Ethanol Dreaming

Chris Calder says in this posting a few things that needed to be said very loudly, particularly when we are been forcibly reminded that out agricultural output has never been designed to accept massive diversion of food ever into non food applications Total human total consumption is very inelastic as common sense will tell you. It is inconvenient to either halve consumption or to double it. It is much more elastic horizontally as usage changes. In any event, the naive diversion of corn into ethanol has apparently unbalanced the global food market sufficiently to cause the first major price run up in decades.

The good news is that every farmer will now press every resource into an increase in next season’s production, so we may now expect a major surplus in six months ending the supply threat. Which is why fertilizer is now expensive.

My interjections are in bold.

Why ethanol from cellulose is a hoax!

The biofuel zealots falsely claim that our current disastrous use of corn for ethanol production is only temporary, and is somehow a building block or stepping stone for future ethanol production from switchgrass, crop waste, wood chips, and other sources of cellulose. The problem is that the equipment (manufacturing plants) used to make corn vodka (ethanol) are of no use in making ethanol from cellulose, which is a complex and expensive two stage process requiring new plant construction and costing millions upon millions of dollars. The current cost of making ethanol from cellulose is the same as making gasoline from crude oil that costs $305. a barrel. As ethanol has 30% less energy than gasoline and thus delivers poor gas mileage, this product is currently economically dead. If we can improve our methods and cut the cost in half, that still brings us to an oil equivalent price of gasoline made from crude oil at about $150 a barrel, plus we still have the 30% loss in energy per gallon compared to gasoline. Even if they got the cost down to an oil equivalent of $100 a barrel, it is still not a good deal because of the 30% energy loss inherent to ethanol, which cannot be changed unless you make another fuel product altogether.

Mother Nature had to make cellulose incredibly resistant to biological reduction in order to do its job. The enzymes used by the termite appear promising in overcoming this barrier. Again work on this avenue has barely begun and I certainly do not think that it will bear much fruit for years. What makes cellulose totally maddening is that it is constructed from chains of glucose itself. In other words, it is practically pure sugar. And there is certainly no lack of raw material whose conversion could be nicely integrated into our agricultural and silviculture management systems. However, to think it is a near term solution to energy production is at best baseless.

As expected, many money hungry companies are making big claims about having bacteria that can make ethanol from cellulose work, but ask yourself how and at what price? If they had a bacteria that could do the job instantly it would be the ultimate anti-human life weapon, because if it got loose it would eat up the earth's biosphere and we would have nothing left but bacteria. Obviously, you can make ethanol from lots of substances given enough time and money, and "time is money." It takes time and specific conditions (usually higher temperatures) to make these bugs work, and the time it takes to rot or dissolve wood chips and switchgrass into something that can then be fermented into alcohol is a complex, time consuming, and expensive process.

A new study from three agricultural economists at Iowa State University with insider information on the latest biofuel technology says ethanol made from cellulose will likely NEVER be affordable The Federal tax credits for ethanol made from cellulose would have to be raised from the current $.51 to $1.55 per gallon, which will be unacceptable to Congress and the American public. Switchgrass, crop waste, and wood chip biofuel schemes are too expensive to ever work!

The newspaper article can be found here

The full study can be found here - pdf 180kb at:

Coming soon after the Princeton study published in SCIENCE showing that all biofuels are far worse for the environment and global warming than gasoline leaves the biofuel zealots little cover to hide behind.

Of course, the only problem with gasoline is that it is converting sequestered carbon into atmospheric carbon at a faster rate than it can be returned in some other form. Even without the panic over global warming this is an unwise and clearly unsustainable option and must be solved, which is the principal problem this blog addresses.


Another problem with our current corn vodka infrastructure is that it is located in the wrong areas, and not near the "marginal" prairie lands" that Bush wants to grow switchgrass on. So the idea that corn ethanol is a stepping stone to anything but more corn ethanol is a BIG LIE!

Welcome to public relations or ‘American know-how’

Quoted from my web page.

"The outlook for biofuels is dismal - Growing massive amounts of switchgrass to produce ethanol from lignocellulose has most of the same drawbacks as making ethanol from corn. We will use land, water, fertilizer, farm equipment, and labor to grow switchgrass that will be diverted from food production, with soaring food prices a result. If we grow switchgrass on land currently used to graze cattle, we will reduce beef and milk production. If we grow switchgrass on unused "marginal" prairie lands, we will soon turn those marginal lands into a new dust bowl, which they may turn into anyway due to global warming. Computer models for the progression of global warming show the America Midwest and Southwest getting hotter and dryer, with much of our farm and grazing land turning into desert. We know that biofuel production will speed up global warming, so why are we pinning so much hope on an environmental battle plan that any fool can see will blow up in our face over time? We won't be able to produce enough biofuels to run our cars, or enough food to fill our bellies.

The very process of making ethanol from lignocellulose has not been proven to be economically viable (cellulosic ethanol not affordable, pdf 180kb), and the Bush energy bill assumes new scientific breakthroughs that have not occurred. Some new biofuel crops are toxic weeds which will have a destructive impact on wildlife and biodiversity around the world. In practical terms, there is not enough usable land area to grow a sufficient quantity of biofuel plants to meet the world's energy demands. Even if the USA dedicated 100% of our corn and soybean production to biofuels, we would only satisfy 12% of gasoline demand and 6% of diesel demand. To quote Stuart Staniford, "The biofuel potential of the entire human food supply is quite a small amount of energy compared to the global oil supply - somewhere between 15 to 20% on a volumetric basis, so 10 to 15% on an energy basis." Every year the human race burns up the equivalent of 400 years worth of planetary vegetation in the condensed form of fossil fuels. How are we going to replace all that concentrated energy by growing biofuel crops on our desperately overpopulated, pure water starved little planet?

Growing algae to make biodiesel is being touted as a cure-all for all our biofuel problems, but we are still stuck with the fact that algae need solar energy to turn carbon dioxide into fuel. To make biodiesel, algae are used as organic solar panels which output oil instead of electricity. Research reports brag that algae can produce 15 times more fuel per acre of land than growing corn for ethanol, but that still means we would need approximately 30 million acres of concrete or plastic lined algae ponds to meet 100% of projected US automotive fuel usage by the year 2022.

It is shaping up to be a lot better than that and the use of rack suspended sleeves provides a high degree of process control also. Thirty million acres sounds like a lot, but is orders of magnitude different from the five hundred million acres needed for plant oil. In fact the non agricultural lands of the west are more than suitable and sufficient to supply all the fuel oil we need.

A greenhouse closed system also allows recycling of the water. I also suspect that we produce a fifty-fifty oil/ solids product stream, and if we are really smart the solids can be used even as cattle feed or even indirectly as a source of sugar.

We are not too far away and right now our best ally is algae itself. The short life span allows a rapid cycle of experimentation. Thus a new protocol can be shaken out in months once undertaken. Therefore, I am very optimistic and with the greenhouses already built and operated, we are already into second generation production methodology.

Those algae schemes that use less land invariably call for feeding algae sugar. Sugar must be made from corn, beets, or other crop, so you are simply trading ethanol potential to make oil instead of vodka. If you grow genetically engineered super-algae in open-air ponds, the genetically modified algae will be immediately carried to lakes, reservoirs, and oceans all over the world in the feathers of migrating birds, with unknown and possibly catastrophic consequences. Using agricultural waste water for algae production is a good idea, but algae may be more logically used for making modest amounts of animal feed, as algae is very costly to turn into fuel.

Using agricultural "waste" to make biofuels has its own problems. Removing unused portions of plants that are normally plowed under increases the need for nitrogen fertilizers, which release the most potent greenhouse gas of all; nitrous oxide. Much of the residual crop biomass must be returned to the soil to maintain topsoil integrity, otherwise the rate of topsoil erosion will increase dramatically. If we mine our topsoil for energy, we will end up committing slow agricultural suicide like the Mayan Empire. Without topsoil, the world starves! Using wood chips to make ethanol sounds like a good idea until you remember that we currently use wood to make pellet fuel for stoves, paper, particle board, and a thousand and one building products. Every part of the trees we cut down for lumber are used for something, including the bark which is used for garden mulch. The idea of sending teams of manual laborers into forests to salvage underbrush for fuel would be prohibitively expensive. Our forests are already stressed just producing lumber without tasking them with producing liquid biofuels for automobiles, a scheme which will inevitably drive up the price of everything made from wood, creating yet another resource crisis."

Please visit my page on biofuels, "The biofuel hoax is causing a world food crisis!" at:

You can find the latest biofuel disaster news at

Christopher Calder

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