Friday, September 21, 2007

More on why ethanol is bad

Well I was surprised this morning when I opened up the paper today. Yes I am one of those people who actually reads the paper still. It does have an added benefit that I can keep my bird's cage clean. Low an behold there was a nice article about the evils of ethanol and how it will lead to food shortages. This article came out the St. Paul Pioneer Press, and can be found here.

This goes out to the person who was first to post to my site and I congratulate them for having the courage to do so, but I have a feeling that they were trying to convince me that I was wrong. Well since there are some people who doubt me on the problems with ethanol it is time to be torn a new one. I am going to go point by point through the points that are incorrect on the site mentioned in their post and bury them with the facts and truth. The site that is mentioned in their comment is Clean Air Choice. Also on the Clean air choice site they claim that ethanol will not affect food prices, guess what this site is wrong, and the individual who commented was wrong. See these 2 articles from CNN: (article 1) (article 2) and this one from today's Pioneer Press. Guess what you are wrong corn fuel will raise the cost of food.

So lets tear into the benefits that Clean Air Choice claims from ethanol. You can pull the page up here that makes the benefit claims.

Claim #1 Reduced demand for middle east oil:

This claim is of minor consequence. Here is the big secrete most of our oil does not come from the middle east. The most recent month that the the department of energy has data on is June of 07. We imported 405,019 barrels of oil of that 71,171 came from the Persian gulf. That is 17.6% of all of our imported oil. Our internal production was 154,183 for the same month so the total percentage of oil we got from the middle east in June was 12.7%. I hate to break it to you but 12.7% is not much and could be met by other sources. Yet a decrease is a decrease so this one I will toss to the other side.

Claim #2 Ethanol is renewable:

Yes it is. But remember that the growing of commercial crops does require fertilizers and a lot of water and the environmentalists don't like use using either.

Claim #3 Ethanol is safe and fully approved:

I can only assume that by “fully approved” is in reference to the fact that it can be run in Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFVs), this means nothing really since most vehicles are not FFVs. I can only assume that they mean that ethanol is safe for engines. This is true to a point, remember my previous ethanol post, in approved vehicles like FFVs there is not a problem, but in non approved ones this is a very bad idea. One tankful won't do any permanent damage, but will make it run poorly. Here are some problems with using ethanol, yes even 10% blends, in non approved cars.

  • It absorbs water (will even do this in FFVs)
  • any absorbed water can freeze in fuel lines in the winter
  • erodes some plastics (These are usually the ones in the fuel pumps) this is know to be a cause of fuel pump failure even with 10% blends
  • erodes aluminum
  • erodes some natural rubbers
  • is more corrosive than water to steel

Now the erosive and corrosion problems are solved in FFVs but these problems in non FFVs occur outside of the warranty period and usually start showing up after 150,000 miles. I wouldn't call this safe.

Claim #4 E85 is cleaner:

Also as mentioned in my previous ethanol post not it is not. They say it results in less CO2 which is true, but 30%, for a lot of people that could be done by getting their cars tuned up, properly inflating their tires, and better driving habits. As far as producing less real EPA pollution I question this. It will produce less unburned hydrocarbons because there are fewer hydrocarbons in ethanol. Also it will produce fewer sulfur compounds since it contains fewer. It will however produce more NOx in a properly functioning engine since these are a product of high compression combustion. Ethanol works best in high compression engines, usually much higher than regular cars. A standard car usually has a compression ration of 8:1 where as ethanol works well around 12:1 up to 14:1 so 50-75% more compression. I hate to break it to you that unless you are running at these high compression ratios you will not burn all the ethanol, and even at 8:1 it would produce the same amount. Also higher compression allows you to burn more of the fuel so standard compression engines will blow unburned ethanol out the exhaust. Also as far as producing fewer smog producing pollutants this has been proven wrong here is an article from the New Scientist that proves otherwise. There is another issue too the evaporative loss issue. Ethanol is much more likely to evaporate out of your tank thus making the problems discussed in the New Scientist article worse, not to mention all that unburned fuel leaving the exhaust pipe of you low compression FFV.

Claim #5 E85 is less toxic:

See response to claim 4. Also I believe that the combustion temperatures inside an engine (about 2300 kelvin or about 3600 Fahrenheit) would breakdown these compounds into things like other hydrocarbons or just burn them up. I am not a chemist but I know there is a temperature at which things break down and become harmless or oxidize and become harmless and it is near the mentioned values.

Claim #6 E85 outperforms gasoline:

Yes it has over 100 octane (actually around 105 to 110), big deal most people don't know what octane means, and I can buy 110 octane gasoline that is unleaded. So now what does this number mean, I can get all technical but simply put, the higher this number the more you can compress the fuel without having problems. By using higher compression in the engine an engine can become more efficient, more compression higher temperatures, higher temperatures more efficient But let's look at their claim they say it burns cooler than gasoline in the same engine so it can't be more efficient. Now onto the more horse power, what does this value mean. Horse power is simply a measure of how much energy is released at a given time. Now we are going to wander off into math land to prove that this is really difficult to achieve. The combustion of ethanol happens at around 1920k (kelvin the scientific measure of temp) where as the combustion temp of gas happens around 2030k. So now we will look at the maximum efficiency that can be achieved we can use Carnot efficiency since it sets the upper bound. So we make an assumption of the ambient temperature of 294k (70 Fahrenheit) and use our equation

  • ethanol
    • 1-(294/1920)=.846
    • or maximum theoretical efficiency of 84.6%
  • Gasoline
    • 1-(294/2030)=.855
    • or maximum theoretical efficiency of 85.5%

So here we can see burning ethanol is not as efficient as gasoline. Now this is the theoretical maximum efficiency the most efficient piston engine gets in the low 40%. But keep in mind that the reduction would be the same for both engines so let's say a gasoline engine is capable of 35% (this is average) efficiency then an ethanol one would be able to get 34.5% or so.

Also ethanol seems to have a much lower energy than gasoline by volume which is how your car delivers fuel. A gallon of ethanol only has about 67% the energy content of a gallon of gasoline.

Now we need to look at what this means for power, power as mentioned before is just a measure energy released in a given amount time. The time frame to look at is 1 combustion cycle, this will be the same for gasoline as it is for ethanol (there are slight differences, but by keeping them the same it doesn't make ethanol look as bad, gasoline burns faster and produces power faster) so if we burn the same amount of fuel in the same time we can do these calculations. We will need to go off to math land again. To make number easy to work with let's say that the volume of gasoline burned in a combustion cycle has 1000 units of energy

  • ethanol
    • the same volume of ethanol has 670 units of energy
    • now we multiply that by the efficiency (670*.345) and get 231 usable units of energy per combustion cycle
  • Gasoline
    • 1000 units of energy for the same volume of fuel as ethanol
    • now we multiply that by the efficiency (1000*.35) and get 350 usable units of energy per combustion cycle

What does this mean, well it means that we get less usable energy out of the engine on ethanol than gasoline. This means that our horse power is lower while consuming the same amount of fuel. Less power also means less work done work in a car is distance traveled. Now it is possible to burn twice as much ethanol than gasoline so lets see what we get for power.

  • Burning twice the volume of ethanol as gasoline
    • we now burn a volume of fuel with 1340 units of energy per combustion cycle
  • multiply that by efficiency (1340*.345) and we get 462 units of usable energy per combustion cycle

Now this may be what they were talking about when they said more power but we did this by burning twice as much ethanol that gasoline so we get half the miles per gallon. But we get a 21% increase in total power output. Unless you are racing this is a bad deal and you will see why in claim 7.

The next part of this is they claim that it keeps you engine clean. This it does do because it is an industrial solvent. It also does not varnish like gasoline. So yes this is true, but if you use the fuel injector cleaners from time to time this isn't a problem.

Claim #7 it is cheaper per gallon:

Yes it is cheaper per gallon but vastly more expensive per mile. So now let's examine this with some math and facts. Here we won't take into account that efficiency thing which will make ethanol look even better. Let's say you get 10 miles to the gallon on gasoline while efficiently burning it. Then let's say you can also just as efficiently burn ethanol how much would you spend to drive the same distance. Well we need to make some assumptions, the first is the cost of fuel, lets assume a price difference between E85 and gasoline is ethanol 50 cents cheaper. I have never seen a difference this high so this makes E85 look better than it is. So today gas cost $2.799 a gallon at the gas station by my house so I will assume that E85 costs $2.299 a gallon. A gallon of ethanol only has 67% of the energy that a gallon of gasoline has. So now off to math land we need to know how many gallons of E85 are needed to produce the same amount of work as a single gallon of gas. Well we need to solve the equation 1=.67 x ??. This is simple algebra simply divide 1 by .67 and we get it takes 1.49 gallons of ethanol to do the same amount of work as 1 gallon of gasoline.

So going back to our example to go 10 miles on gas it would cost you $2.799 but to go the same distance on ethanol it would cost you $3.42 (multiply 1.49 by 2.299). I did a similar calculation yesterday and I will say it again. Wow that is a crappy deal! These calculations did not take into account the fact that the burning of this fuel is less efficient as demonstrated by my dissection of claim 5. Also keep in mind that the production of the corn used is subsidized by the federal government, the blenders also receive a 51 cent per gallon subsidy, and the state of Minnesota subsidizes the ethanol producers so how much in my tax money is going fore each gallon of ethanol, I have no ideal but that wasn't even taken into account here, this again would make ethanol look worse than it really is. I want to know the true cost of a gallon of E85 but have no idea where to begin calculating it.

Claim 8 it degrades quicker:

Yes it does, but how many people are spilling gasoline in water or dumping it in the sewer. This is really a non issue.

Claim 9 The upper mid west has led the nation in E85 uptake:

Why is this a benefit. We just have a good farm lobby that needed something to do with the excess corn they were being subsidized by the government to grow.


If you are going to try and sell some one on something be able to provide sources, analysis and facts, not piss and wind. Let's get rid of ethanol as a general purpose fuel apart from it is renewable it offers nothing, and I believe it detracts more than it offers. Would you rather eat lower cost food and use a lower cost fuel or eat higher cost food and use a higher cost fuel. Ethanol has already created the later, I want to go back to the former.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

The Problems with Ethanol

Being from the upper Midwest should mean that I really support ethanol, because well we are farming people and especially Minnesota being a big corn state. I personally think ethanol is a great fuel for special purposes which I will get into later, but as a general purpose motor fuel I think it is crap. I have good reasons too for these beliefs other than the pure emotional ones like:

  • "It's good for the environment"
  • "It better than giving our money to the people who hate us."
  • "It is too heavily subsidized."
  • "Government is mandating it, why should they tell me what to do."
  • "It's the oil companies fault for (choose your reason to hate big oil)"

Now some of these I do agree with, I would love it if I didn't have to send my money to crappy countries that believe we are the great satan, but you know there aren't many fuels that are better now, so until we have a more efficient form of motor fuel we are stuck.

Most of the discussion I see around is similar to the 4 statements above. Everyone has their opinion about it and no one seems to have any real facts. Also no one seems to be objective when looking at it. I will say that when ethanol (specifically E85) first came out to me it seemed like a good idea but as I found out more it really started to look like a raw deal. What is even more interesting is that my father-in-law who was also an engineer but also tends to be more liberal has recently realized that it is a bad general purpose motor fuel. He use to think I was a bit out there with my beliefs on it and up until about a month ago read about it in the "The New Scientist" and read everything that I had been telling him.

So I will now start my rational discussion about ethanol and because I am trying to be a nice guy I will provide the opposing side go first with their reason.

  1. Ethanol is made from corn so it is renewable, we can just grow more
  2. Ethanol burns cleaner that gasoline
  3. The cost per gallon is less
  4. It helps support American farmers
  5. It is carbon neutral
  6. We aren't giving our money to big oil
  7. We aren't sending our money to countries that hate us
  8. Soon we will be able to produce more ethanol from by using non starchy not sugary plant matter (cellulose ethanol)
  9. The price won't fluctuate as much (This came from the original brochure we go at the gas station I worked at when E85 was new to my station about 8 years ago)
  10. It will bring down the cost of fuel
  11. It has a higher Octane (somewhere between 105 and 115 depending on blend)
  12. We can meet all of our fuel needs with it (I have never seen real evidence to back this up but I have heard people say it)
  13. you get more energy out than what is put in (the best calculation I have seen says 1 unit of energy in produces 1.3 units of energy out)
  14. It freezes at a much lower temperature

Ok, so now that I have provided evidence and reasons for ethanol now what are the reasons why it is a bad motor fuel.

  1. It has a much lower energy density than gasoline (only about 60%, so if you can go 10 miles on a gallon of gas then you can only go 6 in the same vehicle with ethanol)
  2. Total costs to produce it are more than gasoline
  3. It is heavily subsidized
  4. It destroys the land
  5. It takes food out of people mouths
  6. It drives up the cost of food
  7. It drives up the cost of gasoline
  8. It likes to absorb water
  9. It is corrosive
  10. It does not burn as clean
  11. It smells really bad when it is burned (This is a little know fact unless you have been around race cars that burn alcohol)
  12. It erodes the fuel system in your car unless it is made of special materials (specifically aluminum, certain plastics, steel, and natural rubbers)
  13. It releases more VOCs (volatile organic compounds)
  14. Your car is more likely to suffer from vapor lock (not start because it boiled away the fuel)
  15. Is harder to start when it is cold out side (Sadly this is a problem in the states where it is used most)

I am sure that I have forgotten some for both lists so don't think that I am personally trying to be biased above this point. So not that I have presented reasons for and against ethanol as a fuel why am I against it. well let's look at some of the most compelling reasons.

First I will tear down the environmental arguments, first it is not carbon neutral. The best estimate I have seen says that it produces 1.3 units of energy for every 1 unit of energy put in, so unless the 1 unit of energy put in was carbon neutral it is not. Only the actual burning of the ethanol is carbon neutral since that is carbon that was absorbed while it was growing. Also the claim that it burns cleaner, yes and no. It does produce less carbon monoxide, does not release as many unburned hydrocarbons, and does not release as many sulfur compounds. These are all well and good, but it will still release more VOCs into the atmosphere, does produce more NOx (nitrogen compounds) emissions, and also was recently found to produce more smog producing pollutants (these are the things that smell really bad at the race track). So it really isn't any cleaner burning when everything is looked at objectively. Corn is also one of the worst crops to plant because it really depletes the soil of nutrients so it looses there too. So when looked at objectively it appears to not be an environmentally friendly fuel, and seems to be maybe only slightly better than gasoline.

So now what does that leave us, well ignoring the environmental issues with it how about the energy issues. But to effectively gage a fuel on energy one must also look at cost to do some amount of work at the same time, because I would love to have a car that is powered by a nuclear pulses because it would be really fast but would be really expensive (and bad for the environment). So the current pump price of gas by my house today is $2.699 a gallon for regular unleaded 87 octane gas, the store by my house does not sell E85 so I do not know it's current price, but when I have seen it lately it is usually no more than 50 cents cheaper so I will guess it is $2.199 a gallon. Ok so E85 fuel is cheaper by a lot, but what is the cost per unit energy, remember that E85 has only 60% the energy of gasoline. So followe me into math land:

  • let's say 1 gallon of gas has 100 units of energy then 1 gallon of E85 has only 60 units of energy
  • We now need to find out how many gallons of E85 are required to get the same energy as a gallon of gasoline
  • use the equation of 100 = 60 x ??
  • to solve this we divide 100 by 60 giving us the equation
    100/60 = ??
  • I punch this into my calculator and get 1.67

So to get the same energy as a gallon of gas I need to have 1.67 gallons of E85. What does this mean, well if you can drive 10 miles on a gallon of gas you now have to use 1.67 gallons of E85, put another way if you get 30 MPG (miles per gallon) on gasoline you would get 20 on E85. Now if you have a flex fuel vehicle they never show this bad of a decrease in mileage. There is a simple explanation for this, these are 2 different fuels with different properties nether one burns it's best but is probably favored towards the E85. There is still a decrease and they usually claim about 5 MPG, so this means that the car isn't running at it's best when running regular gas. Now for the part why I like ethanol as a special purpose fuel it is possible to burn twice as much E85 as gasoline and see a modest horse power gain. This is why racers like alcohol based fuels, they want to go fast and to go fast you need to release more energy. If I am only going short distances and need to be faster this is what I should use. There are some claims that it is possible to get the same efficiency off of E85 as gasoline, the truth is you could but you engine would probably only last about 5 seconds E85 has a higher octane than regular gas meaning you can compress it more, more compression means a hotter flame a hotter flame means more efficient use of energy. The problem is that the energy difference is so great that you would have a flame not just a little hotter but would be much hotter. For those of you who want to find out go here to the Wikipedia page and you can read all about it. So now to evaluate similar vehicle running on E85 and gasoline let's see how much it cost to go the same distance. Again to keep things simple let's say we can go 10 miles on a gallon of gas we now know it takes 1.67 gallons of E85 to go that same distance. So to do this on gasoline it cost us $2.699 but to do the exact same thing on E85 it would cost us at least $3.67. Wow that looks like a crappy deal!

Those are the 2 big reasons to support ethanol fully debunked. The others things I can take issue with is that were were lied to when it came to market initially because the price of ethanol has gone up more than gasoline has over the same time. The price still seems to fluctuate with with gasoline. Corn is the most subsidized crop in America, along with the state subsidies for producers, and the federal blenders credit of 51 cents a gallon. Why am I paying income taxes to the state and federal government so they can pay someone to make a crappy motor fuel that still isn't price competitive to gasoline. Cellulose ethanol may make it not so crappy, but once that gets going I want all subsidies stop so we can see what it really cost for a gallon, and then see how much it cost to drive the same distance. I doubt it will even cost the same as a gallon of gas, let alone have the same or lower cost per mile. Now with more ethanol mandates and some people thinking that we can easily double the amount of corn ethanol produced without causing food and price problems. Guess what you people are really stupid here are 2 articles from CNN's business page (article 1) and (article 2) that if read and you are willing to do the math you can see this is a bunch of crap and if you push for it you are really stupid. I could continue on this but I need to go be a productive member of society so I will stop now and leave you with some closing words.

I don't have a problem with biomass fuels I just think we should be using waste matter to produce methanol instead, similar burn properties to ethanol, lower energy than gasoline, but doesn't require the use of food, or exotic inefficient processes. It smells just as bad when burned but you can get even more power out of it.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

About Myself

Hello everyone,

Welcome to Bob the Super Hamster. This blog has nothing to do with hamsters, their care, or owning them. I just always thought it would be funny to have a hamster named "Bob the Super Hamster". Here in you will find my rants and ravings about what I find wrong or incorrect. If you want to insult me on my blog feel free, it is the internet, everyone is entitled to there opinion and I am entitled to not care.

So who am I, well:
I am a person who is despised by both political parties. I find my self more closely affiliated with the libertarian party, more socially liberal (you can do what you want), but fiscally conservative (government should be as small as possible).

In my personal and work life I try to be a efficient as possible. I believe in conservation and maximizing the use of resources. I think recycling is a good thing (especially metal and glass). I think renewable energy is good when done right, and that we need more nuclear power.

As for hobbies I spend a lot of my time fixing up my house and yard that the previous owners didn't take care of. I also like cars I have a 97' BMW 540i and a 68' MG midget that is in the process of being restored. I tend to like the small cars they tend to have a more sporty feel but my wife insisted that I get a "family" car, so I got the funnest car I could afford, although I really wanted a new BMW M5.

I have a BS in Computer Science, math minor which I received from a MNSCU school (Not part of the U of M system). I went to grades k-12 here in Minnesota.

I have seen more of the world than most people my age (27), in having lived and worked in Paris, France for 3 months, and from there visited Belgium, Germany, Ireland, England, and Spain on the weekends. I also spent 2 weeks in India conducting a training and 9 days in Russia doing support for my current job. I have also had the chance to visit Canada and Mexico. I also have a fascination with people from different countries mostly from my days in college and still am in regular contact with people from all 6 inhabited continents, and one day would like to visit the 4 that I have not been to.

I work for a rather large company in the twin cities as a programmer. The primary work that is done at this location is programming, but because some of what might be in this blog might go contrary to company policy I choose not to identify myself or my employer because I like my job.

Some sites I tend to read are:

So feel free to see what I read to and where I get my information from. I also like Auto Talk with Paul Brand on AM1500 KSTP which can be heard on Saturday 3pm to 6pm and Sunday noon to 2 pm. Additionally I like to listen to Coast to Coast AM because sometimes it is good for a laugh with the amount of BS that makes it on, and hey it is no more fake than most TV and more entertaining.

So that should give you some idea of who I am and I am sure by now a bunch of people can't wait to mock me, so have at it.