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January 28, 2006

Cellulosic Ethanol

Micahel O'Hare has a good post on the much-maligned, heavily-subsidized, use of ethanol as a gasoline additive and, eventually, replacement:

A gang at the Energy and Resources Group and the Goldman School at UC Berkeley, who invited me to play with them over the summer and fall while we did the project, have clarified things greatly. In my view our most important finding is that the "net energy" measure, which looks only at the fossil fuel energy consumed to make a unit of energy in the form of ethanol, asks the wrong question. For example, if ethanol provided a means to take 100 joules of energy from coal and obtain 50 joules worth of ethanol, it would not necessarily be a bad idea. Coal is abundant and cheap; the problem with it is that when burned, it releases the "greenhouse gas" CO2. So one would want to ask about the greenhouse gases released (and other costs, of course), not the net energy, and if the CO2 from burning the coal were captured and sequestered, this notional technology would be a prima facie policy winner, allowing us to run cars cleanly on domestic abundant coal rather than imported, scarce petroleum.

Our article in Science (Farrell et al) is behind a paywall (today's issue, if you have access to it) but also posted here, with the analysis behind it. This LA Times story is a pretty good report. What we found, adjusting six studies of ethanol input demands so they could be compared is that ethanol from corn (maize) as we make it today is a big petroleum saver, and offers modest gains in global warming, compared to gasoline. The specific technology used to make it matters a lot, but what matters more is the crop you start with: ethanol from grass or wood will be a very attractive fuel on energy, global warming, and petroleum displacement grounds.

Interesting stuff. Debates about ethanol tend to vanish into the gap between detractors talking about yesterday's blends and supporters boosting tomorrow's technologies. What you're seeing now is the slow shift from a reality that conforms mainly to the predictions of critics, where corn is heavily subsidized and an energy-intensive process turns it into ethanol, to a world where cellulosic ethanol, which is both plentiful; and cheap, has descended within reach.

Cellulosic ethanol is the conversion of otherwise useless biomass, like switchgrass and corn husks, into ethanol -- it releases 80% less CO2 and no sulfur dioxide. The ethanol is then put into a blend with 15% gasoline to create E85, a flex-fuel that requires minimal retrofitting for cars or gas stations. Folks talk about the hydrogen economy and the exciting new distribution system that would require. But in this case, boring is better and the cheap, easy tweaks required by ethanol would make any changeover infinitely easier.

Better, every ounce can be produced and converted domestically. And in the event of a widescale adoption, the biomass economy would not only create a renewable fuel, it would renew the economies of those states, like Iowa, that manufacture it. It's a win-win product. And this isn't bullshit boosterism: in Brazil, three quarters of cars already run off the stuff, and the country is now independent of imported oil. We could, and should, do the same. And given the amount of interest among venture capitalists and domestic car producers, not to mention the current price-per-barrel for oil, it's a near certainty that we will.

See? I can write about things other than health care.

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Comments

I have driven an E-85 vehicle and it ran just fine.

Most car companies make these vehicles now, but only a few. If we had Democrats in charge, we would be switching our entire US vehicle fleet over to E-85 and biodiesel.

But we have crooked oilmen in charge, so that's not gonna happen.

Posted by: Tom3 | Jan 28, 2006 2:35:42 PM

See? I can write about things other than health care.

From your front page alone:

Because this makes me miss my beloved In-N-Out a little less.
Cell phones don't give you cancer. Now someone tell that to my mother. Any video where David Hasselhoff sings, performs motorcycle tricks, flies, and gets into a jumping contest with an African tribesman has more than earned LotD status.
So uh, any of you live in Amsterdam? Any of you know cool things to do while there?
Man, TNR called us out. And a mere week after I went to bat for them! Well, so be it. Check my response, if only for the picture.

Just giving you a hard time. It's out of love, reeeally!

Posted by: Allen K. | Jan 28, 2006 2:41:05 PM

Yep, that's my true achilles heel: not enough wonkery in my blogging ;-)

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 28, 2006 3:40:31 PM

Ford's current CEO (a Ford scion, of course), is running non-stop ads touting Ford's dedication to innovation. Bullshit. He offers as evidence that Ford will build 250,000 hybrids (and then in small type, mentions by 2010).

If California is going to make the to E-85 cars, small trucks, and SUV's then it might get done. Other states are now adopting CA standards one after the other.

Bu$hCo is known for incompetence in execution of plans and policies, but energy and the environment is one place that they've done well in preventing any meaningful energy conservation or progress against global warming.

I metaphorically nearly weep to think how much progress we could have made in Bush's eight years if we had higher fleet mileage standards, including small trucks and SUVs. In reality, I'm damn mad. Bush has shown leadership of the retreat variety on energy and the environment, and I sure wish he could be held accountable for that.

Oh, and by the way, what is the Democratic party united stand on these issues? You mean there is no united stand or policy direction? That can't be, but it really is. There is no there there.

Posted by: JimPortandOR | Jan 28, 2006 5:12:13 PM

Ezra, you -- and everybody else in the progressive community -- shouldn't be so quick to jump on the biofuels bandwagon. Yes, cellulosic ethanol is cool. But if a huge biofuel market springs up, the fuel is going to come from the cheapest source, which right now, and for the foreseeable future, is crops like soybeans and corn. And those crops are going to come from the cheapest place, which is not an idyllic small farm in Illinois, but overseas, where they will mow down huge swaths of rainforest to plant them.

The actual, existing biofuel situation is a net negative for the environment -- including global warming, since all those rainforests getting mowed down serve as carbon sinks -- and barely, just barely, a net positive in terms of energy.

I'm not opposed to some wonderful biofuel future involving cellulose, etc., but I haven't heard anyone tell a plausible story about when, or how, or even whether, we can expect that to actually happen.

I have a post on the matter here (some great debate in the comments, too):

http://gristmill.grist.org/story/2006/1/25/173315/103

Cheers.

Posted by: David Roberts | Jan 28, 2006 5:26:20 PM

Interesting post, but it strikes me as contrary to domestic political realities. Brazilian ethanol currently carries a huge tariff that makes it economically non-viable as an import. Indeed, the power of the ethanol lobby has reached mythic status in America: if any industry around will resist outsourcing, it's Iowa's corn sector. And of course that does mean agribusiness, but not only am I pessimistic on attempts to save the family farm, I'm not convinced that there's a good reason to save the family farm.

Also, I'd like to see some numbers on the global warming calculation -- slashing transporation emissions in half (or less) would seem to require quite an epic amount of clearcutting to invalidate.

Posted by: Ezra | Jan 28, 2006 5:43:01 PM

I have a very dim view of ethanol production here in Australia where the government wants to pay companies to turn food into ethanol using coal to gain the power to do so. Without subsidies I wouldn't be surprised if it would be cheaper just to liquify the coal and use that as fuel. Here it's mainly about politicians bringing home pork for rural seats than a renewable energy policy. I doubt it would be different in America, but if companies are willing to produce ethanol without government subsidies, good luck to them. In Australia I believe we'd be better off economically and environmentally if the government took the money it spent subsidizing ethanol and using it to subsidize fuel efficent cars.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Jan 28, 2006 8:18:52 PM

I'm not convinced that there's a good reason to save the family farm.

Peak soil erosion?

Posted by: chdb | Jan 29, 2006 12:01:56 AM

I quote from your excerpt of Mr. O'Hare's article (which I have not read):

"Coal is abundant and cheap; the problem with it is that when burned,
it releases the "greenhouse gas" CO2. So one would want to ask about
the greenhouse gases released (and other costs, of course), not the net
energy, and if the CO2 from burning the coal were captured and
sequestered, this notional technology would be a prima facie policy
winner, allowing us to run cars cleanly on domestic abundant coal rather
than imported, scarce petroleum."

How much would it cost to sequester and store the CO2 he mentions? Is there any market for this stuff once that's been done, to offset the cost of sequestering and storing it, or is it an expense that will be added to the cost of the process?

Not objecting, just curious.

Posted by: Tim Scott | Jan 29, 2006 11:19:41 AM

David Roberts,

They use a very low grade of sugar to make ethanol in Brazil. Soybeans and corn are far to valuable in Brazil.

In Brazil, the state that is the largest producer of sugar is Minas Gerais, a state I know very well and my father-in-law happens to farm sugar there. No rainforest there, but there has been a loss of huge chunks of the Mata Atlántica (Atlantic Forest), but that has been happening regardless of ethanol.

The greatest problem Brazil faces in this regard is infrastructure. A recent study indicates that Brazil needs to invest US$10 Billion in ethanol development by 2012.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Jan 29, 2006 8:01:34 PM

Keep in mind, that there is roughly 15-30% decrease in fuel economy when using E85 if comparing on a 1 to 1 basis (say 1 gallon to 1 gallon of gas.) I don't know if that is figured into everyone's calculations when talking about fuel economy and overal energy usage.

Posted by: Adrock | Jan 30, 2006 4:25:15 PM

One liter of ethanol has 68% the energy of a liter of gasoline. Anyone who wants to convert their car to run off E85 would be foolish to do so unless it was at least 27% cheaper than gasoline.

In Australia it apears that it may take more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol contains. Most of this energy comes from fossil fuels. I'm sure that it would be pretty much the same in the U.S. As a result ethanol production in its current state can't be described as environmentally friendly.

Also, in even in Australia with it's low population and huge agricultural sector, no one plans to make gasoline that is more than 10% ethanol. How America could produce enough ethanol to make an 85% blend to fuel its inefficent vechiles is a mystery.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Jan 30, 2006 7:03:14 PM

The fact that Brazil does not import any oil should indicate that ethanol is worth pursuing further. If there was negative return on energy why is Brazil energy independent?

The articles I've read on cheap cellulosic ethanol are interesting - speaking as a layman.

Posted by: Paul | Jan 31, 2006 11:00:12 PM

Brazil also has a state-run company called Petrobras with numerous offshore platforms as well as invstments in countries like Bolivia

Posted by: Randy Paul | Feb 1, 2006 12:54:18 PM

Brazil is energy sufficent because Brazillians don't yet use as much energy as first worlders and because they (usually) have a lot of rain. They get roughly 88% of their electrical power from hydroelectricity (unless there is a drought.) They also get nearly 3% of their power from two inefficent nuclear plants and unless they have changed recently they still import about 2.5% from neighboring countries.

I don't know what kind of energy returns they get on producing ethanol in Brazil, but even if production has a negative energy return doesn't mean it won't be produced. It's important to look at money costs rather than energy costs. A combination of cheap hydroelectric power and government support can make it worthwhile.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Feb 1, 2006 7:54:39 PM

Perhaps I should also point out that in Brazil they make ethanol from sugar cane, which is easy. (Brazillian rum, anyone?) Brazil also has huge areas of land where magnesium ions dominate over calcium ions in the soil and about the only crop that will grow there is sugar cane. The land doesn't have much other agricultural use. Making ethanol from corn husks will be a lot harder and more expensive.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Feb 1, 2006 8:33:45 PM

They don't make rum in Brazil, they make cachaça, known as aguardiente in Spanish-speaking Latin America. Rum is made from molasses, cachaça is made from sugar cane juice.

As I mentioned before, Minas Gerais is the state that is the country's largest producer of sugar. Brazil is also the largest producer of coffee among numerous other crops (my father-in-law grows sugar, beans, melons, corn, papaya, and other crops). Minas is an agricultural powerhouse, so I'm a little puzzled about your argument: the country's greatest sugar producer grows just about anything.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Feb 1, 2006 10:15:21 PM

I'm not sure if I have an arguement, but if I do have one I think that basically it is that it's easy to grow sugar cane in Brazil and easy to turn sugar cane into ethanol and it's hard to grow a lot of sugar cane in the U.S. and harder to turn corn husks into ethanol than sugar cane. Not impossible, but harder.

I didn't mean to suggest that all soil in Brazil is lousy. Soil can vary a lot in quality from field to field, although many sugar cane growers in my native Queensland don't regard soil as a source of nutrients but more as a substance for holding fertilizer in place. It's that bad.

They don't make rum in Brazil? They have all that sugar cane and no one's thought of making rum? What a waste! You'll have to try Australia's Bundy Rum which is made from sugar cane molasses. But maybe cachaca is just as good.

Posted by: Ronald Brak | Feb 2, 2006 4:59:46 AM

Ronald,

You need to have a caipirinha. Cachaça is a fine alternative to rum.

Posted by: Randy Paul | Feb 2, 2006 9:42:35 AM

First, compliments to the previous contributors for
their reasoned questions and replies.

Two hopes:

Bioengineering, both of plants and of microbes(for enzymes and catalysts) will make ethanol production
ever more economic.

Nuclear reactors in relatively isolated locations
can be the power source for conversion. Of course,
let's hope they don't hire Homer Simpson


Posted by: squibit | Feb 9, 2006 2:02:41 PM

A couple of factors to share:

1) Lignin can generate enough heat and electricity that not only power/heat a typical cellulosic ethanol plant but also put some back to the power grid.

2) Cellulosic ethanol production cost has come down and is in the low $1.00 range per gallon of ethanol produced now. Advanced yeast technology has made SSF and SSCF reality and reduce the pretreatment and hydrolysis costs to almost to NONE.

3) The cellulosic biomass in this country alone can be converted into more than $100B gallon of ethanol per year without having to chop down more forest here and overseas.

4) The phasing out of MTBE will drive the cellulosic ethanol industry a sunshine industry in next 2-5 years. It's not a question of how, it's a question of how fast and in what scale.

Cheers.

Posted by: David | Feb 19, 2006 11:31:47 PM

Interesting that the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) has been so supportive of cellulosic ethanol. NRDC issued a report recently entitled "Growing Energy" which focuses on cellulosic ethanol from switch grass. It is availbel at www.bio.org, then in left column click on industrial and environmental, and click on biofuels page to see PDF of full report. Among conclusions of report:
* By 2025, $5B/year in new revenue could be passed on to farmers and agricultural communities with the use of biofuels (200 million tons of biomass)
• Biofuels could reduce our greenhouse gas transportation-related emissions by more than 80%
• Biofuels could save us $20B per year on fuel costs by 2050
• An annual biomass supply of more than 1.3B dry tons can be accomplished with relatively modest changes in land use and agricultural and forestry practices
Brent Erickson

Posted by: Brent Erickson | Feb 26, 2006 3:56:53 PM

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Posted by: judy | Sep 29, 2007 9:49:00 AM

"Better, every ounce can be produced and converted domestically."

Yes as long as the U.S. transportation fuel market shrinks to a sliver of its current size. Cellulosic ethanol, like corn ethanol, is simply not scalable. I will give you a good example: The European Union was considering going the cellulosic ethanol route or at least testing the waters so to speak. A feasibility study was done on ethanol from switchgrass and was found that replacing just 5.75% of the E.U.'s transportation fuel consumption would require fully 25% of the arable land of all member states.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5369284.stm
So to extrapolate from this, if it were somehow hypothetically possible to devote 100% of the E.U.'s arable land to switchgrass production you still wouldn't have replaced any more than 23%, less than a quarter, of current usage. Add to that the fact that at least in present times it costs as much as ten times the amount to build a refinery for cellulosic as for corn ethanol.
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1594/is_2_18/ai_n27284352?tag=untagged
And for good measure please remember that whether corn-based or cellulosic, ethanol cannot be sent through existing oil pipelines as it is corrosive
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9647424
so either 1.a whole new pipeline infrastructure would have to be built from scratch just to transport this crap; or 2.like a dog chasing its tail they will have to continue transporting it by trains, barges and tanker trucks. Cellulosic ethanol is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory but doesn't pan out.

Posted by: Benny | Aug 7, 2008 10:17:41 PM

"Better, every ounce can be produced and converted domestically."

Yes as long as the U.S. transportation fuel market shrinks to a sliver of its current size. Cellulosic ethanol, like corn ethanol, is simply not scalable. I will give you a good example: The European Union was considering going the cellulosic ethanol route or at least testing the waters so to speak. A feasibility study was done on ethanol from switchgrass and was found that replacing just 5.75% of the E.U.'s transportation fuel consumption would require fully 25% of the arable land of all member states.
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/5369284.stm
So to extrapolate from this, if it were somehow hypothetically possible to devote 100% of the E.U.'s arable land to switchgrass production you still wouldn't have replaced any more than 23%, less than a quarter, of current usage. Add to that the fact that at least in present times it costs as much as ten times the amount to build a refinery for cellulosic as for corn ethanol.
http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1594/is_2_18/ai_n27284352?tag=untagged
And for good measure please remember that whether corn-based or cellulosic, ethanol cannot be sent through existing oil pipelines as it is corrosive
http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9647424
so either 1.a whole new pipeline infrastructure would have to be built from scratch just to transport this crap; or 2.like a dog chasing its tail they will have to continue transporting it by trains, barges and tanker trucks. Cellulosic ethanol is one of those ideas that sounds great in theory but doesn't pan out.

Posted by: Benny | Aug 7, 2008 10:18:31 PM

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