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.

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