Fuel Ghoul embraces ethanol as man’s best alternative to gasoline for Canadian cars and trucks. This writer recognizes ethyl alcohol made from corn as the first step in a technological evolution toward cellulosic ethanol made from grass, corn stover and forestry waste.
It’s difficult to go on the Internet today and not encounter
other writers that are, for various reasons, against ethanol. Some opponents believe
that using corn to make anything will increase the price of breakfast cereal
and beef steaks at home, and cause mass starvation abroad. Other antagonists
are quick to remind the public that propelling engines with ethanol only reduces
carbon emissions by a few percentage points, and such a switch has a negligible
effect on the environment.
But the noisiest argument centers on ethanol’s economic practicality or what environmentalists call ‘net energy’ production. This small, but prolific school asks the question ‘is more energy used to grow and process corn kernels into ethanol than is contained in the ethanol itself?’ These sole-sourced challengers rely on the work of Dr. David Pimentel, a retired entomology professor from Cornell, and Tad Patzek of the
These two American scientists continue to be very critical of ethanol. Both Dr. Pimentel and professor Tad Patzek have studied ethanol’s net energy production and published negative results. But look closer - their work is carefully designed to undermine the public’s faith in this alternative fuel. Although their findings have now been largely discredited by the scientific community in general, their research is often used to legitimate anti-ethanol arguments online, in chat rooms and in ‘peak oil’ web site forums.
In August 2001, Dr. Pimentel attacked the economics of corn-to-ethanol production in an article published in the Encyclopedia of Physical Sciences and Technology. He asserted that ethanol production is not economically viable because: "The growers and processors can't afford to burn ethanol to make ethanol. US drivers couldn't afford it, either, if it weren't for government subsidies to artificially lower the price." 1 Pimentel’s mathematic calculations produced a net energy negative; he maintains that more fossil energy is required to produce a gallon of ethanol than what the ethanol yields. In the November 11th 2006 issue of Autoweek Magazine, 2 Tad Patzek finally admits that if the Bush Administration's data is correct than ‘ethanol at best, breaks even’. He also claims that the technology needed to produce cellulosic ethanol is far from proven, and that any natural crops harvested for energy would threaten tropical ecosystems.
It's probably no coincidence that Dr. Pimentel and Tad Patzek would come to their anti-ethanol conclusion - both have very obvious ties to the oil industry. Pimentel in particular has a record of trying to discredit ethanol production. It is no secret that he retired from Cornell shortly after that institution received hundreds of millions of dollars from Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani to build an affiliate university in the State of Qatar.
Tad Patzek, on the other hand, still works for oil companies Shell and BP as a researcher, consultant, and expert witness. He founded and continues to direct the UC Oil Consortium, which is funded by the oil industry at the rate of US$60,000 to $120,000 per company per year.
According to two researchers from the Argonne National
Laboratory of the University of Chicago, Dr. Tianqiu Wang, and Dr. Simone
Santini, Cornell’s entomology professor Dr. Pimentel is famous for using
outdated data and ‘his numbers are
appropriate to conditions of the 1970s and early 1980s, but clearly not the
1990s’. With up-to-date information
on corn farming and ethanol production and treating ethanol co-products fairly,
every other study concludes that corn-based ethanol yields a positive energy
balance – one source attributes the difference to be approximately 20,000 Btu
per gallon’. 3
Wang and Santini determined that Pimentel has been recycling his ancient data for years, and using this old data greatly affects the outcome in these studies. Farms have become more energy efficient since 1978 due in large part to replacing gasoline powered equipment with more fuel-efficient diesel engines. Total farm energy use peaked in 1978 at 2,244 trillion Btu, but by 2000 had dropped to about 1,600 trillion Btu. In the meantime, corn production rose from an average of 110 bushels per acre in 1980 to 140 bushels per acre in 2000.
Estimates of fertilizer production cost in Btu/lb dropped
from 38,000 in 1980 to 21,000 in 1995. Today’s ethanol plants use far less energy
than plants just 10 years ago, plus Dr. Pimentel added 7,000 Btu/gal because he
included the energy cost for building the ethanol plant, concrete, steel
etc. Again, he didn’t explain how he got these numbers.
Fertilizer use has dropped in this time period as well, but none of Dr. Pimentel’s or Tad Patzek’s studies take into consideration farmers who use natural fertilizer instead of spray-applied anhydrous ammonia. Natural fertilizers include manure and crop rotation using nitrogen fixing legumes, such as soybeans, which also produces oil that may also be easily converted to biodiesel. Any farmer who also raises cattle, hogs or sheep has a ready supply of manure. There is no additional cost in money or Btu’s to manufacture this animal waste, and spreading it on a field simply involves using different equipment.
An August 2002 USDA study found that not only is corn fed ethanol energy-efficient, but that efficiency is steadily improving as the byproducts are improved. The net energy balance estimate for ethanol produced from wet-milling corn is 27,729 Btu per gallon, and the net energy balance estimate for dry-milling is 33,196 Btu per gallon - the weighted average is 30,528 Btu per gallon. The energy ratio is 1.57 and 1.77 for wet- and dry-milling, respectively, and the weighted average energy ratio is 1.67.
As for ethanol and the environment, because pure ethyl alcohol contains 30 per
cent more oxygen in its chemical composition, its combustion results in a more
oxygenated exhaust. Greenfield Ethanol, which is the largest ethanol producer
in Canada, provides excellent online information showing how ‘Renewable fuels such as ethanol are one of the
best tools Canadians have to fight air pollution from vehicles.’ 4 The Canadian government estimates that, "If 35 percent of gasoline in