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Why and how to joyfully move our butts around town, without mucking the place up.

Fueling vehicles with Ethanol

A lot of corn and other crops are grown around the world. They're grown everywhere, and they are easily turned into Alchohol. Beer bellies around the world give testament to the ease with which corn can be turned into alchohol. Alchohol is highly burnable and is often used as a fuel for vehicles, for example dragsters usually run on alchohol.

With diminishing oil resources, alchohol seems like an obvious alternative to burning oil. It's a liquid fuel, so is easily compatible with the existing liquid fuel based infrastructure and vehicles. But, is it really all its cracked up to be?

( Ethanol From Waste Straw (Posted by michael on Friday April 23, 2004,

phcrack writes "The CBC is reporting that 'Iogen Corporation of Ottawa has developed enzymes to break down waste straw and ( wood chips into ethanol on a commercial scale.' Apparently traditional ethanol from food crops like corn used at least as much energy to create as they released when burned. It's nice to see that big oil companies are helping fund a project like this too. It's very rare today to hear of a major company throwing money at a research project since the '80s."

The Straight Dope

This question was considered on November 28, 2003 by the Straight Dope column ( ( The salient points are:

  • Entrenched big business interests (ADM): The Energy Tax Act of 1978 established a subsidy for growing corn for alchohol production, and producing ethanol. Most of the dollars go to Archer Daniels Midland (ADM), which produces 40% of the grain used to make ethanol. A piece of this turns into bri(er..)political donations to congress persons that protect the subsidy program.
  • Dueling studies
  • Making ethanol requires machines and processes that themselves require energy, that largely comes from burning fossil fuels.
  • A rebuttal claiming the other study was based on old inefficient processes. However, the rebuttal study was funded by the National Corn Growers Association.

Doesn't sound good, does it? Actually it sounds like an unsettled scientific debate in which political interests have decided to meddle, and the current outcome (subsidies for ethanol production) is likely unsound.

Let's look for some truth, shall we?


Bio Fuels legislation ( ( The government is supporting more than just Ethanol, there's other stuff too. This is a Dep of Energy page listing the laws relavent to all Bio Fuels (liquid fuels grown from biological processes). (and

Bailout Watch: ETHANOL CONTINUES TO REAP SUBSIDY WINDFALL ( ( This is a well documented and researched opinion piece along the lines implied by the title.

  • Sixty U.S. distilleries produce 1.8 billion gallons of ethanol yearly, mainly for use as an additive in gasoline.
  • The subsidy program is an exemption from the federal excise tax on gasoline, and the federal government is losing over $1 billion per year in tax revenue to this subsidy.
  • Corn production itself has a subsidy, with a gauranteed price of $1.89 per bushel.
  • Gasohol contains less energy (2/3rds) than gasoline, meaning that cars burning gasoline with ethanol additives (hence gasohol) get less miles per gallon than ones burning pure gasoline.
  • The environmental story is muddy: "//without the Environment Protection Agency's renewable oxygenate requirement, an ethanol market really would not exist because ethanol cleans the air no better than non-renewable oxygenates ... Although oxygenates have been proven to reduce some harmful emissions, they can also lead to higher levels of others, particularly nitrogen oxide, a precursor to ozone formation//"

IRS Publication 378 ( ( goes over the tax issues. The instructions to form 720 ( contain more details of the tax treatment.


The following are cribbed from the DOE web site ( (

[1999] State of Colorado ( ( Studied emissions differences of vehicles powered with Gasohol and operated at 35 degrees Farenheit ambient temperatures. It showed an average 11% decrease in certain emissions, though in a few cases there was an increase in emissions.

[2002] EPA ( ( "A Comprehensive Analysis of Biodiesel Impacts on Exhaust Emissions": Shows that Biodeisel drastically reduces most forms of air pollution, but for a modest increase in nitrogen oxides. One interesting fact about biodiesel is that regular diesel has sulfur, and it's the sulfur content that causes the serious diseases known to be caused by diesel exhaust. Biodiesel has no sulfur, and therefore would be a simple way for the heavy equipment around the world to be powered without causing serious disease.

DOE "Our Changing Earth, Our Changing Climate" ( ( and "Bioethanol�The Climate-Cool Fuel" ( A big concern in climate change is the increase of carbon-dioxide (CO2) present in the atmosphere. By burning any liquid hydrocarbon fuel you are adding CO2 to the atmosphere. With fossil fuel the CO2 is resurrected from ancient times, and adds to the total amount of carbon in the ecosphere. With biodiesel and ethanol, the carbon is derived from plants who recently captured CO2 from the atmosphere, thus does not constitute a net increase in carbon the ecosphere.

Ethanol doesn't have to be made from corn. That it's done that way right now is an accident of fate, perhaps, or perhaps finagling by ADM. In any case, it can be made from other biological matter.

( Masada Resources Group, is building an ethanol plant in Middletown, New York, that will convert the cellulosic materials in MSW to ethanol. Wastes from many paper mill, food processing, and other industries may also work well for bioethanol production.

The theory is you can take any biological waste from food processing or wood pulp or any other industry that uses biological matter, and run it through some sort of biodigesting process and have ethanol and other fuels come out. You have to balance this with using that same material as potential fertilizer (composting).

Ethanol production today requires about 50 percent less energy than in the early 1980s. During this same period, ethanol yields have increased by more than 22 percent, from 2.2 gallons per bushel of corn to 2.7 gallons per bushel. Also during this time, capital costs to construct an ethanol plant have decreased from more than $2.00 per gallon of annual production capacity to less than $1.50 per gallon. ( ( The critics equation says that the energy available in a gallon of ethanol is less than the energy consumed in producing that gallon of ethanol. The farming industry that produces the corn used to make ethanol is very energy intensive, from fertilizers to tractors to processing plants to transportation. If the energy capacity proced in ethanol doesn't exceed the energy used to produce it, then you've lost, and you're just causing an excess of fossil fuel usage. This study is being pushed as a way to undercut that argument, "look we're being more efficient".

[2002] USDA Office of Energy Policy and New Uses, "The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol: An Update" ( ( This study examines this question directly.

Production of corn-ethanol is energy efficient, in that it yields 34 percent more energy than it takes to produce it, including growing the corn, harvesting it, transporting it, and distilling it into ethanol.

The study examines a group of other studies done between 1991 and 2002, which shows a variation of energy balances to a gross overuse of energy to a nice increase in energy, over the energy used to make the ethanol (from corn).

[1991] David Pimentel, Cornell University (Journal of Agricultural and Environmental Ethics, vol. 4, no. 1, pp. 1-13. 1991) conducted a study which has gotten him labeled as a persistent critic of ethanol. His claim is "that it takes about 70% more energy to grow corn and make ethanol from it than goes into the ethanol". The DOE page claims his study has faults, namely that he uses old data from old methodologies, and doesn't account for co-products produced as a byproduct of ethanol production. The latter are animal feeds produced from the residues left over.


( Flex Fuel Vehicles is a list showing which vehicles are able to run on flex fuel. Flex Fuel means it can run either on gasoline, or various ethanol blends up to E85 (85% ethanol). It is part of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.