Monday, December 22, 2008

Advanced Biofuels Initiative

I've finally wrapped up my scholastic responsibilities that have kept me away from blogging these past few months, which hopefully means that I will get back to a semi-regular schedule of postings. What better way to jump back in then to talk about the new plan by the Department of Energy to fund $200 million worth of test-phase biofuels plants that will work to produce advanced biofuels from cellulosic feedstocks. Their goal for the test-phase plants is to have at least 1 ton per day of cellulosic biomass be processed with the production of advanced biofuels. Advanced biofuels pertain to the production of non-ethanol or biodiesel liquid fuels from plant biomass that generally relates to those biofuels from cellulosic-derived sources.
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

Wind Power Storage

As more and more wind turbines begin to dot the countryside, particularly here in my area of Central Iowa, the debate intensifies between those that see wind energy as one of the most convenient and cost-effective power generations of our time and those who see it as a nuisance that clutters the sky and provides no real benefits.
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

Bacteria Boost Efficiency

A group at Washington University in St. Louis have managed to use bacteria to break-down unusable portions of the ethanol process in order to make methane. With this extra methane, the researchers are able to provide a readily usable fuel to power the ethanol making process, thereby increasing the efficiency. While only in the laboratory stages, the researchers hope that the process will scale up to the size of commercial ethanol plants. The numbers from their tests prove promising -- they are able to cut the natural gas/coal usage for the ethanol process by 50% when using this technology. Since natural gas accounts for approximately 60% of the process energy needed to produce ethanol, this could mean that the new technology would increase corn-ethanol's energy efficiency from plus 20% to up to plus 70%! This would be an emphatic jump and would contribute to the short term benefits of retrofitting current ethanol plants, which is the goal of these researchers. If the numbers hold up, this might be a great energy and cost-effective patch to put on current ethanol plants, minus the obvious need for initial capital to build another bacterial reactor and the needed infrastructure to capture the methane.

For more information go to:

Friday, August 8, 2008

Ethanol Mandates to Biopetroleum

A couple of interesting things to talk about today. The first is that the US EPA has denied Texas Governor Rick Perry's request to cut the ethanol mandate in half this year. Perry's request came at a time when corn prices skyrocketed to over $7 per bushel and put a squeeze on livestock farmers, particularly located in Texas. However, now that corn has dropped off its previous high prices, the EPA denied the request. This is the right move because the ethanol mandate, created by Congress to set a goal of 9 billion gallons of ethanol produced by 2008 and 11.1 billion gallons produced for 2009, is just that, a goal. Since the US is already very close to the 9 billion gallon per year mark necessary to satisfy the 2008 standard, cutting it would not significantly affect the production of ethanol or the prices for the feedstocks that go into it. At the same time the EPA, in its ruling, stated that it found sufficient corn to satisfy the 9 billion gallon level for 2008. In the end, I fear that Perry's clamor for a cut in the ethanol mandate comes in an election cycle where politicians look to satisfy some of the discord among their base -- in this case, the cattle farmers. While the situation for livestock farmers isn't desirable, the path that Rick Perry took to try to alleviate the problem wouldn't have solved anything -- a more efficient method would be to increase the price of fed cattle on the CBOT (Chicago Board of Trade) in order to give these farmers a fair prices.
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

Ceres, Inc.

For any cellulosic ethanol industry to take off, there needs to be an abundant, biomass intense area from which to cultivate the plant material. The great hope is that this will not only pertain to areas already covered in biomass, such as corn-stalks or forested areas in the Southeastern United States, but that this will allow for the development of crops that can be grow in many areas of the US that are not hospitable to current agricultural growth. This includes the ultra-arid Southwestern United States where the development of a perennial crop could produce a valuable crop on marginal land but also would hopefully improve the land in the process by decreases soil erosion as well as providing a more humid environment where more rain development might occur.

A company called Ceres Inc. is trying to establish this idea of optimum energy crops for each region of the United States. To do this they have sequenced many of the genomes of switchgrass, miscanthus, and other plants and have then used selective breeding technologies to isolate varieties of the plant that match different areas, such as the desert Southwest.

Here is a map and diagram of their outlook for the next several years:

Go to the website shown above for more information about the crop varieties listed above.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Ethanol Plants Lower Costs and Save On CO2 Emissions

As the ethanol industry continues to establish itself, ethanol plants are improving their efficiency as well as their carbon dioxide emissions. This is not a totally selfless act, but it is done so that the ethanol plants are both able to survive in a climate where it can at times be hard to make a profit as well as a way to improve the overall efficiency of their process.
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

Nuclear "Deep-Burn" Technology

I've said in the past that my mission is to focus these posts on matters directly related to ethanol. However, the current evolution of our energy situation has made the entire field complex and interdependent. For this reason, this post is about nuclear energy and, while not speaking directly to an ethanol issue, I think it is connected in that if we are to have flex-fueled cars with PHEV (plug-in hybrid electric vehicle) technology included, we better have an efficient, reliable, and clean source of energy to power the electric side of these vehicles.

The Department of Energy recently announced grant money going towards two labs, the Argonne National Labs, and the Idaho National Labs for the study of "Deep-Burn" nuclear reactors. These designs are slated to go into the technology for the next generation of nuclear power plants, known as Generation IV nuclear reactors, which may be put into electrical production sometime around the year 2020. The idea of a Deep-Burn is to coat the outside of the plutonium or other nuclear fuel particles with a ceramic shell. This allows the nuclear fission process to occur at much higher temperatures, thus dramatically increasing the efficiency of the electricity generation as well as eleminating almost all of the nuclear waste produced in the process. In fact, in preliminary studies, the process is so efficient that it makes reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods from LWR (light water reactors) economically feasible for nuclear power plants.

What this means is that if the process of the Deep-Burn nuclear reactor can be implemented correctly, we could enjoy efficient, cheap, nuclear power with much less nuclear waste. Of course, the problems of the plant over-heating resulting in a nuclear meltdown would still exist, and since the process would still result in some nuclear waste, it is by no means perfect. It is however, a great step forward. One last thing to keep in mind is that with this event horizon (at least 10 years away), the technology for a fusion-style nuclear reactor may be perfected in that time frame and allow for much more efficient fuel burning with little or no nuclear waste. We will just have to wait and see on that one.

For more detailed information, go to:

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Argonne's Futuristic Combustion Engine

Like it or not, whether we find ourselves driving purely electric cars, hydrogen cars, or nuclear-powered cars like in Back-to-The-Future, we will undoubtedly have residual contact with the conventional gas-burning engine for quite some time in the future. It might be in the form of cars driven in developing countries or it could simply be that other alternatives in the future here in the United States are simply too expensive for the regular driver to pick up the tab on the new technologies. For this reason, improving traditional engines to run on a mixture of fuels such as gasoline, ethanol, or butanol, would allow for a technology that improves the environment and domestic fuel supplies to become more mainstream in a faster time.
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

Ford Continues March Toward Next-Gen Vehicle

In previous posts I have mentioned Ford's Escape Hybrid as being the vehicle to take us into the next generation of vehicles with a mpg rating higher than most cars and the capability of combining flex-fuel and hybrid into the same package. Today Ford announced improvements to come out in its line of Ford Escape Hybrids for the 2009 model year. Although none of the 25,000 vehicles they plan to produce in 2009 are planned to contain a flex-fuel advantage, they still hold several benefits over other vehicles.

What Ford did was to improve the timing of the fuel injection and increase the speed at which the car's hybrid battery carries engine performance up to 40 miles per hour. This means that until the small sized SUV tops 40 miles per hour, the battery will be in control of the engine. Amazingly, Ford was able to do this without increasing the engine's need to charge the battery more. They did this by improving the breaking efficiency and convert that saved energy into the battery for greater storage.

With these combined technologies, Ford can offer an Escape Hybrid that gets 34 mpg's in the city and 31 mpg's on the highway -- almost as good as the most efficient four-door cars on the road. However, the price tag will probably be around $27,000. If flex-fuel studies on the Ford Escape/Hybrid come to flurishen, this could be a great vehicle for the future, particularly in the prices for the battery and hybrid system can come down.

For original article, go to:

Thursday, June 19, 2008

New Additions to the Cellulosic Ethanol Stage

Although thermochemical and biochemical methods for the production of ethanol are the most practical and widely used methods to produce ethanol and cellulosic ethanol, electrochemical methods are another option. Thermochemical methods pertain mainly to burning the cellulose in a controlled fashion to produce a gas stream. This is usually combined with a biochemical catalyst (most likely a bacterium), where the gas stream is converted into ethanol. This combination of thermochemical and biochemical methods are what GM and Coskata are backing in their hopes to pioneer efficient ethanol production from cellulose.

However, Mitsubishi and RedOx Biofuels have agreed to work together on an electrochemical approach to producing ethanol from cellulosic feedstocks. With gas prices soaring and the price of corn skyrocketing due to the flooding in the Midwest, there has been an even greater push towards the creation and implementation of an efficient process to produce cellulosic ethanol. Electrochemical methods, such as those used by Mitsubishi, uses electricity and acid/base hydrolysis to break the bonds in cellulosic ethanol so that the sugars can be accessible to the bacteria that can convert them into ethanol.

The problem with Mitsubishi's method is that unless they develop a way to use electricity in a highly efficient manner to break the bonds in cellulose I can almost guarantee to you that the process will use more energy than it produces. Thermochemical methods have the potential of working because the burning process can be self-sustaining once the material begins to burn (requiring only a portion of the feedstock to continue the process). So my reasoning is that although Mitsubishi is trying something new, it doesn't seem like they will be able to get very far with this process. Their proposed target is only 800 liters of ethanol produced next year, which is pitifully small even for a pilot-plant.

The facts are that fuel molecules, such as ethanol and certain furfural compounds that can mimic gasoline can be produced using electrochemical methods. The problem is that they can only produce a small amount of product and it takes an immense amount of energy using current procedures to make the process work. If nothing else works, these methods would be fine.... but I think we can do much better.

Here is a schematic diagram of what Mitsubishi envisions for their process:

Thursday, June 12, 2008

New Ford Flex-Fuel Hybrid

Finally got a few seconds to make a quick post on Ford's new concept vehicle. It is a Ford Escape PHEV with flex-fuel capabilities. In other words, the compact-SUV is plugged in at night and can run approximately 30 miles on the charged battery (not great but not too bad for city driving). Once the battery is run down, the flex-fuel engine runs on 85% ethanol with a hybrid system to save energy during stop and go driving. This is exactly what I have been e-mailing Ford and other car companies about -- we need to integrate technologies in order to build a car that will operate in the future.

The beauty of this Ford Escape? It gets 88 miles per gallon in the city and 50mpg in highway driving! And, with the use of the batteries and ethanol additives, CO2 emissions from the vehicle are cut 60% over conventional gasoline vehicles -- 90% if the ethanol is made from cellulosic feedstocks. We need this car right now and if it were on the market, I'm sure it would be a hot seller. Unfortunately, Ford only has one produced and has given it to the Department of Energy for testing. If you are interested in this technology I strongly suggest doing what I have done and e-mail Ford directly, telling them you want to see this type of vehicle come on line as soon as possible.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Soggy Midwest Weather May Dampen Corn Crop

While dragging through a rough winter here in Iowa we were reminded of one thing -- that when spring and summer rolled around the weather would be back on our side. And even though the forecasters were pretty united in their call that Iowa and the Midwest would be in for unusually dry (drought) weather, neither seems to be coming true. This has been an exceptionally wet spring that has some Iowans talking about the last major flooding disaster to occur in the state back in 1993. On top of these dismal weather days, the rain couldn't have come at a worst time -- right when farmers are trying to get out into the fields to plant corn and soybeans that seem to be in ever increasing demand in a world full of food and biofuels. The problem is that wet weather not only prevents farmers from getting into fields for fear of getting their tractors bogged down, but capped mud can also prevent a germinating seed from being able to punch through the soil to get the sunlight needed to survive. Also, small plants only a few inches tall can not survive in standing water that might be up to a foot deep or more in some places.
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

Coskata Joined in Race for Cellulosic Ethanol

Although Coskata may be getting the most amount of press and attention these days for their work towards mass producing cellulosic ethanol, they definitely are not the only ones working on the problem. Louisiana based Verenium Corporation has announced plans to enter the cellulosic ethanol race with a pilot-scale plant of their own in Jennings, Louisiana. The company plans to have a scaled up commercial plant capable of producing 30 million gallons of ethanol per year by 2010, which would put it approximately on schedule with Coskata.

However, there are some major differences that give Verenium the advantage in terms of hurrying production along and disadvantages. Verenium produces cellulosic derived ethanol using an enzyme pretreatment and then genetically engineered e. coli stains that possess the genes to convert 5-carbon sugars, such as xylose, into ethanol. This is an improvement over yeast, which are only able to convert 6-carbon sugars, such as glucose, into ethanol. With the e. coli stain possessing an additional pathway that is abundant in cellulosic ethanol, it allows the plant to move forward quickly with relatively novice technology. In other words, existing corn-ethanol plants could easily be retrofitted with this new bacteria and would become cellulosic ethanol plants. However, the downside is that the technology does not escape many of the problems that currently plague corn-based ethanol. Sure, the feedstock would be more flexible, owing to the company's claim that they will be able to produce ethanol forl around $1.84 per gallon including their debt responsibilities. But they don't escape the massive amounts of energy needed in the pretreatment step, which Coskata gets around by gasifying the biomass, and it doesn't seem as though Verenium has improved any of the downstream applications, such as separation of ethanol and water after the fermentation step.

The bottom line is that Verenium is going to be a fast mover towards cellulosic ethanol, much like South Dakota based Poet. However, in the long run, Coskata will have a definite advantage over these two players as its holistic approach towards cellulosic ethanol production that seeks to address many if not all of the problems found in corn-based ethanol, will eventually prove to be the winner.

Below are graphics provided by Verenium on their process stream and on their calculated costs to produce a gallon of ethanol.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

GM & Coskata

Coskata held a media day over the weekend to update the press and public about its ongoing efforts to produce cellulosic ethanol using a gasification followed by fermentation process. The event released some interesting results, indicating that although Coskata has yet to delve into the realm of reengineering their clostridia species to produce different types of fuel besides ethanol, they have been effective in their screening methods in producing larger amounts of ethanol from their bacteria. Their graphic, which is shown below, indicates that Coskata has improved their system a great deal in the past few months and managed to produce moderate amounts of ethanol from their system.

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


Although not directly pertaining to ethanol, this post pertains to a recent study by the EIA. But, then again, what doesn't pertain to ethanol these days in one way or another. The EIA (Energy Information Administration), which are the same guys that come around every two weeks to tell us how much gasoline and diesel the US has so that prices can swing up or down, completed an up-to-date study using computer modeling to plot the maximum amount of oil that could potentially be recovered by drilling in ANWR (the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge). Their findings show that the oil production would peak in the year 2027 and would peak at roughly 780,000 barrels of oil per day. Although this is just a computer estimate, the EIA knows what they are talking about and 780,000 barrels per day is not a lot of oil. To put it into perspective, the EIA predicts that 780,000 bpd would lower the price of a barrel of oil by $0.75. That is 75 cents off of a $135 barrel of oil! And for even more perspective, Saudi Arabia agreed to increase their oil output by 300,000 barrels per day after President Bush's latest visit to the region and that hardly decreased the price of oil.
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

Chemically Derived Transport Fuels

With oil and gas prices rising even higher today there is no doubt that synthetic fuels are begged for if not required. This, of course, includes biofuels because if you think about it, all fuels are 'biofuels' the only difference is whether or not they are renewable or sustainable. Interesting news in the past week indicates even more work has accomplished positive results in the field of chemically derived transportation fuels. Researchers at the Biofuels Center of North Carolina have indicated that their 'centia' process allows the conversion of any lipid-like material (fats) to be converted into the three most sought after transport fuels, (jet fuel, gasoline, and diesel). This technology, while new, is not the first to be able to accomplish this feat. However, it is encouraging since they are able to take a relatively abundant resource (fats) and convert them into a 'drop-in' substitute for the fuels listed above.
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

Secretary of Ag lifts vail from Anti-Ethanol Movement

The US Secretary of Agriculture Ed Schafer gave his two cents today about the recent backlash against corn-based ethanol. The secretary released evidence of a concerted effort by food-manufacturers to discredit ethanol in the arena of public opinion and to lobby Congress to repeal to recently passed ethanol mandate. Schafer released documents outlining how the Grocery Manufacturers Association, which governs such food giants as Coca-Cola and General Mills, hired a public relations firm to work behind the scenes to increase public perception that ethanol is a bad product in terms of food.
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

Numbers Behind Price Calculator

Here is a quick but thorough explanation on how I built the ethanol price calculator. The best way to debate the ethanol issue is to be as transparent as possible about what numbers people are using and where they came from, because they can alter the final product and lead to the wide variations and inaccurate reporting that we often see.
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.

Ethanol Price Calculator

After an exciting and illuminating conversation I had this Mother's Day, I figured that along with my blog posts I should try to keep people informed about ethanol's pricing. One thing I've noticed in the past few weeks as gasoline prices rise is that the margin between regular unleaded gasoline and E10 super unleaded has remained the same. While in this part of Iowa, the price differences are usually 10 to 13 cents per gallon cheaper for the ethanol blend; making them cheaper to buy than regular gasoline, it may not be the case in other parts of the country. I wholeheartedly feel that during this "growing-pains" period in corn-based ethanol production the worst thing that those involved with ethanol can do would be to make ethanol blends less affordable based on energy density (which controls the number of miles you can travel on a gallon of the fuel blend). For this reason, I have installed a quick price calculator to the right of the blog posts. Simply enter the unleaded regular price of gasoline at the station near you and it will tell you the price of E10 and E85 that you would pay above which you are being charged too much. In my next post I will go over how I made these calculations.
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

Swift Enterprises

Wow, it has been a while since I felt comfortable writing in this blog. With exams to get through and work to keep up with, it has been a busy few weeks but, I'm back and hopefully can continue to write about things of interest. During my absence, there has been more than enough debate and all too often blatant criticism of biofuels and ethanol in particular. Rather than dwell on these arguments that, I fear, rely too often on raw emotion then on any kind of intellectual debate, I think it is time to look forward for a story to move beyond this impass.
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

Farm Bill and Ethanol Subsidies

Just a quick note to update on the Farm Bill. The Des Moines Register is reporting that there has been substantial progress in the Federal Farm Bill because of compromises coming from both sides of the issues. The latest word is that the ethanol subsidies in the form of the blenders tax credit will be reduced from 51cents per gallon to 45 cent. The money saved will be diverted into a fund to encourage cellulosic ethanol production.
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:

Gasifier Pilot Plant

GM's partner in turning lignocellulosic feedstocks into ethanol, Coskata, has announced the location of their pilot plant to test the feasibility of their process. The 40,000 gallon per year plant will be located 30 miles Southeast of Pittsburgh Pennsylvania and will showcase their gasification process to convert wood, agricultural waste, and industrial waste products into ethanol. The plant plans on producing ethanol by early 2009 and company reps have hinted that the process could cost as little as $1 per gallon of ethanol. This of course excludes any additional costs that might arise in terms of debt interest payments on building or materials. The good thing is that this plant will bypass any cereal grains and so will probably not be restricted by high feedstock prices, at least in the near term.
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

Ethanol AND Hybrid Technologies

I've said this is previous posts but I will say it again. The only way that the United States and the rest of the world is going to come to a reasonable answer relating to the complex topics of environmental impact, foreign oil dependency, and others relating to transportation fuels is to combine several meaningful solutions. By doing a quick search of the major automakers in America, it becomes horrifyingly clear that there is absolutely no interest by these companies in helping the public solve any of these problems. To illustrate my point, think of all the flex-fuel vehicles on the road today. Save the Chevy Malibu I would have to say that every single one is an SUV. And the hybrid-dominated companies don't have clean hands either. I can say that there is not a single company that has the foresight and innovation to build a hybrid car and install components capable of running 85% ethanol. Think of how easy it would be for Toyota to equip their prius, for only $100 to $200 dollars, with ethanol capable components. They would be able to corner the entire market, particularly here in the Midwest. So why won't they do it? I honestly don't have an answer. Combining the two most promising emissions/cost reducing mechanisms that are available seems like the right way to go.
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

Ethanol Going Greener

In anticipation of Earth Day tomorrow, I think it is time to reflect on one of the key benefits that ethanol offers -- its earth-friendliness. This fuel is renewable and, although its water/energy usages have been questioned, it still reduces some GHG emissions over gasoline (even if it is only a small amount). And so during the debate about food prices and yes/no debates on ethanol usage, I think there is one thing that a lot of people have missed.

Argonne National Labs completed a study and found that even though the meteoric jump to cellulosic ethanol production has not occurred, CORN-based ethanol has actually gotten greener since 2001. They found that ethanol plants have gotten more efficient in how much ethanol they can derive from corn -- 2.81 gallons per bushel of corn used is now the average, a 6.4% increase from 2001. Also, the total energy used in an ethanol plant to convert this corn into ethanol including fossil energy and electricity declined by 21.8%!! Think about that. That's phenomenal that after only 5 years (the survey compares 2006 data with 2001 data), the industry was able to reduce its total energy needs by 1/5th! This means that the energy balances would have to be recalculated in order to reflect this new data.

The report goes on to say that electricity grid use is down 15%, and that many plants have switched from coal to natural gas as a source of power, which reduces the GHG emissions even further. The survey found that a lot of these benefits were available because of better Dried Distillers Grains (DDGS) handling as most plants ship wet grains to farmers for feed instead of using a lot of energy in drying the DDGS. (Which is also the step in the ethanol process when most of the Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) are released making ethanol's NOx (nitric oxide) reduction benefit questionable). NOx is a major contributor to urban smog.

Finally, the report found that water consumption decreased 26.6% in ethanol plants during this five year period. This is a 1/4 decrease in water usage!! And in just five years! Think about what innovations are just around the bend after the Department of Energy poured billions of dollars into biofuels research.

The point is, we don't have to wait for ethanol to get greener... it already is. Sure there are still some areas that need to be improved. But overall this domestic fuel is keeping money in America, providing a dependable and renewable resource, and is cutting the amount of pollution and waste that has become so prevalent in this country.

Just today the DOE (Department of Energy) announced additional funding for cellulosic ethanol startup companies whose locations you can see below. The age of cellulosic ethanol is closer than we may think.

For the original Argonne National Labs' study:

Friday, April 18, 2008

Novozymes in Ames, Iowa

A prominent maker of enzymes designed to jump start the breakdown of plant materials into usable components for ethanol production is setting up shop in Ames, Iowa. The Danish biotech company Novozymes says that is plans to employ 4 people in the beginning in the Iowa State University Research Park and will open its doors to the facility April 22. The company says that the 4 employees will work in a lab and office/customer service setting and that the continued strong growth in the ethanol industry coupled with the potential for large technological advances from any potential partnerships with nearby Iowa State University is what brought the company to Ames. Worldwide, the company employs 4,500 people according the The Des Moines Register, and hopefully the company will benefit Ames and the ethanol industry with continued employment.

For the Des Moines Register article:

April Showers

Rain continued today over much of the plains states and into Iowa. The importance of this is that prolonged rain that saturates the ground will move the planting season further back. This is turn will probably shift more acres away from corn and into soybeans, which have a more manageable growing season. This may exacerbate the situation created by what the USDA predicts to be a more normal distribution of corn/soybean plantings across the Midwest and could continue to drive up corn prices in the short term. This in turn could challenge ethanol plant profitability for the summer and continue to apply pressure to the industry, resulting in a gradual slowdown in increased production. With a brief break this weekend followed by the possibility of more heavy rain next week, the planting season continues to be pushed back as we creep closer to May.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Food Prices and Ethanol

For those of you looking for an unbiased and scientific source to back up claims that ethanol has little effect on rising food prices, Texas A&M University has the solution...
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

Who knew there are things in North Dakota?

Aside from the joke in the title, the US geological survey is announcing that an oil reserve found in Montana and North Dakota may hold between 3 to 4.3 billion barrels of oil along with 1.85 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. Although much more difficult to recover than oil from Saudi Arabia or Venezuela, it is possible to recover it and in today's era of high oil prices it has become not only possible but profitable to recover oil from difficult places such as the oil sands area in Canada.

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

Methane replacing natural gas

Poet of Sioux Falls, South Dakota and a major corn ethanol producer here in Iowa, is laying the plans to implement a new technology aimed at cost reduction and sustainability. The company plans to build 10 miles of pipelines from Sioux Falls' landfill all the way to Poet's ethanol facility outside of the city. There the company will be able to use methane, (a major greenhouse gas), instead of natural gas in the process of making ethanol. With recent volatility and high prices in natural gas, Poet has resisted going the route of using coal to power their plant, which could lead to higher emissions. Instead, they will end up paying the city of Sioux Falls (a total which could reach over $1 million a year), in order to offset 10% of their natural gas using methane in the first phase and 30% offset by 2025. This will inevitably save Poet money and could reduce carbon dioxide emissions at the plant by 26,400 tons per year. This in turn would make ethanol's GHG reducing ability that much greater and make the process more appealing and sustainable. It is good to see a company like Poet, who has been a proven leader in ethanol technology innovations, coming forward with this bold but well thought out plan.

Here's a look at Poet's ethanol plant:

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Nuclear Electricity

As a neat little aside from ethanol production, there is a cool new result from former Los Alamos Lab nuclear engineers who have started their own company, named LAVM. This company revealed that they have created a nanoparticle array, composed of gold and lithium hydride (LiH), that is capable of converting nuclear radiation into electricity. Currently, nuclear energy is given off as heat, which in turn warms up water baths creating steam to move turbines and generate electricity. Although in its trial phases, researchers point out that using this technology could allow small nuclear applications such as space-craft using a small nuclear reactor to generate electricity in a small space. Furthermore, since the nanoparticles use the radiation to generate electricity, it has the potential to act as a radiation 'scrubber.' This technology is however in only preliminary stages and it will be some time before we know if it can be applied on a large scale. Either way it is very cool to see these new innovations moving forward.

Monday, April 7, 2008

Update on PHEVs

In previous posts I've touched on PHEVs (Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles), and their role in moving our transportation system away from liquid fuels. Keep in mind that PHEVs are vehicles run on electricity supplied from an outlet such as one in your garage. This is completely different than a HEV or hybrid vehicle that stores energy produced from breaking the car. While hybrids are definitely the way to go in conjunction with biofuels to lower gasoline consumption, PHEVs need to be looked at carefully to ensure a productive transition to their use. What many might not understand is that although there will be no pollution at the tailpipe for PHEVs, the electricity must be generated somewhere. As I noted in an earlier post, this electricity can cost as much as gasoline right now and emit almost 7 times as much GHGs as gasoline burning cars if the majority of the electricity is derived from coal power plants.

A study from Carnegie Mellon University emphasizes this point and clearly shows the difference in advantages gained using PHEVs if the electricity comes from coal burning or a diminished GHG emitting source such as nuclear power or wind/solar power. Below is a chart of their findings:

The results from calculating how much GHGs are emitted throughout the generation and utilization of the energy indicate that using current average electricity rates, using PHEVs could reduce GHG emissions by 32%. This number is approximately equal to that of hybrids -- 30-40% reduction in GHGs. The reduction is even better when combining HEVs or PHEVs with biofuels such as E85, shown in the above chart on the right hand side.
Proponents will be quick to point out that the reason to switch to PHEVs is a continuation of the ideology that simply removing imported petroleum from the equation is a good thing for now and we can deal with the greenhouse gas emissions with developing technology. I agree with this but also feel that switching a majority of the US automobile fleet to electric too quickly would negate any kind of gain from solar/wind energy that might be realized and the result would be a large demand for coal power plants. As the above chart shows, combining renewable technologies such as biofuels and electrically powered cars could be the best solution we've got.
For the full article and to review the above chart, check out:

Friday, April 4, 2008

Iowa Bucks National Trend

As a scientist I like having direct evidence and controlling all variables in such a way that a direct cause and effect relationship can be established. And so I think everyone should take today's post with a grain of salt but understand that the indicators have shown a consistent connection between what I am about to tell you.

Today the Revenue Estimating Conference for the State of Iowa increased the state revenue projections for this year by $127 million. This accounts for nearly 2% of the $6.4 billion budget for the state of Iowa, representing a significant increase during struggling economic times. Although strong agriculture revenues are being celebrated as a whole for increasing revenue flowing into the state, the real catalyst for this improvement is most probably ethanol. Like it or not, ethanol has reversed the flow of our dollars to overseas markets and has made the demand for goods made predominantly in our state that much more valuable. While many people understand that higher food prices are mainly due to factors such as high oil prices and a weak dollar, some people still accuse ethanol of having a large impact on those prices. Even so, with these numbers, I don't mind paying extra for milk and cheese because the tax revenue flowing back into the state house is allowing the State of Iowa to continue to fund improving education programs as well as the Iowa Power Fund -- $100 million going towards research into advanced biofuels so that the next step in ethanol production can be realized.

The point is that with increased state revenue coming in and only 3.5% unemployment in the state, I'd say Iowa is doing alright at the moment and a big thank you is deserved for the people who pioneered the establishment of ethanol production in our state.

For the original article:

Thursday, April 3, 2008

The Best Defense is the Truth

For those of you who have kept up with my posts over the past month or two, you will know that I try to refute misinformation about ethanol whenever possible that is presented in a way that the public who is not consistently surrounded by ethanol news might be able to understand. Although I think I have done a relatively good job, I recently read an article that hits the nail on the head -- not trying to cover all information but rather showing how casting ethanol away as an unaccomplished piece of garbage is not the right thing to do. And even though I enjoy writing my entire posts, this time I'm going to copy and paste the article because it is so well written. Please read Bruce Dale's article "Demonizing Ethanol," found below. Dale is a distinguished professor for chemical engineering and materials science at Michigan State University and this is what he had to say about recent attacks on the worthiness of ethanol:

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

Time's Take on Corn-Ethanol

Although I really didn't want to weigh in on a gossip magazine article, I've been receiving e-mails from friends and family that shows that this story has had the effect that its authors wanted. For those of you not aware, the most recent issue of TIME magazine has a cover story on corn ethanol that is scathing to say the least. If you haven't read it, follow this link:,9171,1725975,00.html

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

Farmers Signal Big Year For Soybeans

The results of the much anticipated survey by the USDA of 86,000 farmers has found that the number of acres of corn grown in the United States is projected to fall from 93.6 million acres last year to 88 million acres this year -- approximately what market analysts predicted. 13.2 million of those acres are projected to be planted right here in Iowa, down from 14.2 million acres last year. Farmers sighted several reasons for reducing overall corn acres such as high input costs and a desire to return to a more normal crop rotation schedule. Soybeans, on the the other hand, are projected to see 74.8 million acres planted nationally; up from 63.6 million acres planted last year.
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

Interconnected Agriculture

The rise of the United States ethanol industry has had at least one significant impact -- for better or worse, ethanol has tied agriculture prices to the energy market. Now a large increase in speculation for oil leads to increased demand for a relatively cheaper fuel (ethanol), which in turn puts positive pressure on corn prices so as to ensure that enough acres are planted to satiate the demand.
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

DDGS and E. Coli

With the increasing amount of ethanol being produced, DDGS (dried distillers grains and solubles), seemed to be a great way for the ethanol plant to make a little extra money on the side and for livestock farmers to possibly offset some of the negative pricing pressures that corn-based ethanol places on their input costs. I know of a lot of farmers in this area interested in using DDGS blended into livestock feed as a cheap additive. But a Kansas State University report a few months ago brought up the possibility of a connection between the DDGS and e. coli occurrence in cattle. First of all, if the meat is prepared correctly there is absolutely no connection between possible e. coli abundance and food poisoning. Second, e. coli and other bacteria are commonly found within the animal digestive track and several are necessary for the animal's nutrition.
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

Saving at the Pump

A great report out of Nebraska underscores my point from yesterday's post -- that ethanol is helping control prices at the gas pump. I think it is fantastic to watch the national average gasoline price of regular unleaded climb to $3.26 per gallon in the past week while a quick survey of gas stations here in central Iowa shows a price of around $3.05 per gallon -- a small decrease from last week!

And now, out of Nebraska, the conclusions are clear. With an average savings of 9 cents per gallon using E10 blends of gasoline compared to regular gasoline, the state of Nebraska saves consumers $4 million per month on ethanol! This is calculated by taking the gasoline usage in Nebraska, multiplying into the percentage that using ethanol (77%) and then multiplying that number by the average savings. Amazingly, most gas stations in Iowa offer between 10 to 13 cents per gallon savings on E10 blends and so the savings to the consumer could be even greater than $4 million per month. With E10 blends averaging 10 cents per gallon savings, it should definitely be the fuel of choice, even considering the 2.7% energy density deficit that it carries. All I can say is that although it sucks, filling up on E10 when it is priced at $2.99 sure doesn't feel that bad with other states paying a lot more for their gas.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ethanol May Dampen Gas Prices

The Wall Street Journal is reporting that some energy market analysts predict that ethanol production in the United States could lower gasoline prices during the summer driving season. Analysts from the Credit Suisse have been quoted as saying that the nearly 7 billion gallons per year of ethanol being produced in the United States will serve to lower gasoline prices off of their anticipated record high prices coming this summer. What is interesting is that even though both a downturn in the economy and record high corn prices have cut into ethanol profits and dampened drastic increases in ethanol production, an additional 167,000 barrels of ethanol per day capacity has been added this year. This amount is comparable to a full sized refinery and the lower costs built into ethanol compared to the record high oil prices have begun to put negative pressure on the price of gas. The analysts also predict that with the depressed economy, refiners and blenders who purchase oil will have greater pressure put on them to blend ethanol into more of the gasoline so as to keep prices low enough for consumers to keep buying.
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

CO/Hydrogen Separation

New research out of the University of Wisconsin (Madison) has shown a significant step forward in fuel cell design. A fuel cell is envisioned to be used in a car either to use stored energy in a hydrogen bond to power a battery to run the car as the hydrogen reacts with oxygen to form water, or a fuel cell can be run on a hydrocarbon such as diesel along to create the hydrogen and power the battery with water and carbon dioxide emitted in that case. What these researchers found was that when hydrocarbons are used, the catalysts used to drive the reaction in the batteries would be "poisoned" because of the carbon monoxide binding to the platinum catalyst. Once these expensive catalysts are poisoned, they no longer efficiently react with hydrogen and oxygen to form water and produce electricity.
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:;jsessionid=3FF0F02A8B76048826E3326602E98BCD

Friday, March 14, 2008

Dallas Texas Ethanol Terminal

Within the debate over the pros and cons of ethanol, a lot of thought has to go into its transportation. Because of the phase separation that occurs with ethanol in gasoline, the possibility occurs for it to mix with small amounts of water in a gasoline pipeline and carry particulate matter. This is undesired and has eliminated the possibility of transporting ethanol through conventional gasoline pipelines. On the plus side, this has led to a railroad renaissance and produced talk of expanding rail capacity or upgrading existing lines to meet the need for transport. May 28th will see a huge step in upgrading the nation's rail systems due to ethanol's effect. Texas, and particularly the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is a huge potential market for ethanol. Providing cheap and efficient transport into that area would be a huge benefit to Midwest ethanol plants and a good way to jump-start ethanol usage in the South while cellulosic technologies come online in the area. US Development Group, in alliance with Union Pacific, has built a state of the art ethanol terminal in the Dallas area, set to open May 28th, which will be a major jumping off point for ethanol to end up in that city or to be trucked to other major areas in the state.
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

Ethanol Facts

Instead of a news article, I thought I'd educate a little bit on some of the facts of ethanol in the United States as it currently stands for corn-based ethanol:

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).