On the other end of the spectrum from the "all we have to do is pull hydrogen out of the water with wind generators and solar stills and use it in our automobiles" crowd is a group of people equally ignorant: the naysayers. There are always people who will tell you that, "it can’t be done" or "it isn’t practical."
David Pimentel, a professor of ecology and agricultural science at Cornell University, is one of these characters. Professor Pimentel has published a report that says producing ethanol is more trouble than it’s worth: 129,600 British thermal units of energy are required to produce one gallon of ethanol, but a gallon will only give you 76,000 Btus of fuel energy. In other words, producing ethanol results in a net loss of energy. The report can be found in the newsletter of the M. King Hubbert Center for Petroleum Supply Studies #98/2. Notice he isn’t "shilling" for the Center for Ethanol Research.
There are a couple of problems with this line of reasoning.
The first is that ethanol isn’t produced by using other ethanol. In the big distilleries, it’s produced by using natural gas as a heat source. On the farm, it’s produced by burning wood, corncobs, corn stover, and the like. You can’t take a corncob, convert it to BTUs, and run it in your car (unless your car has a steam engine set up with a solid fuel boiler). When a college professor makes a statement this asinine, you have to wonder if he is aware of what hillbillies use corncobs for. Does his Ph.D. stand for "piled higher and deeper"?
Have you ever met or even heard of someone making ethanol who really cared how many BTUs to the twig he was getting as he shoved them into the furnace? It takes heat to convert corn to alcohol. That heat can come from any burning solid.
The second problem this line of reasoning creates is that it ignores the First Law of Thermodynamics. That law is expressed as, Energy = Heat & Work. For example, 100,000 BTUs of energy, if used in an engine that is 25% efficient, will result in 25,000 BTUs of energy being used to do work and 75,000 BTUs escaping as heat.
Professor Pimentel Pinkhands (all theory, no practical experience, no dirt or grease under his fingernails) overlooks the energy expended in manufacturing the tools and equipment necessary for oil production, let alone the energy expended in exploration, drilling, transportation, refining, distribution, and the like.
We are not even counting the cost of keeping soldiers all over the world in order to insure a steady supply.
The next question is how practical is it to convert from an oil-based economy running on gasoline and diesel fuel to one running on ethanol?
Let’s start with the numbers.
In the year 2000 Americans consumed 125,720,000,000 gallons of gasoline and 36,979,200,000 gallons of diesel fuel. Rounding off the figures for 2002, gasoline consumption was 131 billion gallons and diesel fuel consumption was 39 billion gallons. Given the current population, that’s slightly less than 1.5 gallons per person per day for gasoline.
Ethanol production at it’s highest ever was 2 billion gallons in 2002. That’s roughly 7 gallons per year per person. How do we go from 7 gallons per year to 1.5 gallon per day per person?
In the year 2000 there were 9,915,051,000 bushels of corn produced in the United States. Rounding off the production figures, 7 billion went to feed livestock. The remaining 3 billion went for other uses including exports. Assuming we could convert 10 billion bushels of corn to ethanol at the standard rate of 2.5 gallons per bushel, that would be 25 billion gallons of ethanol annually. That’s only 89 gallons of motor fuel annually per person, or one-fourth gallon per person per day.
Our livestock wouldn’t starve with this program. After you distill the alcohol from the corn, you wind up with distillers dried grains (DDG). Essentially, it is the starch portion (about 70%) of the corn kernel that is converted into ethanol. All the remaining nutrients in corn, such as the protein, fat, minerals, and vitamins are concentrated and come in the form of distillers grains, which can be fed to livestock wet or dry. Sometimes the liquid that is separated from the mash is partially dehydrated into a syrup and added back into the distillers grains which creates a product called distillers dried grains with soluble (DDGS). A bushel of corn, which weighs 56 pounds, will produce 17 pounds of DDG and 2.5 gallons of ethanol.
For cattle, you simply grind up corncobs and slop the DDG over them.
The question is, how do we go from enough corn production to increase the alcohol availability six times, from 10 billion bushels of corn a year to 60 billion bushels a year, in order to insure enough ethanol to meet our current domestic fuel needs?
The first, and most obvious way, is to increase corn production. As of the year 2,000 there were 2,172,289 farms in the United States, with a combined acreage of 943,090,000 acres. As long ago as 1890 corn yield was 40 bushels an acre. Today, the yield varies between 100 and 150 bushels.
Many farms outdo the average yield. In 2002 the winner of the National Corn Yield Contest was Francis Childs of Manchester, Iowa who set a new record of 442.14 bushels per acre. The previous record was from Childs in 2001 with a yield of 408.2 bushels per acre. Others in the competition had yields in the range of 200-300 bushels per acre.
Rounding off the farm acreage to 900 million, let’s see what we get. If all this acreage were in corn, we would have 90 billion bushels of corn, which could be converted to 225 billion gallons of alcohol fuel, as compared with the 125 billion gallons of gasoline we use now.
That’s about 100 billion gallons of ethanol we don’t really need. However, not all American farmland is suitable for corn production. It would only take two-thirds of the presently existing farmland.
Even if we couldn’t use existing farmland, we could still convert to 100% ethanol use. There are a couple of problems we would have to overcome first.
First, farming in this day and age is not always a profitable business. Oil production, by contrast is. Foreign imports and controlled markets drive the price down.
Second, there are a lot fewer farms now than we once had. When the Republic was founded prior to 1800, of the 3 million people in the United States, 90% of them were subsistence farmers. In 1900 there were 76,212,168 people in the United States (U.S. Census) but only 5, 610,983 farms. By the year 2000, we had over 280 million people but only 2,172,280 farms. In the period 1991 to 2001 farm acreage has declined from 981,736,000 to 941,210,000 acres, or 4 %. At this rate, in another 100 years, there will be no farm acreage left in the United States.
First, forget about the Government doing anything. If the Government gave corn-growing alcohol producing farmers the same subsidies ("corporate welfare") it gives the oil companies, corn production would expand six-fold in a year. Reform has to come from the bottom up, not the top down. For example, one man I talked to recently drives 150 miles to pick up a 55-gallon drum of alcohol that costs him $2.00 a gallon to run in his Volkswagen Bus and his Ford Explorer. The reason? He wants to do his part to cut down pollution.
Enough people like him would definitely lessen pollution. You’ve heard of oil spills. Have you ever heard of an ethanol spill?
Second, corn isn’t the only farm product you can make fuel from. Every soybean bushel will yield a gallon of diesel fuel. It’s actually easier to make than ethanol. The leftovers are a high-quality cattle feed.
Any fruit can be turned into ethanol. It’s easier than corn.
Supposedly, we have a manure glut from cattle, hogs, chickens, and turkeys. For 1997, the "glut" was 1.36 billion tons.
However, according to a Report On Pyrolysis, Bureau of Mines 7560 (1971) done in Philadelphia, with a tabletop model, 2,000 pounds of cow manure can be turned into 800 pounds of crude oil (you have to add carbon monoxide or hydrogen gas) under high temperatures and pressure in 30 minutes.
That is, we have the expertise, we have the land, we have the people, and we have the raw materials necessary to get off petroleum dependence. What we do not seem to have is the energy to get off our collective butts and get the job done.
Ironically, in 1962 a man named Donald Despain authored a book titled "The One and Only Solution to the Farm Problem," describing how allowing farmers a piece of the fuel production pie would keep our farmers solvent. That problem has now become everyone’s problem, not just the farmers.
How difficult and time-consuming would this be?
Let me use one example. Let’s say we had to replace one-third of our domestic gasoline consumption with alcohol as quickly as possible.
The time for a simple farmer to set up 100 55-gallon drums to produce 250 gallons of alcohol with a pipe full of rocks as a fractionating column to produce 190 proof (95%) alcohol is one day.
The time to ferment is three days.
The time to distill is one day.
That is, we could drop our dependence on gasoline by one-third in one week. In three years, we could end our dependence on petroleum forever.
Japanese Zero: Fueled on Alcohol
Dual-fuel unit installed in a 1975 Chevy Suburban
Briggs & Stratton engine on a dynamometer at Berea College
American Coalition for Ethanol
Central Minnesota Ethanol Co-op
Ethanol: Journey to Forever
Iowa Corn Growers Association - Ethanol
Montana Ethanol Producers and Consumers
National Corn Growers Association - Ethanol
National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition
The Online Distillery Network
Alternative Energy for the 21st Century
Index to Mike Brown's Alternative Energy
This page was updated on 5 November 2011