them.

      Ethanol is not the same thing as corn!!! We current get ethanol from corn because of bribed politicians. The reality is, ethanol is absolutely a viable fuel source - just not from corn!

      Hemp is currently illegal in the US despite not having THC (active ingredient in pot). Please note, hemp IS NOT POT. There are literally zero THC strains of hemp available now. And smoking even the low THC strains of hemp (almost all hemps) will not

  • by Bedouin X (254404) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:43PM (#34671614) Homepage

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

    • by goombah99 (560566) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @05:00PM (#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 @05:28PM (#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.

  • by AnonGCB (1398517) <7spams AT gmail DOT com> on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:44PM (#34671620)

    I'm not exactly sure, but I don't think they've actually done anything yet. Everything so far is the lame duck congress.

    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward

      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.

  • by TeknoHog (164938) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:45PM (#34671628) Homepage Journal
    Alcohol: the cause of, and the solution to, all of life's problems.
    • Re:Quoting Homer (Score:5, Interesting)

      by Pharmboy (216950) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:30PM (#34671884) Journal

      How apropos! I have already had TWO generators get trashed ($650+ each) and have had several other mechanical issues with ethanol in non-car engines. Ethanol is the worst thing you can put in a lawn mower, boat, or other motor that isn't run every day. It sucks more water out of the air than the average dehumidifier, which will literally RUST out the engine components.

      Putting alcohol in my small motor fuel has created hundreds of dollars of damage, and has created MORE carbon than regular gas, due to all the replacement parts that had to be manufactured again, and shipped. It sounds good on paper, but by the time you add the cost of subsidizing Monsanto and adding the damage, it costs more than it saves in both money and carbon.

      • Ethanol is the worst thing you can put in a lawn mower, boat, or other motor that isn't run every day.

        No, ethanol is a bad thing to use as a fuel in an engine that is not designed to use it. Engines that are designed to use alcohol run good with it though.

        Falcon

    • by Sulphur (1548251)

      Alcohol: the cause of, and the solution to, all of life's problems.

      Congress and alcohol -- made for each other.

  • by amorsen (7485) <benny+slashdot@amorsen.dk> on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:48PM (#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 fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:52PM (#34671676) Journal
      Corn-derived ethanol has always been either of culinary/recreational interest(which is a fine and salubrious use of corn...) or an artefact of the fact that you will run into serious issues getting anything done in the senate without throwing Senator Cornfed, R/D, Flyover Country a bone... The fact that there are some relatively early presidential primaries in corn country doesn't help either.
    • How about sugar beets also.... Especially in the Red River Valley of the North where sugar beets grow so well that they contemplate plowing some of the crop under many years because there is more sugar in the crop than government subsidies will pay for...The "extra" crop could be turned into ethanol
      • by amorsen (7485)

        Sugar beets are another lousy way to make sugar. They do not grow in high-solar areas, they capture solar energy less efficiently, and their sugar content is lower than sugar cane.

  • by Amorymeltzer (1213818) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:49PM (#34671652)

    Corn ethanol: bad
    Switchgrass ethanol: good

    There's nothing inherently wrong with ethanol (unless you're under 21 - shame on you majority of populace!) but how we get our current stock is a terrible deal. Corn and farm policies are troublesome, and current ethanol mandates are indeed another subsidy for a growing and yet still ailing production force, but it need not be. Convert some fields into sugarcane or switchgrass, which is vastly more effective for creating biofuels, and that's without all the genetic advances corn has had. We'll get more efficient energy production, another crop will become incredibly profitable, and the corn cycle of "grow more causing prices to drop so grow more" - that's a win-win-win situation.

    • by Leafheart (1120885) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:55PM (#34671686)
      Yeah. We use Ethanol in Brazil since the early 80s, making them from sugar cane and it is great. Now corn ethanol is ridiculous inefficient.
      • by PPH (736903) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:04PM (#34671738)

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

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          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 Leafheart (1120885) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:44PM (#34672000)

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

          As the other user said, yes we do, the usineiros as they are called have a lot of people on the congress (the Agribusiness Lobby is the second larges non-partisan group on the Congress and Senate), and they have a monopoly of a lot of stuff. That means they jack up prices and try to stiffle the market of other type of fuel.

          What happened to balance is that other big farmers decided to jump on the biodiesel wagon, and their lobby was stronger than the Ethanol's, so they got some subsidies to start making Castor Bean diesel. That put them on their place and the prices got a little more controlled. But still that risks upping the price of other produces with more and more farmers jumping at that wagon and forgetting the once great rice, wheat and soy.

      • I'll restate my comment above...Can Sugar Beets be used to make ethanol efficiently also?
      • by tokul (682258)

        Yeah. We use Ethanol in Brazil since the early 80s, making them from sugar cane and it is great. Now corn ethanol is ridiculous inefficient.

        Are you sure that you can grow sugarcane on same location that can grow corn? They have different climate requirements. What grows in Brasil does not always grow in Texas.

    • by couchslug (175151)

      Ethanol fuels don't store well, as any mechanic who has dealt with them will attest. Their lubricity is poor.

      Of course, you can dump STA-BIL in the tank (ignore the directions, use a shitload), but that kind of defeats the purpose.

      "Drop-in" petroleum replacements are a better solution deserving further development, and can be run in compression-ignition diesels.

  • Maybe now we can stop trading food for inferior gasoline and get further ahead on things that make some sense. Trading food and water for something less efficient than gasoline but requiring almost all of the same cumbersome infrastructure? I still can't believe anyone went crazy for ethanol in the first place.
    • by sjames (1099)

      It's typical political maneuvering. Start with something that makes a lot of sense but is against the interests of your backers. Add increasing political pressure to implement the sensible measure. "cave" and implement it but with a catch, do so in the stupidest most destructive and ineffective way you can possibly think of. Wait a few years and point out what a dreadful idea the whole things was and get rid of it.

      You get to look like a hero twice, all without pissing your villainous backers off.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday December 26, 2010 @03:51PM (#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%.

  • Unfortunately ethanol requires even more land use, in an already overcrowded planet.

    • by vlm (69642)

      Unfortunately ethanol requires even more land use, in an already overcrowded planet.

      And the other problem is it takes two barrels of crude equivalent to manufacture one ethanol equivalent of a barrel of oil.

  • by phoophy (1189235) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:08PM (#34671760)
    If ETOH were actually worth anything (i.e., didn't harm engines, was *really* energy balance positive, didn't put aldehydes into the atmosphere, cause food prices to go up, could be produced from cellulose, etc.) it could survive without a government subsidy. The only reason it's still lurching along, taking up 40% of the corn produced in the USA, is because the lobbyists, farmers and ETOH producers can continue to suck $$ from the US gummint.
    • by fermion (181285)
      Almost all energy sources are subsidized in the US. Petroleum and gas cost a fraction of what it does in other countries because of subsidies. Some say it is arbitrary taxes, but it isn't. Look at the damage the BP oil spill caused. Those cost will not be completely be paid by BP. Individuals and the government will cover much of the costs.

      The same is true for mountaintop mining. The issue right now is how much are the operations going to have to pay for cleanup. The operators think they can pollu

  • by Maxo-Texas (864189) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:17PM (#34671824)

    I have stumbled on "real 100% gasoline" three times in a 2008 Honda Element. Each time, my mileage increased for that tankful from 265 miles to 300 miles.

    Honda: 10% Ethanol, 13 gallon tank mileage to fill up (about 12.25 gallons).

    265 miles. About 21.6 miles per gallon.

    Honda: Gasoline, 13 gallon tank mileage to fill up (about 12.25 gallons).

    300 miles. About 24.4 miles per gallon.

    12% more miles with gasoline than with 10% Ethanol.

    You see the problem, right?

    When using 10% ethanol, I actually burn MORE GASOLINE to travel the same number of miles.

    So ethanol is worse than useless.

    I keep putting this out there so hopefully someone who can reliably get 100% gasoline can perform a formal study.
    This is increasing the amount of gasoline we use, not reducing it.

    • by itzdandy (183397)

      I have the same (or similar enough) measurement in my 2009 civic, and worse in my 2001 chevy truck.

      Holiday stations here do the 10% ethanol thing, I get 13.8mpg on it
      Conoco stations here advertise 'no ethanol' and I get 15.6mpg on that.

      as the previous poster showed, Ethanol is actually worse than water as a fuel additive for some situations, including mine and his.

    • Ethanol contains less chemical energy than an equal volume of gasoline, just like gasoline contains less chemical energy than an equal volume of diesel fuel. This is known, but studiously ignored.
    • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

      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)

  • by magus_melchior (262681) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:19PM (#34671828) Journal

    Corn ethanol diverts field corn from the already-mammoth agribusiness industry that pumps field corn into just about every foodstuff in the country-- everything from livestock to all processed foods and fast foods (corn oil, high fructose corn syrup). It thus encourages the expansion of that industry, which uses vast amounts of fossil fuel and its derivatives to grow corn-- that's why many experts say that you don't get nearly as much bang for the buck as you do when you process sugar cane into ethanol. And that doesn't even account for the fertilizer and pesticides/herbicides that end up in the Gulf of Mexico due to runoff (not that it will matter much for the foreseeable future).

    It would be a lot more worthwhile for the government to reduce corn subsidies and use that savings to either cut the deficit or invest in things like renewable energy infrastructure or non-corn biofuel research or even tax breaks for efficiency upgrades. Alas, ADM and Monsanto contribute hugely to PACs of Congressmen who vote to continue the subsidies (and no doubt hire them as lobbyists when they retire), therefore we do not see any change in this regard.

  • issues (Score:5, Interesting)

    by itzdandy (183397) <dandensonNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Sunday December 26, 2010 @04:33PM (#34671908) Homepage

    The issue with Ethanol is really 2 fronts.
    1, corn has a low output per crop for food or for fuel.
    2, Ethanol is hard on an engine, even an engine designed to handle it.

    We are propping up the corn industry claiming that we are saving farmers. The subsidies that keep those farmers on corn is also keeping the from switching to a more appropriate crop.

    Ethanol really tears up engine components such as gaskets and seals. As these items wear at a faster pace with Ethanol, they become less efficient and less reliable.

    I understand the draw for ethanol, it acts sort-of like gasoline which keeps the many millions of cars on our roads compatible with the 'next-gen' fuel. The problem is that it is from a low yiel crop and has an intense and expensive manufacturing process.

    We could product a diesel-compatible biofuel much more easily and out of crops with significantly higher yield. A significant percent of fuel used in America is diesel through trucks and tractors and a push for a more sustainable fuel in a diesel form would change the focus of automakers selling cars in the US.

    It is easier and cheaper to make diesel from corn rather than ethanol, but still not efficient.

    Rapeseed can be be broken down by simply crushing the seed which is ~40% oil. This crop produces about ~127 Gallons per acre. The US in 2009 used about 137Billion gallons of gasoline.
    with some math 137B/127Gallons = 1.07Billion acres. The US is 2.428Billion acres. There are only 922Million acres of farmland.
    hmmmm, so we dont have enough land to grown a renewable fuel unless we both a, stop eating AND b, come up with something that has a ~50% oil content.

    You dont have to be a rocket scientist to do the math from numbers freely available at usda.gov. I would think that any person pushing to eliminate our need for foreign oil or oil in general and actually expecting some level of success would have done a tiny bit of research. We can't grow our fuel, or at the very least we cant grow all of it. We are going to have to use technology to handle this issue, not brute force.

    And on that subject, only ~27% of our energy usage is in transporation. petrolium is about 38% of our energy sources.

    So the real question is, should we really be looking at changing the fuel source for cars right now? Shouldn't we continue to improve out technology for electric and/or hybrid systems, batteries, and more efficient engines while targeting industrial and commercial power uses? This way in the future we can make a much better change in cars when the technology is ready? We could reduce our need on oil by a massive amount with nuclear power and converting many fuel burners to electical heating and cooling. With nuclear power alone we could see as much fuel energy savings as completely replacing the fuel in our cars. We already have nuclear power technology and building more plants will push that technology further ahead. btw, nuclear is just 8 1/2% of out power source.

    I am not saying that we should ignore oil use in cars, just that it is not the best place to start. Batteries and power production, probably nuclear, is what I think is the best route. if we try, we might actually be doing nuclear fusion this century, but fission is proven and reliable and safe.

    • by itzdandy (183397)

      i didnt give any sources, oops. mostly usda.gov but also some wikipedia and lawrence livermore natial laboratory.

    • by thegarbz (1787294)

      Ethanol really tears up engine components such as gaskets and seals. As these items wear at a faster pace with Ethanol, they become less efficient and less reliable.

      This is a design issue. All the same issues were raised when leaded petrol was phased out. We made do. We advanced. The problem is we don't have a constant spec on petrol. If the government simply said you put x ethanol in all blends of petrol you could come up with the right gasket material and right lubrication system to make the engine run really well on ethanol.

      In Australia we had yet the same problem again when we changed the sulfur spec on diesel. When the first sub 10ppm sulfur diesel hit the mar

  • Multifuel vehicles run on gasoline, ethanol, methanol, and other fuels. Brazil has them. They don't cost much more than our vehicles (I think the difference is about $35).

    Alternative fuels based on algae include both oil and ethanol. The oil gets squeezed out and the remainder is fermented into ethanol.

    We will need it when the price of petroleum oil skyrockets, which it is expected to do in the next few years -- permanently, due to peak oil and the disappearance of the excess capacity in the oil industry

  • Ethanol has multiple problems. Three of the biggest are:

    1: It's simply not economic. If it was there wouldn't be the need for subsidies or mandates to include it in fuel.

    2: It's really stupid to burn food, which is what is happening here. Especially with other, lower cost, fuel alternatives remain available now and for at least the next couple of decades -- after which it's impossible to predict with any certainty what we'll be facing anyway. If you can make it efficiently out of non-food biomass this
  • What is the deal? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Charcharodon (611187) on Sunday December 26, 2010 @09:48PM (#34673426)
    Why the obsession with alternate liquid fuels? Switch to methane and you kill five birds with one stone.

    1. The infrastructure to deliver it is already in place and is far less complicated than say what is needed for a hydrogen system.

    2. The conversion costs are small and will work with most vehicles. Pickup trucks being the easiest to convert. (Cool trucks, no gay hybrids required.)

    3. It's readily availabe just about everywhere. You can drill a hole in the ground to get it. You can make it with crop and animal waste on the farm. You can make it from sewage waste in the city. You can collect it as a by product from the petrolium industry. You could make your own fuel in your backyard if you were so inclined and had the space.

    4. It is environment friendly. No bad polutants when you burn it and can come from "carbon neutral" sources if you still buy into such things.

    5. We can make it in our own country and stop funding the overseas assholes. Let them try to eat their oil after we stop buying and see how far that gets them.

    Win, win, win, win, win.

  • by panopea (937339) on Monday December 27, 2010 @12:23AM (#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.

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