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:

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