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Thread: What's the deal with ethanol?

  1. #1
    Cyburbian
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    What's the deal with ethanol?

    Hello, I realize this isn't directly related to transportation planning but this is probably the most appropriate place to post my question.

    What's the deal with ethanol?

    I've heard that it's much "cleaner" than gasoline (less pollution) but that the production of ethanol consumes more energy than the final product saves.

    Is "more energy" in the above sentence fossil fuel energy or some other type of energy?

    Someone fill me in. There's a lot of talk about ethanol with the higher gas prices. But a lot of people who I know that are typically for a healthier environment are coming out against ethanol.

  2. #2
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by alex
    Hello, I realize this isn't directly related to transportation planning but this is probably the most appropriate place to post my question.

    What's the deal with ethanol?

    I've heard that it's much "cleaner" than gasoline (less pollution) but that the production of ethanol consumes more energy than the final product saves.

    Is "more energy" in the above sentence fossil fuel energy or some other type of energy?

    Someone fill me in. There's a lot of talk about ethanol with the higher gas prices. But a lot of people who I know that are typically for a healthier environment are coming out against ethanol.
    It does take energy to make ethyl alcohol (the same chemical that is part of beer, wine, liquor). Energy to farm it (run the tractor, harvester and the truck and railroad to get the source crop to market and the distillery) and to distill it (the fermented sugar must be boiled for distilling). For sale in the USA, it must then be cut down to no more than 85% purity ('E-85') with some non-potable chemical, usually petroleum-based gasoline, to make it undrinkable in order to avoid federal taxation as beverage alcohol.

    As for energy content, it has significantly less energy as the same volume of gasoline, requiring that much more to be burned to go the same distance.

    As for the market for ethyl alcohol, it is very location specific, being cheaper in the agricultural midwest and far more expensive as one gets closer to the coasts. It cannot be shipped in current long-distance pipelines and must be trucked or railed, this due to its ability to mix with water, and can only be mixed into gasoline at the last possible time before delivery to retail stations. This makes it expensive for fuel jobbers and refineries to handle, even for the 'E-10' or 'E-5' blends now required in the reformulated fuel areas. These hassles are making for short fuel supplies in many urban markets.

    I am not on the ethanol 'bandwagon' and will not be until these issues are resolved.

    Mike

  3. #3
    Cyburbian Luca's avatar
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    I think about half the cars in Brazil run on ethanol. I doubt they have the fiscal prowess to produce so much subsidy if the economics of ethanol are so crap.

    While ethanol requires energy to produce it, so does fossil fuel (though, less, naturally). The difference is that growing corn / cane is a carbon sink, too.

    I think most 'green' people seem to be against it because they loathe the idea that we may not be doomed to an energy-poor future and get to eat our cake and eat it too. They are the 21st century puritans. Their attitude to ethanol is like the Catholic Church to condoms.
    Life and death of great pattern languages

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    Cyburbian Coragus's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by mgk920
    As for energy content, it has significantly less energy as the same volume of gasoline, requiring that much more to be burned to go the same distance.
    I knew that ethenol production took large amount of petroeum products to produce, but I never heard this before. It's good to know. Do you think that it would therefore be safe to assume that E-85 vehicles are also not as fuel efficient as an equivalent model that takes normal fuel?
    The cookies are worth the drive

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    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Coragus
    I knew that ethenol production took large amount of petroeum products to produce, but I never heard this before. It's good to know. Do you think that it would therefore be safe to assume that E-85 vehicles are also not as fuel efficient as an equivalent model that takes normal fuel?
    Yes.
    The new ethanol blend that is being pushed into regular gasoline will also cause a 10-15% loss of efficiency in regular vehicles. Hopefully there will be some useful backlash against meddling once people realize their $3/gal gasoline just got turned into effectively $3.30/gal gasoline/ethonol blend by the efficiency loss. Not to mention a huge part of the recent runup in retail price was the effects of having to add ethanol in the first place.

    Ethanol has its place in the energy spectrum of things, but as a natural part of the marketplace of fuels (i.e., close to producing areas). Not forced on everyone.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian Plus PlannerGirl's avatar
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    I know the car repair radio talk shows are all warning folks about the dangers of not converting over to ethanol mix gas. The switch over here had led to shortages becouse they have to totaly drain the huge transfer storage tanks clean them down then refill. This stuff can not be shipped by pipeline only tuck raising the cost even more. Price has shot up, supplies are less and its absorbing water in folks tanks doing god knows what.

    grrrr not happy
    "They who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety." Ben Franklin

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  7. #7
    Cyburbian jmello's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Luca
    I think about half the cars in Brazil run on ethanol. I doubt they have the fiscal prowess to produce so much subsidy if the economics of ethanol are so crap.
    Ethanol from sugar cane (Brazil) is much, much cheaper to produce than ethanol from corn/grain (US). Many of the existing cars in the US are able to run on any combination of gasoline and ethanol, the problem is that it's hard to find ethanol and it is the same price or more than gas.

  8. #8
    Cyburbian jordanb's avatar
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    Another point about Brazil's Ethanol is, although they've managed to replace 40% of their gasoline consumption with ethanol, (but probably have increased their overall energy use with the program), they still produce less ethanol than the United States, who only has relaced a little over 1% of our gasoline with ethanol. The only reason why they can replace a large minority of their gas consumption with Ethanol is because they don't consume very much gas in the first place (compared to a rich country).

    Which goes to show the problem with biofuel to which I alluded in the last thread about it: It is simply impossible to produce enough of it to maintain the status quo in the industralized west.
    Reality does not conform to your ideology.
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    Cyburbian dobopoq's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Random Traffic Guy
    Yes.
    The new ethanol blend that is being pushed into regular gasoline will also cause a 10-15% loss of efficiency in regular vehicles. Hopefully there will be some useful backlash against meddling once people realize their $3/gal gasoline just got turned into effectively $3.30/gal gasoline/ethonol blend by the efficiency loss. Not to mention a huge part of the recent runup in retail price was the effects of having to add ethanol in the first place.

    Ethanol has its place in the energy spectrum of things, but as a natural part of the marketplace of fuels (i.e., close to producing areas). Not forced on everyone.
    So ethanol is 10-15% less efficient by volume. But that doesn't get us to the price per gallon, which will vary as pointed out above in proximity to the grain belt. I wonder how much it will cost to produce a gallon of corn based ethanol without the use of any nonrenewable fossil fuels in either the cultivation, fermentation, or distribution stages?
    "The current American way of life is founded not just on motor transportation but on the religion of the motorcar, and the sacrifices that people are prepared to make for this religion stand outside the realm of rational criticism." -Lewis Mumford

  10. #10
    Cyburbian
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    Another problem with ethanol touched on above, is its corrosive attribute. Causes problems when holding it and burning it. But can work well when the right materials are used. Talked to a guy whose neighbor recently bought a kit to make ethanol and is producing it for about 75 cents a gallon and blending it with gasoline. LOL, seems like old moonshiners might be sought for their expertise...

    I've heard the kits run about $175. Anyone know anything about them?

  11. #11
    Cyburbian mgk920's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by dobopoq
    So ethanol is 10-15% less efficient by volume.
    It's worse than that. IIRC, Ethyl alcohol has only about 65% of the per-volume energy content as straight petrol.

    To be cost-competitive as a motor fuel, ethanol must be priced at only about 65% that of undiluted gasoline (ie, $2.00 vs. $3.00).

    Mike

  12. #12
    Cyburbian Random Traffic Guy's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Vlaude
    Another problem with ethanol touched on above, is its corrosive attribute. Causes problems when holding it and burning it. But can work well when the right materials are used. Talked to a guy whose neighbor recently bought a kit to make ethanol and is producing it for about 75 cents a gallon and blending it with gasoline. LOL, seems like old moonshiners might be sought for their expertise...

    I've heard the kits run about $175. Anyone know anything about them?
    Not with ethanol, but I have seen the backyard-biodiesel kits in operation. I think that is a better way to go than an inappropriate emphasis on ethanol, starting with more efficient and longer lasting engines, etc.

  13. #13
    Cyburbian njm's avatar
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    I agree that ethanol is a less-efficient fuel (combustion-wise.)

    A few points sometimes not considered:

    -One large source of energy consumption in the ethanol process is fertilizer. (Production, transportation, and application of fertilizers) I wouldn't be surprised if fertilizer is the largest energy-consuming part of the process after distilling. If this could be reduced, it might be possible to increase ethanol's C/B.

    -The government has programs in place to pay farmers in certain areas not to produce, as the surplus drives down prices and no one can turn a profit. Furthermore, grain production is sometimes subsidized anyway due to market prices below production cost. Ethanol production could, theoretically, reduce these subsidies while maintaining (or improving upon) current market prices.

    -The technology is relatively new. Gasoline was not nearly as efficient 100 years ago as it is now. I think it's good that it's being explored now... provides a valuable research base to transition to other fuel sources, avoiding the 'oh ****' factor if/when oil futures skyrocket overnight.
    What luck! A random assemblage of words never sounded less intelligent.

  14. #14
    Cyburbian
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    NJM I agree having options is always a good thing. I do not know the history of gasoline, but maybe with more effecient vehicles it makes ethanol more of a reality to really offset the use of petro? In part, I'm not sure it is 100% of the solution though.

    I like the idea of Bio-diesel, I want to buy a newer Jetta turbo diesel and run a blend of bio-diesel. Just started looking into it to see if I could make it work... Is anyone using bio-diesel now?

  15. #15
    Cyburbian Tide's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by njm
    -One large source of energy consumption in the ethanol process is fertilizer. (Production, transportation, and application of fertilizers) I wouldn't be surprised if fertilizer is the largest energy-consuming part of the process after distilling. If this could be reduced, it might be possible to increase ethanol's C/B.
    One thing to add is the ethanol does not need food grade corn (sugar, grain, etc.) to make ethanol, and they can use the entire plant therefore I'm thinking a less intense fertalizing and pestacide regiment is needed. But I'm not a farmer so I couldn't say for sure.


    Semi off topic: I am troubled by the lack of information, confusion, and strong biases many people in the world, and reflected on this board have against ethanol. I don't know why, it seems like some people have it out for ethanol and want to stay narrow minded and addicted to oil. Think outside the box, noone said ethanol was the magic pill or that cars had to run on 100% ethanol, but it is a start and it is a better direction than we are currently headed. Please think of the future, maybe not your's but my yet to be born kids'.
    @GigCityPlanner

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    Cyburbian njm's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by Tide
    Semi off topic: I am troubled by the lack of information, confusion, and strong biases many people in the world, and reflected on this board have against ethanol. I don't know why, it seems like some people have it out for ethanol and want to stay narrow minded and addicted to oil. Think outside the box, noone said ethanol was the magic pill or that cars had to run on 100% ethanol, but it is a start and it is a better direction than we are currently headed. Please think of the future, maybe not your's but my yet to be born kids'.
    Quoted for truth.

    I couldn't agree more. A perfect example of 'thinking outside the box' was a trial program in Stockholm some years ago. The EU was subsidizing Portugal's production of Port wine such that more was produced than could conceivably be consumed. The 'low-grade' wine that did not meet quality standards was imported by SL (Stockholm's transit auth) and refined as fuel for some of the bus fleet. A banner idea for turning waste into a useful product. I don't think they do it anymore, as they've been hot-and-heavy on biogas (from WWTP digesters) and hybrid buses recently. Still, I'm sure a lot of valuable information came from a study like that one.
    What luck! A random assemblage of words never sounded less intelligent.

  17. #17
    Corn Burning Fool giff57's avatar
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    Do a search of the forums for e85 and read my posts on this topic. I have touched on many of these topics before.

    Read this research paper as well.
    Attached Files Attached Files
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    Cyburbian DetroitPlanner's avatar
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    Remember Jane Jacob's economics. Learn to make what you import cheaper and grow your economy instead of someone elses.

    We need to ensure that we can get ethanol as competitive as possible. Realisically, who would care if it is 15 percent less efficient if we could buy it for $1.50 per gallon instead of three? Not to mention that it is generally better for the environment and the national economy. I'd rather see my fuel dollar profits going to the corn farmers of the midwest than to South America, Russia, or the Middle East. Now.. if I can only get those Corn farmers to buy more Dodge Trucks and Cadillac Sedan's I'd be in fat city.
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  19. #19
    Cyburbian Brocktoon's avatar
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    Ethanol does burn or efficiently than gas but it takes more of it to generate the same amount of power. In AZ they require an ethanol blend during the summertime for pollution reasons and your fuel economy does decline. Mine dropped about 10%.

    Another problem with ethanol is the amount of subsidies paid to the corn industry. The real cost of ethanol varies but if you removed the subsidy we pay farmers to grow corn then the cost would be make it even less competitive.

    Corn is not the best manner to make ethanol. Brazil uses sugar which is higher in cellulose. The more cellulose the more ethanol created. Wood chips from dead trees, switch grass and sugar all have a high level of cellulose and convert well to ethanol.
    Ethanol is a stop gap. It is debatable if the US can grow enough bio fuels to meet our energy needs.

    Bio diesel has some promise. Although there are many subsidies on soybeans the ease to make a diesel engine able to accept bio-diesel is easy but it does have a lower "freezing point" so you either have to live in a warm weather place, install a heater on your gas tank, or use more petrol-based diesel than bio diesel in the blend. Call me old fashion but heating my gas tank sounds like a bad idea

    If we could switch all the long haul semi's to a 90/10 blend 90% diesel/10% bio diesel we could put a significant dent in the demand for gas in this country.

    I think both a stop gap measures but as NJM stated gas was not efficient at the beginning but as technology progresses efficiencies result.
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    Cyburbian njm's avatar
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    As I touched on with subsidies, some of the subsidies that Brocktoon also discussed are a part of the current agriculture 'scheme' that pays farmers not to overproduce. If demand for bio-based fuels were to increase, these subsidies could be elinminated as the increased demand would replace the gap between the current market price and the (presently higher than market value) cost of production.
    What luck! A random assemblage of words never sounded less intelligent.

  21. #21
    Corn Burning Fool giff57's avatar
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    Everyone always talks about subsidies like there are none for the oil industry!

    http://www.iags.org/n1030034.htm
    “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall”
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  22. #22
    Cyburbian
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    Oil has about as many subsidies as anything, if not more. I had to do a report on it awhile back, but I’ve forgotten all the numbers. The price of the pipelines, drilling subsidies, R&D, the strategic petroleum reserve, etc is in the billions before you even take into consideration military costs.

    What concerns me the most about ethanol is how much energy and land it takes to produce. Producing ethanol seems as though it might may cause as much pollution/environmental degregation as if we stuck to oil. The thing that can't be taken away, though, is that we can always grow more corn in the good ol USA. Oil is limited, and if you thought the Middle East was a mess, wait untill Myanmar and the likes start becoming tension points.

  23. #23
    Corn Burning Fool giff57's avatar
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    I found another interesting link

    It's a pro and con ethanol debate between some scientists and evironmentalists. I have not listened to it yet.

    Edit: I couldn't get it to work, but I will leave the link up. The research papers by the two scientists are available on the site if you go to the main page and scroll down a bit.
    “As soon as public service ceases to be the chief business of the citizens, and they would rather serve with their money than with their persons, the State is not far from its fall”
    Jean-Jacques Rousseau

  24. #24
    Cyburbian
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    A similar discussion on my local group produced some intersting comments:

    The reason E85 is cheaper is because the federal and state taxes are greatly reduced in order to support the fuel. If all the taxes were the same, the price would be higher than straight gasoline.
    I tried to research this, but can't find any comparison. Must not be searching for the right thing.

    It is not sold in Coles County because the demand has been zero for several years and selling it has not been profitable. E85 requires specialized piping, tanks, pumps to handle this corrosive fuel so it is expensive to start selling. With no market and high costs, there is no incentive to spend the money to install all the new equipment and add to the gas station's environmental exposure and regulations for no added profit.
    This is chicken and egg to me. If there was no demand, the original question (why isn't E85 available in Coles County?) would have never came up. But I wonder how much demand would justify the additional equipment expense.

    E85 contains less BTU per gallon than gasoline. If you track your fuel mileage accurately over time you will find, as many of my friends have and science proves, that your MPG has dropped and there is little savings in buying E85, even when sold at a lower tax rate.

    Several studies have been done and it depends on who sponsors the study what conclusion is reached. Most recently, studies show that the total cost including production costs and government subsidies, that Ethanol is a net loser but still beneficial to our energy independance and environmental interests. Not to mention the benefits to our county and state economy.
    According to this site, this is correct. It does cost more to use E-85.

    By the way, enthanol costs have skyrocketed in the past month due to demand in large east-coast cities. Most local gas stations have stopped using ethanol (10%) because of the cost.
    There are no requirements for E-10 here, but has always been available. E-10 midgrade used to be priced the same as low end pure unleaded. I've always used it and never been able to tell the difference in vehicles. Realistically, people won't use ethanol unless its cheaper than gasoline. Enviornmental and reducing oil dependancy arguments are good, but they don't win over the average consumer at the end of the day.

    signed
    (Ex-gas station owner, thank goodness!)

  25. #25
    Cyburbian
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    in far-eastern ontario, ethanol is popular.

    macewen, a major gas station sells 87 octane ethanol products for the same price as 85 octane gasoline. consumers perceive the economic advantage of getting a better product for their dollar and choose the ethanol blend. the difference in price of 5 cents/litre is enough to sway consumers at the pumps.

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