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.


Anonymous said...

Or, you could see the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest's website on E85 and biodiesel:

Bob the Super Hamster said...

My first comment, and I don't even know how to take this one. Are they for it or against is. I guess we will never know. I have looked at their site and as far as producing clean air here is the new scientist article I mentioned: