[Plant-education] Re: bioethanol

Perry, James via plant-ed%40net.bio.net (by james.perry At uwc.edu)
Sun Jan 7 22:31:41 EST 2007

I'm sure you have all by now seen the concern that utilizing corn for
ethanol production will drive up food prices and perhaps even lead to
social and political discord in third world nations. I have another
concern -- that a great deal of land now in the Conservation Reserve
Program will be taken out and put into corn production. CRP has been a
real boon to wildlife in mid-America.

My father-in-law is a retired beef and grain farmer in Indiana. The
family is fortunate because they own all their land (~700 acres) and do
not buy new tractors that cost zillions of dollars. But they and their
neighbors sure were not getting rich on corn prices of the past. I have
to be happy for the farmers who might be able to make a reasonable
living for a change. I had a chance 30 years ago to become a farmer.
Instead I did a Ph.D. While I am not financially wealthy, I believe I
made the best choice. 

Closer to home, I understand GM has issued a challenge to Johnson
Controls in SE Wisconsin to come up with a new lithium-ion battery that
will allow for cars to be plugged in and actually driven on the battery
much more than the current generation hybrids.

Interestingly, my 2005 Prius cannot E85!

James W. Perry, Ph.D.
Campus Executive Officer and Dean
University of Wisconsin- Fox Valley
1478 Midway Road
Menasha, WI 54952
(920) 832-2610 (Voice)
(920) 832-2674 (Fax)

-----Original Message-----
From: plant-ed-bounces At oat.bio.indiana.edu
[mailto:plant-ed-bounces At oat.bio.indiana.edu] On Behalf Of Robinson, Dr.
Sent: Sunday, January 07, 2007 11:47 AM
To: David R. Hershey; bionet-plants-education At magpie.bio.indiana.edu
Subject: RE: [Plant-education] Re: bioethanol

Hi David:  

My point was that the space program will pay off at SOME point in the
distant future....I was just joking about Tang, really. 

Seems like the same argument could be made against the other energy
alternatives as well (solar, wind, etc.).  Don't you think that they
might ALL play a role in meeting our future energy needs (including
bioethanol)?  There might not be a "magic bullet" in terms of alternate
fuels.....isn't it too early to predict which ones we should eliminate?

And as a graduate of an agriculture school, I can tell you that I wasn't
reminescing about the animal-driven agriculture or manual labor of the
Depression Era.....surely there is some middle-ground between that and
input-rich agriculture!  

In fact, I would say that most farmers have already shifted to more
sustainable practices, compared to how things were done 40 years ago
(due to economics, legislation like the Clean Water Act, etc.).

Dave Robinson
Biology Department
Bellarmine University
2001 Newburg Road
Louisville, KY  40205


-----Original Message-----
From: plant-ed-bounces At oat.bio.indiana.edu
[mailto:plant-ed-bounces At oat.bio.indiana.edu] On Behalf Of David R.
Sent: Saturday, January 06, 2007 7:13 PM
To: bionet-plants-education At magpie.bio.indiana.edu
Subject: [Plant-education] Re: bioethanol

Bioethanol could be produced without any fossil fuel energy.
Moonshiners used to do it in early America. However, few, if any,
farmers would be willing to go back to using only animal-driven farm
machinery and manual labor to grow and harvest crops.

Although an exciting time, I believe that we are also in a disappointing
time for U.S. federal energy policy. There are many innovative ideas out
there but the federal government is not embracing most of them. Huge
amounts of tax dollars are being wasted on bioethanol that could be
better spent on newer, more efficient technologies. Pimentel and Patzek
(2005) identified the danger of inaccurate reports on the energy
efficiency of bioethanol production, i.e. "this misleads U.S. policy
makers and the public." Pimentel and Patzek (2006) also mentioned
environmental and ethical problems with corn bioethanol.

Bioethanol is a politically attractive boondoogle and an old technology
to fuel gas-guzzling SUVs. Except use of bioethanol as a fuel additive,
it is illogical to use more than one energy unit of fossil fuel to
produce one energy unit of bioethanol. It would be cheaper and more
efficient to just use the fossil fuel directly.

If the U.S. had a sensible energy policy, we would be widely embracing a
variety of more efficient technologies such as wind power, solar power,
energy conservation, hybrid cars, electric cars and lightweight
Hypercars. The aim of Hypercars is to get 3 to 5 times the fuel economy
of current cars. One example of how bioethanol may slow development of
better technologies was Ford's decision in June, 2006 to abandon their
hybrid car program to concentrate on alternative fuel, especially E85,

The holy grail of bioethanol is cellulosic ethanol, which could use
virtually any plant biomass. It is not clear if cellulosic ethanol will
ever be economically viable. Pimentel and Patzek (2005) concluded that
corn bioethanol required 29% more fossil fuel energy than in the ethanol
produced, bioethanol from switchgrass and wood required 50% and 57% more
fossil fuel energy, respectively. Research on cellulosic ethanol should
be continued, but we cannot yet count on cellulosic ethanol as an
important part of our liquid fuel supply. Even the most optimistic
predictions indicate that bioethanol production could only partly meet
the world's transportation fuel needs. The entire U.S. corn crop
converted to bioethanol would replace just 6% of our petroleum use
(Pimentel and Patzek 2006)

Even the overly-optimistic calculations of Michaal Wang from the Argonne
National Laboratory indicate that it takes 0.74 energy units from fossil
fuel to produce one energy unit of ethanol from corn. That is not an
efficient conversion and still relies very heavily on fossil fuels.

It is a popular myth that the powdered beverage mix, Tang, was a product
of the U.S. space program. Tang was first marketed in 1957 by General
Foods and was not used on a space flight until the 1965 Gemini
4 mission.

I'm not sure that the U.S. space program is a good example of a
government investment that made "economic sense" considering the tens of
billions of tax dollars spent. Many of the accomplishments of the U.S.
space program are intangibles such as national pride, more knowledge
about space, launching a 77 year old former senator into space to set
the record for the oldest man in space, museum exhibits and educational
programs that also promote NASA, such as the NASA Tomato Seeds in Space

David R. Hershey


Hypercar(r) Chronology

Pimentel, D. and Patzek, T.W. 2006. Green Plants, Fossil Fuels, and Now
Biofuels. BioScience 56: 875.

Pimentel, D. and Patzek, T.W. 2005. Ethanol Production Using Corn,
Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower.
Natural Resources Research 14: 65-76.

Argonne National Laboratory Ethanol Study

Tang by Kraft Foods

Robinson, Dr. David wrote:
> But doesn't the current period we are in now (where bioethanol is made

> from corn and other intensively-farmed crops) just a transitional
> Once the technology is improved, and the infrastructure is better 
> established, and the demand for ethanol increases, isn't it feasible 
> that other sources for synthesizing ethanol could start to be
> These other sources might include:  yard trash, garbage, recycled 
> food, biomass from weedy fields, manure, restaurant waste, sawdust 
> from lumber mills, etc.
> It makes sense that using carbon energy generated in contemporary 
> times has to better in the long run than harvesting fossil fuels that 
> were generated millions of years ago....not only in terms of carbon 
> dioxide in the atmosphere, but in terms of petroleum supply/demand.
> And who says farmers have to grow corn in such a petroleum-rich 
> fashion, anyway?  If agriculture used less chemical fertilizer and 
> used methods like crop rotation, green manure, animal manure, and 
> other so-called sustainable farming techniques wouldn't David 
> Pimental's calculations have to be redone?  Maybe that's what we 
> should be pushing for...making agriculture less petroleum-dependent, 
> rather than attacking the use of corn for bioethanol production.
> And isn't it the "job" of government to subsidize ideas like this when

> they don't make economic sense in the beginning???  Aren't we just in 
> the earliest stages of implementaion? Eventually demand for bioethanol

> will pick up, prices will increase, the technology will get better, 
> and the alternatives (fossil fuel) will become less attractive and 
> less available.  Then the government can stop subsidizing the biofuel 
> industry, and it can take-off by itself.
> For instance, think of all the money invested in the U.S. space 
> program back in the 1960s...it didn't really make economic sense then 
> (I do like to drink Tang though....ha).  But eventually it did pay 
> off....even more in the future than now.
> So we don't have to nix the idea from the beginning, just because its 
> not totally economically logical at this very moment....I think this 
> is a very exciting time.
> P.S.  I don't work for agri-industry!
> Dave Robinson, Chair
> Biology Department
> Bellarmine University
> 2001 Newburg Road
> Louisville, KY  40205
> 502-452-8197
> -----Original Message-----
> From: plant-ed-bounces At oat.bio.indiana.edu
> [mailto:plant-ed-bounces At oat.bio.indiana.edu] On Behalf Of David R.
> Hershey
> Sent: Saturday, January 06, 2007 12:08 AM
> To: bionet-plants-education At magpie.bio.indiana.edu
> Subject: [Plant-education] Re: bioethanol
> Tad Patzek of the University of California, Berkeley, and David 
> Pimental of Cornell University have published detailed analyses that 
> indicate that bioethanol production requires more energy as fossil 
> fuel than present in the bioethanol.
> The National Corn Growers Association has analyses from consultants 
> and federal government scientists that show a net gain in energy for 
> corn bioethanol production.
> I find Patzek and Pimental's analyses much more believable. If corn 
> ethanol production yielded more energy than it required, the corn 
> ethanol industry would be able to run all their fertilizer and 
> pesticide factories, farm machinery and ethanol production facilties 
> on bioethanol rather than fossil fuels and still have a net production

> of ethanol. I have never heard this even being attempted on a pilot
project basis.
> Large U.S. government subsidies for the corn bioethanol industry are 
> attractive politically for several reasons. They create jobs in farm 
> states. They make it appear that the government is doing something to 
> counter global warming. They make it appear that the government is 
> working to reduce dependence on foreign oil.
> References
> Patzek, T.W. 2006. Thermodynamics of the corn-ethanol biofuel cycle.
> updated web version of Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences 23: 519-567 
> (2004).
> http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/patzek/CRPS416-Patzek-Web.pdf
> National Corn Growers Association. The Truth About Ethanol - 
> Addressing the Myths of the Pimentel/Patzek Study 
> http://www.ncga.com/ethanol/debunking/
> Google search for ethanol boondoogle
> http://www.google.com/search?hl=en&lr=&q=ethanol+boondoggle&btnG=Searc
> h
> David Alan Walker wrote:
> > Agricultural food production in the UK is reckoned to be about the 
> > most efficient (yields per acre) in the 'Western World'. Yet, if all

> > of the sums are done, it turns out that there is no net energy gain.
> > It is, in fact, "a very inefficient way of turning oil in to 
> > potatoes". Where does this leave bioethanol production from
> conventional and unconventional crops?
> >
> > Clearly many of the inputs are about the same but then there is the 
> > additional, inescapable energy cost of distillation. O.K., 
> > distillation processes are more energy efficient than they were a 
> > few decades ago but, in the end, there is no way round the laws of 
> > physics. Does any one have itemised details of the energy inputs
> involved ?
> >
> >
> > Many thanks,
> >
> > David
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