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Is Ethanol Worth the Energy?

07/18/2005 9:30 AM

Researchers at Cornell University and the University of California at Berkley claim that it takes 29 percent more fossil energy to turn corn into ethanol than the amount of fuel the process produces. "Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation's energy security, its agriculture, the economy, or the environment," according to the study by Cornell's David Pimentel and Berkeley's Tad Patzek. They conclude the country would be better off investing in solar, wind and hydrogen energy. Ethanol producers dispute the findings, saying that the data is outdated and doesn't take into account profits that offset costs.

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The Feature Creep

Join Date: Feb 2005
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#1

Solar

07/18/2005 1:31 PM

Solar has great potential, but unless people switch to fuel cells with a solar recharger I doubt it will help our fuel consumption problem.

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#2

Early phases

07/18/2005 3:15 PM

We talked about this issue a few weeks back. My take on that after reading the report was that "this is such an unfortunate waste." I've thought about it a bit since then and realized I may have jumped the gun. As with most technologies, this one has some aging to do. Probably the best thing for biodiesel is for someone to say "it must be improved" now that it is being adopted as a standard in some states. Once the problem is diagnosed, a cure can be found.

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Power-User

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#3

Ethanol Production

07/19/2005 8:20 AM

Why isn't ethanol used to run the process?

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The Feature Creep

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#4
In reply to #3

Re:Ethanol Production

07/19/2005 9:15 AM

The machine that made the Ethanol would consume 1.3 gallons for every 1 gallon produced. (guesstimating the numbers)

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Power-User

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#5
In reply to #4

Re:Ethanol Production

07/19/2005 9:27 AM

Why do we even make it then?

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The Feature Creep

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#6
In reply to #5

Re:Ethanol Production

07/19/2005 9:36 AM

We make it in the hopes that we can learn to make it better, faster and cheaper. Also it is a way of turning non-petroleum products into something a petroleum substitute. You can produce the energy necessary to produce Ethanol from nuclear or hydroelectric power plants. It's a way of getting away from gasoline and diesel at the cost of using more Joules of energy to do it.

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#7
In reply to #5

Re:Ethanol Production

07/19/2005 9:51 AM

The original point of "gasahol" in the 1970s had less to do with fuel efficiency than it did with reducing dependence on expensive and limited fossil fuels. By replacing 2% (in US) of each gallon of fossil fuel with renewable plant alcohols fossil fuel usage could be stretched out. Alcohol at the time was cheaper than gas and helped to use excess farm produce thereby alleviating some of the finacial strain on farmers (by having excess stock purchased and helping to dry up market gluts). I'm not sure if anyone did sustainability studies at the time, but again efficiency was not the focus.

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Power-User

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#8
In reply to #7

Re:Ethanol Production

07/19/2005 10:11 AM

If you are creating a product that is used as an energy source and you use more enegy creating it than the product contains, you are depleting fixed natural resources at a faster rate than if you didn't make the stuff. Your stated stretching out fossil fuels theory doesn't hold. A reverse effect than intended; production should be stopped immediately.

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#9
In reply to #8

Re:Ethanol Production

07/19/2005 10:22 AM

Again, it wasn't about efficiency - it was about (and remember this was the 1970s with fuel lines strecthing for blocks):
1) Shifting some of the burden from expensive and politically tenuous fossil fuels.
2) Throwing a bone to farmers (and politicians of farming states) by helping them reduce excess stock, get paid for the stock and drive up prices on the remaining stock by eliminating the glut (in theory, at least).

Keep in mind that "gasahol" largely disappeared in the 1980s once the "Energy Crisis" abated. It was never about sustainability or efficiency.

As for now, the question is efficiency and in that case it seems to fail. But remember we're only talking about two studies here. Also, a number of states have adopted biodiesel directives, so the technology will go forward. It can't just be dropped. Now that we're aware of the efficiency issues, steps can be taken to alleviate them. That's what engineering is all about!

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The Engineer
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#10

Re: Is Ethanol Worth the Energy?

10/24/2006 4:41 PM

I'm afraid that the second we start to adopt Ethanol fuel in any meaningful way, the price of the underlying grain or plant (corn, sugarcane, etc.) will skyrocket, causing the cost of Ethanol to skyrocket as well. The amount of energy consumed in the world is huge and growing exponentially. Even if Ethanol is Energy Positive, it still relies on vast amounts of land to grow the grain / sugar it is made from. This land is currently used for growing food we consume or export to less fortunate countries. Imagine the food shortages because GE bought up all the land in the US to make ethanol, or imagine paying ten dollars for a loaf of bread because using land to grow food is less profitable than using land to grow ethanol.

I think fusion and solar power is much cheaper and probably a much better alternative.

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