Monday, December 22, 2008
The DOE plans to award 5 to 12 institutions/companies with the money to explore these possibilities, which could be the final push necessary to move the research in the industry beyond the lab and into the commercial realm. Several problems stand in the way, however, including how to properly release the energy held in the cellulosic biomass to produce the biofuel, and how to form the desired biofuel once this has occurred. It appears, however, that the government on the federal level is already taking the initiative to move some of these projects forward.
Tuesday, August 26, 2008
I see the debate now as shifting as most accept that wind energy can and should be a part of our future power generation needs. Now people want to know how we make the technology small, more powerful, and more responsive to human needs. Groups working at NREL, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, in Colorado are working towards making windmills much smaller but still capable of producing electricity comparable to their larger cousins -- this could allow 'back-yard' wind generation to occur in residential neighborhoods. But perhaps the greatest obstacle to overcome for wind, and the reason that I am still not totally sold on the whole idea, is the problem of storage.
Since electricity is impossible to store in quantifies large enough to sustain a city, many people balked at New York's Mayor Bloomberg's announcement that the city should install windmills all over -- on buildings, bridges, and off the coasts. But how was New York going to be able to power itself during hot, stagnant days when no wind is available? This problem would necessitate New York to build an equal electrical capacity in coal or nuclear power plants no matter how many windmills were put up in order to provide for the times when wind power would not keep up.
While the problem is a long way from being solved, a New Jersey company has an interesting solution -- store the power as compressed air during the night or during high-wind periods so that the stored energy could be used at other times. The idea is interesting but implementation will be hard to come about since the group working on the project estimate that it would take an underground container full of compressed air the size of New York's Giant's Stadium in order to provide 300megawatts of power -- only enough to power a large hospital for 300 hours. Still, I like the idea and that innovations are being considered. After this companies announcement, however, wind energy proponents pointed out that a DOE report indicated that 20% of our power could come from wind by 2030 without the need for electrical storage.... I guess we will just have to wait and see.
For the original article, go to:
Monday, August 25, 2008
For more information go to:
Friday, August 8, 2008
The entire article above leads into the importance of the next piece of news since corn-based ethanol is emerging as the bridge to a whole new generation of biofuels. A group of researchers in China have developed a way to convert sunflower shells (biomass) into liquid petroleum. Although the fuel has several contaminates that make it impossible to go directly into fueling a car engine, the researchers are working hard in developing the methods needed to "upgrade" the fuel. For those of you familiar with Fischer-Tropsch, this method is very similar in converting biomass into liquid alkanes. However, it effectively eliminates many of the organic acids that resulted in corrosion and decay of the fuel when stored over time. The excitement about this new method is that while it may not be a simple way to convert biomass directly into a liquid transportation fuel, it can be built in small scales, which would allow it to be taken to a farm of other location and used to convert the low energy-dense biomass into a higher density liquid. This liquid could then be transported to the large "biofuel-refinery" where the fuel is converted chemically or biologically into the appropriate fuel (ethanol, butanol, gasoline...). For this reason, this new method is very exciting and we will probably hear more from this group in the future.
For more complete details on the "deoxy-liquefaction" technique, go to
Monday, August 4, 2008
Go to the website shown above for more information about the crop varieties listed above.
Wednesday, July 30, 2008
With the spike earlier this summer in corn prices, ethanol plants struggled to even make a penny on a gallon of ethanol sold, even with oil prices as high as they were. Now that corn has retreated and oil has remained comparatively high, ethanol plants have begun to breath a small sigh of relief. However, they are no where near out of the woods yet. Ethanol plants face dangers from possible rises in grain prices to the very volatile natural gas market that is most commonly used to power the large heaters used in an ethanol plant to boil off the ethanol from the water.
Two ethanol plants are leading the way in establishing a more sustainable process towards ethanol production. The first is an ethanol plant in Johnson County, Missouri that is teaming up with a local landfill to help make its process more efficient. Mid-Missouri Energy's ethanol plant will team up with the landfill to supply enough natural gas to offset 90% of the natural gas needed to power the plant. This is an amazing amount of renewable energy that, if calculated specifically for this ethanol plant, would make ethanol's benefit in GHG-emission reductions much greater than the 16% reductions seen in conventional plants. This is not only good because of the decrease in green-house gas emissions, but one of the biggest expenses for an ethanol plant is the energy needed to drive its distillation, (which can amount to 60% of the entire plant's energy requirements). So by establishing a reliable, cheaper source of natural gas, the ethanol plant, which is owned by a local farming cooperative, should become much more competitive in its industry.
The second ethanol plant to mention is located in Superior, Iowa. The local ethanol plant has won approval to install three wind turbines on site to generate electric power for the plant. This will not speak to the power needed to drive the distillation process but it should go a long way in providing renewable power to the ethanol plant at a cheaper cost as well as driving down some of the GHG emissions.
Both of these two plants are using unique ideas in an effort to improve the production of ethanol. From an innovative standpoint as well as a practical financial standpoint these improvements make sense if ethanol plants are to move forward in producing an environmentally friendly product at a price that competes for consumers.
Sources for the information above can be found at:
Monday, July 28, 2008
Wednesday, July 23, 2008
Argonne National Laboratories has announced plans to work diligently to create an engine that would be able to burn efficiently using any blend of gasoline, ethanol, or butanol, and do it in a way that optimizes mpg's and reduces emissions. To do this Argonne Labs proposes an improved sensor inside the fuel cylinder that will be able to monitor the oxygen-contents of the fuel and time the injection properly to optimizes the burning of the fuel in the engine. Remember, ethanol and butanol are different than gasoline in that they contain an OH (oxygen and hydrogen) group at one end of the molecule. The extra oxygen is what provides a better burn in ethanol and butanol and sustains higher octane ratings for the fuel. However, in conventional engines made today that are not flex-fuel, the computer can not distinguish the extra oxygen in the fuel and ends up injecting too much ethanol into the cylinder, resulting in fuel waste and lower miles-per-gallon.
The beauty of Argonne's idea is that if an engine such as this could be created in the near future, it could allow all new cars to be produced in what would essentially be a "flex-fuel" category but allow for all fuels to function equally well. Since such a technology would be cheap to implement, it could potentially go a long way in providing an alternative solution to conventional gasoline to people that might not be otherwise able to participate in this revolution.
Friday, June 27, 2008
For original article, go to:
Thursday, June 19, 2008
Thursday, June 12, 2008
Tuesday, June 3, 2008
The wet weather comes in a year when corn supplies may already be tight and the USDA estimates that farmers will plant more soybeans and less corn this year. The bottom line is that the more days that farmers are prevented from getting the crop started, the lower the potential yields become. Even though perennial crop investor and adviser service DTN has tried to dampen concern by saying that much of the news has already been priced into the cost of nearly $6.00 per bushel corn, it looks as though things might only get worse before getting better. With more wet weather in the 7 day forecast for central Iowa, it could be tough to match the corn output that was seen last year in a particularly tight season.
Hopefully we can get a more balanced weather pattern in the next week or two.
Thursday, May 29, 2008
Tuesday, May 27, 2008
The development allows Coskata and GM to move forward in their goals to get a pilot plant up and running in Pennsylvania by the start of next year and a 50million gallon per year ethanol plant running by 2011. Coskata believes that by using multiple gasifiers, they will be able to process between 1,500 and 3,000 tons of biomass per day. Their business plan also estimates that by using and reinvesting these profits, Coskata will be able to expand to establish 20 biorefineries per year by 2015, which would allow for the widescale production of ethanol from cellulosic wastes and allow up to 35% of gasoline fuel demand to be offset by ethanol.
This is all good news but highly hypothetical, of course. Although I'm sure they are aware of the difficulties, Coskata mentions the goal of engineering their bacteria to produce bio-butanol, a fuel that would have an energy density much closer to that of gasoline. However, butanol is highly toxic to bacteria, even at relatively low levels, so it remains to be seen whether this idea will pan out or not.
Friday, May 23, 2008
My point is that I firmly believe that if we needed to we could drill in the ANWR without harming any of the habitats or animals. I think a better argument against drilling there is that it probably won't affect our situation greatly and would be depleting a resource that, if anything, the United States should try to retain in terms of domestic proved oil reserves. Just my two cents on a pretty complex and contentious issue.
For more on the original study:
Thursday, May 22, 2008
Before jumping for joy in the hopes that this is a solution to our energy problems in the near term, here are a few things to pour cold water over your head. First off, even though they were able to prove that the process works, the next step is to generate these fuels on "a few gallon level." (Their words). A few gallons is hardly enough to make a splash in today's society. Also, the process requires high-heat and it remains to be seen whether this process is environmentally or commercially competitive, even at these high prices. The bottom line is that it is a start and it is refreshing to see that several different avenues to the same goal are being investigated. For what it is worth, I believe strongly in biological catalysts holding the key to converting renewables into gasoline substitutes. This is because even though chemical catalysts are easier to produce and mold to the researcher's exact specifications, they tend to cost much more and foul much more easily than a biological method.
If you want to read more about the process, here is a link:
Monday, May 19, 2008
This by itself is disturbing but not wrong given that special interest groups lobby Congress for all sorts of reasons, including groups linked to ethanol. The problem is when these groups use false or misleading data to try and sway public opinion. Scott Openshaw was interviewed for the original story in the Des Moines Register. Openshaw is a representative for the Grocery Manufacturers and admitted that even though food price increases aren't wholly related to ethanol, it is the only part of the equation that Congress can do anything about.
This is a problem because they are using unfounded facts to scare the public into believing that corn can only go to EITHER food or fuel and not both. Interestingly, Edward Lazear, the White House's chief economic adviser told a Senate committee last week that even though world food prices have increased 43% in one year, the increase in cost due to ethanol only accounts for 3%. Given all of ethanol's other benefits, including keeping more American dollars here in the US and improving the income generated for the farm economy, I would say that special interest groups such as the Grocery Manufacturers Association and other groups that would remain in the dark to sway public opinion should be exposed for the liars that they are.
I'm just glad that we are finally starting to see public officials point out that the recent move against ethanol isn't coincidence at all.
For the original DM Register article, follow the link below:
Sunday, May 11, 2008
To calculate how much less ethanol blends should be, we must consider the energy density. This is the amount of energy in the fuel molecules that can be converted into mechanical energy for the car.
Energy density of Ethanol = 24.8MJ/L
Energy density of Gasoline = 34.3MJ/L
This comes out to approximately 28% decrease in energy for ethanol over gasoline. Once this value is known, then the next step is to figure out how much blend is going into the tank. For example, if only 10% of the fuel is ethanol, then only 10% is susceptible to the 28% decrease. In other words, 10% of 28 is 2.8%, which is the amount of mileage decrease you would see in a car filled with E10. The same goes for E85 blends, where you would take 85% times 28 and find that the decrease is 23.8% over filling your tank with 100% gasoline. I then took these values and multiplied the original price of regular unleaded by these percentages to find the amount of money to subtract off the original price of gasoline to get the amount that the ethanol blend should be sold for.
Here's an example:
-If regular unleaded costs $3.70 per gallon and you want to fill up with 10% ethanol, you would:
1) Take 28% times 10% to find that the decrease in mileage is 2.8% per gallon.
2) 2.8% times $3.70 per gallon gives us .1036. (So 10.36 cents per gallon should be taken off the original price).
3) Finally, subtract $3.70 by 10.36 cents to get $3.59 per gallon should be the price of E10.
I hope this helps those to figure out on their own whether ethanol blends are worth their money. If they are not, please write to the gas station owners or your local legislature to make sure that we aren't being taken advantage of by blenders who want to earn more money by decreasing the margin between regular gasoline and ethanol blends.
A final note is that several studies from the University of Minnesota and South Dakota State University made preliminary findings that point out the possibility that ethanol might not cause the full dip in mileage that would be dictated by its lower energy density. If you want to read my blog post on this, copy and paste the following link:
However, this is a debate that is still ongoing and so I didn't include any of their findings that might alter the mpg, as you will see in my next post on how prices for E10 and E85 were calculated.
Saturday, May 10, 2008
With crude oil prices ridiculously high, I have heard more than one oil analyst state that it is not speculation that is driving the market, but rather the market is working correctly to force new innovations in the United States. While I doubt this is fully the case and I question the morality of crippling people's lives just to move us beyond fossil fuels more quickly, I know for a fact that $125 per barrel oil is having an effect on research. Everyone is looking for a solution that moves beyond corn as a primary feedstock and a solution that will produce higher energy (so called 'next generation') fuels that act more like gasoline.
Swift Enterprises, in conjunction with engineers at Purdue University, has announced that they have developed a method to generate the high octane (100 octane rated) diesel fuel that propeller planes use. They go on to assert that their method can use any biomass feedstock so they are not limited to corn and they say their method costs as little as $1 per gallon to make. While this is a great announcement and couldn't come sooner for an airline industry that is going into debt daily because of high fuel prices, there may be some problems. The first is that the method doesn't produce jet fuel used in commercial airlines. The second is that synthetic processes to make such things as car gasoline are already known. The problem with these processes is that they use chemical catalysts (which are materials that cause a chemical reaction to occur). These catalysts are often "poisoned" by contaminants in the biomass material, such as other metals or other organic materials. Because of this, even though the process is possible, it is not available on a large scale because it is simply too difficult to replace the expensive catalysts every time.
Although Swift isn't releasing much information yet for patent concerns, it looks like they've taken a bold first step. Hopefully they can continue to develop their method to gain more efficiency and reliability. If so, I guarantee we hear more about this company in the future.
For more information on Swift Enterprises:
Friday, April 25, 2008
Although I don't think that it would be healthy to the United States to damage the extensive investment in the ethanol industry by totally throwing out the blenders credit, this is a very good step if it becomes law in the farm bill. The blenders tax credit mainly benefits the blenders who are rarely ethanol producers. It works well because it encourages blenders to use ethanol over gasoline, but reducing it by 6 cents per gallon probably won't diminish ethanol blending. Also, the government is taking the right steps in adjusting towards the future of ethanol, which is cellulosic.
Finally, I think it will be interesting to watch the outcome if this reduction in the blenders credit becomes law. The Bush administration has hinted at their willingness in recent months to lower the import tariff on ethanol designed to prevent overseas ethanol producers such as Brazil from enjoying the taxpayer funded subsidies such as the blenders credit. However, if the blenders credit is reduced, these tariffs could be reduced from the 53 cents per gallon currently seen to say, 48 cents per gallon. This would make Brazillian ethanol more attractive towards importing without seriously harming the domestic production and would possible take the pressure off the corn crop in the short term.
For more details or updates, check out the Des Moines Register at:
Some interesting stats on Coskata's production process as outlined in studies by Argonne National Laboratories. First is that the process will reduce GHG emissions by 84% compared to gasoline (corn-based ethanol reduces GHG emissions by 16%). Also, the ethanol can be produced in an efficient manner so that 7.7 energy units exist per energy unit of input (corn ethanol has a ratio of 1.6). And finally, the process uses less than a gallon of water to produce a gallon of ethanol as compared to corn ethanol where the process requires 3 gallons of water for every gallon of ethanol produced.
Although the main 50 million gallon per year ethanol plant is not scheduled for production until 2011, this is a major step in bring cellulosic ethanol into the mainstream and the numbers are encouraging that the process works.
Tuesday, April 22, 2008
Thankfully, a company out of Stolkholm Sweden named Scania, has already made 14 hybrid-electric city buses. I know that this isn't the answer that I was looking for in personal car production but it is a good step. These buses are already running and the data indicates the the combination of the two technologies has reduced GHG emissions in the buses by 90%!! And the buses are able to extend their fuel economy by 25%. Incredible. Hopefully Scania's lead will help push automakers here in the US to start thinking about the big picture and not just about ethanol versus hybrid versus hydrogen versus fuel cell -- that kind of thinking will get us nowhere.
If any of you are interested in this combination of technologies, I encourage you to write a quick e-mail to your car-maker. I did and the more they hear from us the less they will be able to ignore the fact that we want a combination of solutions capable of solving all of the issues.
For more info. on the hybrid-electric bus:
Monday, April 21, 2008
Friday, April 18, 2008
For the Des Moines Register article:
Tuesday, April 15, 2008
In the past few weeks it has been difficult not to see the reports of rising food prices around the world and the instability that it is creating. In fact, just the other day I watched a very interesting report on Iowa Public Television about rice problems in Southeast Asia. And TIME magazine and CNN have raised the possibility if not fully implicated biofuels and, in particular, ethanol, for the problems faced around the world. Even though ethanol may have a small impact on grain prices, the amount of corn that actually shows up in the price of grocery items is actually very small. Before getting to the Texas A&M study I wanted to jump back to the report I saw on rice issues in Southeast Asia. Evidently, the cost of rice has skyrocketed on projected weak inventories because of large increases in demand from India and China, whose countries are getting bigger and richer and demand more corn and especially, rice. Because of possible supply problems India, (second only to Thailand in Southeast Asia in the amount of rice exported), has agreed to suspend exporting any rice to ensure domestic demand is met. This has caused other countries such as Cambodia to fear for their own domestic stocks and have in turn closed their rice export industries. What this has done is put the whole rice burden for South Asia on the back of Thailand. And whether the rice stockpiles are actually decreasing or not, the action by certain counties has caused exactly what was originally feared... no rice on the open market.
Interestingly there are a lot of parallels between what is seen in Asia with rice and what is seen in the US with corn. A few months ago China decided that since there population was growing, they would suspend exporting corn. Since China is second only to the US in corn exports, this has a huge impact on the world corn market. Even though it has allowed the US to increase corn exports to record numbers, it has generated a wave of speculation and commodity purchasing of corn and other US products because of a perceived drop in inventories. This drop may be real, but it has little or nothing to do with biofuels.
More importantly, the increase in energy prices, along with the weakening dollar, has driven investors away from the stock market and into the commodities market; where speculation continues to drive up the price of grains.
The Texas A&M study was able to look at these trends and find that the overall biggest cause of rising food prices is high energy prices. They even found that grocery items such as milk, eggs, and bread that are closely tied to corn were largely unaffected by biofuels production and that reducing or removing ethanol production would have little impact on these prices. I find it interesting that media outlets will assume that one things causes another without any causal evidence to back up their claims. So next time you are in a conversation with a friend/neighbor/coworker about this topic, let them know that you've got scientific study after study that will refute any claim that ethanol is a major contributor to global food price increases.
For the original Texas A&M study:
Friday, April 11, 2008
Even though this is an exciting find, and proof that although we should prepare for the worst oil will still be available for at least as long as the 40 years that industry experts are predicting, I think that the United States might be best served to sit on its proven oil fields for now. Just like the oil fields in Alaska, saving them will allow the US to hold a strategic advantage over other countries should the world realize a strong decline in crude oil or if OPEC attempts to embargo oil to the United States. Also, holding on to proven reserves will allow the US to hold on to a commodity that almost assuredly will not decrease in value over the next few years -- making it a very strong investment option.
Here is a map from the USGS (geological survey) indicating the approximate area of the underground reserves.
Thursday, April 10, 2008
Here's a look at Poet's ethanol plant:
Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Monday, April 7, 2008
Friday, April 4, 2008
Thursday, April 3, 2008
To paraphrase Ronald Reagan’s famous line: There they go again.On opinion pages around the country, including this one, a procession of critics has taken to lambasting domestically produced renewable fuels in general and ethanol in particular. The latest entrant into the debate is syndicated columnist Walter E. Williams, who recently cited a half-dozen wildly distorted reasons for concluding that ethanol is a “cruel hoax on the American consumer.” This is a puzzling spectacle. The price of oil is floating around $110 per barrel—meaning that, as a nation, we are now writing daily checks for the jaw-dropping amount of $1.4 billion to feed our foreign oil habit. And yet the chief object of the critics’ scorn is a clean-burning renewable fuel that is made in America, by American farmers and workers, with American crops and technologies, to the clear benefit of the American economy. It doesn’t make sense. But the critics have created an echo-chamber effect by repeating each others’ recycled canards about ethanol in a way that presents a veneer of validated truth. Take the issue of water use. Cornell University entomologist David Pimentel—the fountainhead of quasi-scholarship for the anti-ethanol movement—makes the bizarre claim that it takes 1,700 gallons of water to produce a gallon of ethanol (if you count rainfall absorbed by corn plants as a bad thing). The Wall Street Journal’s editorial page gleefully repeats it. Walter Williams repeats it again. And so it goes, ad infinitum. Pimentel is also the source of the yarn—repeated by Williams—that it takes more energy to produce ethanol than the ethanol itself contains. The critics never mention that it takes more energy to produce gasoline than the gasoline itself contains (because it takes petroleum-powered equipment to drill, transport and refine crude oil). Nor do they mention the fact that a substantial percentage of the energy required to produce ethanol is the free solar energy that makes plants grow. Details, details.Another oldie but goodie is the argument that ethanol can’t stand up on its own in the marketplace. Williams hits that theme hard, as does the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, repeatedly. The reality is that the world marketplace for transportation fuels is effectively under the control of state-owned oil companies…and some of these states are actively hostile to us. Even the publicly-traded oil majors are not likely to let in competition unless the government compels them to do so with targets and incentives. The howls of “let the market decide” are remindful of the position Microsoft took during the Internet browser wars of the 1990s—when the company was simultaneously using its total control of computer operating systems to muscle out any competing software. There should no longer be any doubt that America has a national interest in weaning itself off of foreign oil—a national interest that deserves a robust policy response. Congress and the president rightly passed legislation in 2005 and 2007 requiring renewable fuels like ethanol to be blended into the country’s fuel supply, and providing incentives to make it happen. It’s working. American renewable fuel producers supplied nearly 7 billion gallons of ethanol in 2007, and the industry is on track to meet a target of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels of all types by 2022. How is that not a good thing?Critics say: Corn ethanol will only cover 10 percent of our current fuel consumption. But 10 percent is huge. And the reality is renewable fuels like ethanol are just one part of what will have to be a multi-pronged solution to America’s energy problems. We also need more fuel-efficient cars and trucks, alternative vehicle technologies such as batteries good enough to let drivers plug in to the electricity grid—and renewable energy sources to power the grid itself. The big difference between ethanol and a lot of those other technologies is that ethanol is readily available today. We don’t have to wait for some future innovation to start making a dent in the country’s energy problem. By any measure, ethanol is better for the planet than gasoline—and it is getting better all the time. Today’s ethanol made from corn is priming the market for the coming generation of alcohol fuels that will also be made from wood chips, urban waste and other feedstocks, not just agricultural crops. America can invent its way out of its current energy problems. In fact, with renewable fuels, we’re already on our way.
Wednesday, April 2, 2008
It's interesting that TIME would write this article -- for a long time I assumed that the magazine was one of the best unbiased sources for journalism. But if you read this article it is easy to see just what kind of agenda they are touting. Before I offer a critique on the article, I want to say just one thing. Even though I am researching ethanol and advanced biofuels and admittedly do support current and future ethanol use, I do not manipulate numbers. I do not blindly relay "truths" and reasoning that is not supported by fact. For example, CNN ran a scathing report on corn ethanol about a month ago with Miles O'Brien as the anchor. Even though they presented a lot of corn-ethanol's faults, I enjoyed watching the show because they interviewed ethanol producers to make sure that both sides were presented. I hope that in the same way those that read my posts feel that although I support ethanol, I will not hesitate to point out its faults because, if you think about it, why would I be a research scientist trying to improve ethanol production if I thought that it was perfect?
Shifting back to the article in TIME, their problem was a story run supported by only one publication -- a recent Princeton article that stated that ethanol emitted more GHG than gasoline. However, even the scientist behind the article admitted later that these findings only applied if forested land in the United States was converted to corn and that this was only the worst-case scenario for a future of corn-based ethanol. If you consistently and professionally look across the studies done on corn-ethanol, the numbers line up with the Department of Energy's numbers that corn-ethanol from seed to fuel emits 16 to 20% less GHGs than gasoline. 20% isn't great but it's a start. Remember, corn-ethanol was started several years ago as a new way to market corn that wasn't worth the dirt it was planted in. As industry leaders have said all along, corn ethanol is a bridge to a future of sustainable biofuels use. That is what researchers like myself are working hard on right now.
So, unlike TIME, let's layout the pros and cons of corn-based ethanol.
1) Ethanol reduces GHGs 16 to 20% over gasoline.
2) Ethanol has a petroleum usage ratio of 1.6:1 meaning that 1.6 gasoline equivalent units exist in the fuel to every one gasoline equivalent units used. (Gasoline itself has a ratio of 0.8:1).
3) Ethanol requires 3 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of ethanol. (By the way, it takes 8 gallons of water to produce 1 gallon of gasoline).
4) The fermentation and distillation process requires large amounts of energy, often derived from natural gas but also sometimes by burning coal.
5) Increased corn demand (1/5 the US crop went to ethanol production in 2007), can cause pressure on other crops to increase their prices in order to compete for acreage.
6) US gasoline requires an oxygenate, such as MTBE in the past and now ethanol, in order to increase the octane rating and provide a better fuel. Ethanol satisfies this without increases air pollutants or increasing groundwater contamination.
7) Ethanol is completely domestic. The gasoline offset by ethanol saved the entire US economy billions of dollars just last year.
This short list above is just a quick overview of some of the pros and cons of ethanol. Like I said, ethanol is not a knight in shinning armor but it is a good samaritan -- helping out in any way that it can. As a scientist, we are keenly aware of the problems and there are many solutions that are in the not-so distant future. New production methods will significantly cut the amount of water it takes to produce ethanol as well as the energy used in the distillation process. Cutting energy use will decrease the amount of natural gas or coal used and will improve the amount of GHGs that ethanol reduces. Coskata and GM teamed up last year to announce that by 2010, just two short years away, they will have a commercial cellulosic ethanol plant up and running. Aside from the fact that cellulosic ethanol could have GHG emission reductions near 86%, this would also alleviate the problem of competing for acreage with food crops. And, since cellulosic feedstocks like switchgrass are tantamount to natural prairie, it should decrease erosion and runoff and provide a natural habitat for animals.
In this way, corn-ethanol is a perfect bridge to the future. It isn't harming anything even though it may not be the silver bullet some people wanted it to be. However, research is already moving beyond cellulosic ethanol to "advanced biofuels." These include butanol, (which can be piped along with gasoline unlike ethanol and has a higher energy density), and even some companies are closing in on making synthetic gasoline from cellulosic materials.
The point is that this highly charge and complex issue of ethanol, and transportation fuels as a whole, should not be taking lightly. TIME should not be allowed to stand as a voice of reason, swaying the court of public opinion while they only present one side of an issue. Hydrogen is much harder to make and requires much more energy, but people still talk about a future using fuel cells. Solar panels are still too expensive for the common person to have and their efficiency is only 30-40%, but we still want the scientists to improve on the technology. And finally, high-efficient light bulbs are great at saving energy but contain a very toxic substance -- mercury. I wonder how many studies have been done to see the effects of these new bulbs being disposed of improperly.
I'm no conspiracy theorist and I hate the back and forth of which is worse... the Oil lobby or the Corn lobby -- if either works against the benefit of the American people than they are both in the wrong. It is clear, however, that the oil industry is putting pressure on scientists and the media to try to derail ethanol in whatever way possible. Hopefully people will not be swayed by these "truths" offered up courtesy of TIME and will instead be able to see what the facts are -- that corn ethanol is a cleaner fuel that is helping the American economy.
Monday, March 31, 2008
One number to keep in mind with this realignment in ag. planting this summer is that two years ago in 2006 the United States planted 78.3 million acres of corn so the current numbers are still quite high and have the potential to sustain several industries as long as weather-related problems don't jeopardize the yields. What might be more interesting is to see in the coming weeks how commodity prices respond to the news. Corn seemed ready to go higher on the news as futures prices had already climbed into the mid $5 a bushel range. However, soybeans are considered quite volatile in this climate as a large soybean harvest this year could fill storage bins and, with a large crop projected to come out of Brazil this year, could push the price of beans lower.
Saturday, March 29, 2008
Analysts in both industries will be watching closely Monday as the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) releases its predictions on summer acreages for corn and soybeans. The estimates are not binding and are based on surveys of farmers, coops, and seed distributors across the country. While many are speculating that USDA estimates will show a decrease in corn acres from the amazing amount of corn planted last year, the futures markets are already making a bold statement. This past week while corn prices dipped to around $4.80 per bushel and allowed ethanol margins to grow slightly, the futures prices for corn climbed to over $5.60 per bushel on the CBOT (Chicago Board of Trade). This indicates that commodity traders are almost positive that the USDA estimates will show a significant decrease in corn production this summer. Even though that will in turn put pressure on ethanol prices to increase, it may not be as bad a thing for corn acres to dip this summer as some might think. Last year saw more than 92.9 million acres of corn planted (which is the most since 1944). Analysts believe that the USDA will predict around 86 or 87 million acres of corn this year -- still a lot but off from last year. This is due to a very strong market for soybeans (nearly $15 per bushel), a need felt among many farmers to practice crop rotation techniques, and a very large increase in fertilizer prices that make growing corn more expensive than soybeans because of their greater need for fertilizer.
My point is that if some of the acres go back into soybeans, it will recharge the land and possibly bring down some of the nitrogen and phosphorous price increases we've seen over the last year. This in turn could allow for a gradual lowing of corn prices to manageable levels while still allowing profit margins to remain constant for farmers. With more and more cellulosic ethanol technology set to come online in the next two years, it would seem prudent to start moving away from a charged up and often speculation-dominated market and prepare for another rearrangement within these markets as ethanol production switches from predominantly corn to a mix of corn and other plant materials.
Thursday, March 27, 2008
What's interesting is that no other research team had seen a similar connection between DDGS use and increased e. coli abundance. Today, the exact same group from K-State University announced the completion of a follow-up study which found that there is absolutely no connection between DDGS and e. coli. Don't ask me how someone screwed this one up in the first place but hopefully someone lost their job over it. The fact of the matter is that in this period where there is a highly charged debate over alternative fuels, (and rightly so), the public reaction to these studies can be enormous and the clean-up becomes a daunting task. This is why knee-jerk reactions to these studies are unwise at best. Hopefully this finding will allow farmers who are in a position to purchase DDGS without fear of e. coli proliferation and the pros and cons of ethanol can continue to be vetted correctly in the realm of science.
Tuesday, March 25, 2008
Monday, March 24, 2008
The positive results are already being realized right here in Iowa. Although the survey of the national average of gasoline climbed 7 cents per gallon to $3.22 per gallon, E10 prices here in central Iowa have actually dropped about 10 cents per gallon from a week ago to settle around $2.99. Although I am positive both of these prices will climb as we enter June and July, what's really amazing is the profound affects we are seeing on the price at the pump and on the sometimes stubborn mindset of oil refiners and blenders who are being forced by ethanol to take a second look at what might be best for the consumer. Even though ethanol has a way to go before becoming the ultimate fuel of the future, I for one think ethanol needs to do nothing else to prove itself; given the monumental affects it has already accomplished.
For the Wall Street Article, follow the link below:
Thursday, March 20, 2008
In an effort to curb this problem, Bryan Eichhorn and Manos Mavrikakis designed a special nanoparticle that wants to oxidize CO to CO2 in the presence of hydrogen. First of all, a nanoparticle is simply a small molecule or compound that is very small -- nanometers in length. And the term oxidize refers to the addition of an oxygen atom to the molecule or the removal of a hydrogen atom from a molecule. In this case, the nanoparticle catalyst wants to add an oxygen atom to CO to produce CO2. The researchers did this by using a particle of ruthenium surrounded by one or two layers of platinum. The researchers discovered the nanoparticle uses a novel chemical reaction mechanism that actually makes hydrogen react with oxygen at the start of the reaction. This intermediate then more easily adds an oxygen atom to CO and leaves the hydrogen unreacted to be used in the fuel cell reactions. Also, the addition of the ruthenium particle necessitates reaction temperatures only as high as 30C, which is much less than the 85C that past catalysts have required in order to oxidize CO in the presence of hydrogen.
Although this process is very interesting for fuel cell design, I think the study is a much more important showcase for biochemical ingenuity. By uncovering this new reaction mechanism, new enzymes/nanoparticle catalysts could be developed to further this process. Also, many lab and companies deal with gas stream separation on a daily basis; having the right kinds of tools to deal with the problem is essential and could allow for much more efficient reactions to take place.
For original paper, follow this link:
Friday, March 14, 2008
The company indicates that this state-of-the-art terminal was built specifically so that ethanol trains would not add any congestion to existing rail lines. Also, the terminal is capable of quickly offloading an 84-car unit train of ethanol with dedicated pipelines to truck terminals that will allow for quick and easy distribution of the fuel to gas stations. In recent weeks with the astronomical rise of first crude oil and now gasoline, and the relatively flat price increases in ethanol, blending 10% ethanol into gasoline will not only be a huge windfall for gasoline blenders but hopefully also for consumers. This is because since so much ethanol currently exists, the price per gallon is nearly a dollar cheaper than gasoline. Once blending occurs, retailers should offer at least 10 to 15 cents per gallon off of a gallon of E10 gasoline to offset the energy density decrease in ethanol and because their fuel is at least that much cheaper to produce.
With this efficient connection to the South the United States will see a much more widespread use of ethanol. With it will come more people enjoying the fuel but also a renewed need to work quickly to solve some of the problems that exist in the ethanol process before the fuel becomes more widespread and produced in higher quantities.
Wednesday, March 12, 2008
1) One bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol and 17-18 pounds of DDGS (dried distillers grains).
2) One acre of corn produces approx. 500 gallons of ethanol -- enough to fuel six cars for a year on E10.
3) As of 2006, approximately 30% of all motor fuels in the US had some ethanol blended into it.
4) Argonne National Laboratory concluded a study last year that found ethanol reduces greenhouse gases 35% - 46% over gasoline derived fuels.
5) Every 100 BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy used to produce ethanol becomes 167 BTUs of energy in the form of ethanol.
(The reason this can occur is that the light energy gained from the sun during the growth of the plant is not included in the calculation -- an ethanol plant is approximately 38% efficient in recovering chemical energy).
6) Although an ethanol plant may be 38% efficient, our power plants generate electricity at an amazing 30% efficiency.
7) The United States is composed of 1.9 billion acres of land; 450 million is categorized as crop land and 580 million acres is pasture.
8) Hardware needed to make a vehicle into a flex-fuel capable car is $100-$200.
9) As of 2006 there were 4-5 million E85 capable cars in the United States (which is 2-3% of US car fleet).
10) An E85 blend of gasoline will decrease VOCs (volatile organic compounds) by 15%, carbon monoxide by 40%, nitrous oxide by 10%, and sulfate emissions by 80%. All of these compounds are greenhouse gases or smog related compounds. (This information from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality).