Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Ethanol

Christians have been called upon by God to be the caretakers of the Earth since the first man appeared. We're also commanded to be good stewards of our money. It's with that attitude in mind that I present this article.

There are currently 1900 filling stations in the USA with E-85 fuel pumps. The number goes up considerably every year, and the trend is not going to go away. Despite attempts from the oil industry and its congressional cronies to defeat ethanol proponents entirely and send them packing, the grassroots efforts to bring ethanol into the 21st century are alive and well. I will attempt to be a political centrist in this article. In interest of full disclosure, my political leanings are mainly conservative. However, the topic of ethanol is one in which everyone, republicans and democrats alike, have been handed a fistful of misinformation thanks to the deep pockets of the oil industry.

I don't know if ethanol, hydrogen, or some other fuel will win out in the end. But as far as ethanol goes, there are no inherent problems with ethanol itself as a fuel alternative to gasoline; the problem is primarily with corn and corn subsidies. I've been investigating this a lot the past year after hearing David Blume, author of Alcohol Can Be A Gas, give a short talk about the benefits of ethanol and the many false claims about it. Here's a short rundown of much that I've discovered:

1. Corn is one of the worst crops to use for making alcohol/ethanol. It requires much more by way of farm equipment, underlying groundwater, and energy, yet it only produces between 350 to 500 gallons of ethanol per acre. It's simply not worth it trying to make ethanol out of corn, and no one in the greater ethanol industry supports doing so. Sugar cane, for instance, costs less than half the price of corn to make ethanol out of and produces twice as much ethanol in the process. So why do we continue to pay out all this subsidy money to farmers for growing corn? Because, believe it or not, farm lobbyists are extremely powerful critters. The one and only reason they have any power at all is because of the almighty Iowa Caucuses. If we would simply change early caucus locations every four years it would take away all the power that the farmer welfare kings now enjoy. Farmers are used to growing corn and have a lot of money invested in harvesting equipment and so forth that's corn related. Many are reluctant to change. But farm subsidies of any and every kind need to go! Enough of this welfare already.

2. Some of the better crops for ethanol are sugar cane at 900 gallons per acre, buffalo gourd & fodder beans 900 gallons, cattails 1,000 gallons, sorghum 1,500 gallons, switch grass 2,000 gallons, and industrial hemp possibly as much as 2,500 gallons. This last one is very controversial; however, there isn't an agriculturalist on the planet that won't tell you what a tremendous textile industrial hemp is/was. It's the strongest textile known to man which is why boat sails are still made from it (albeit from foreign farms). You can make some 10,000 different products from hemp including every single thing that comes from petroleum oil such as plastics. You can even make a darn good particle board from hemp. I for one would like to see hemp grown again in America. And, no, you cannot make marijuana from industrial hemp.

3. Ethanol detractors constantly talk about how much energy it takes to make ethanol. One of the many things they don't realize (or don't want you to) is that the byproduct of ethanol can be run through a digester to make methane gas. That same methane gas can then be used to heat your next batch of ethanol in the distiller. I've also read of complaints about ethanol not being suitable for sending through large pipelines for shipment like the oil pipelines in Alaska. This is silly. Few, if any, modern pipelines are made from iron. More importantly, crops for ethanol can be grown in every individual state, so there's no need to ship it through pipelines anywhere to begin with.

4. Nearly every detractor of ethanol not only bases all his arguments on corn, but will generally use it to tell you that it will take an incredible amount of land to grow all the ethanol crops we would need to become an all ethanol fueled country. However, Brazil is a good example of what the reality is. They import no oil whatsoever. They have quite a bit of their own oil for one thing, plus they raise sugar cane to make ethanol out of and then run a 50/50 blend in their cars. Sugar cane produces around 900 gallons of ethanol per acre. They grow all the sugar cane they need on only 2% of the land. They've been doing this successfully for over 20-years. They also have enough ethanol leftover to export to other countries every year. If they can do that, then it's hard to believe that we couldn't grow a crop that produces 1500 gallons, or more, of ethanol per acre and run on E-85. Switch grass and hemp will both grow just about anywhere by the way. In fact, it's been said that there's enough switch grass growing wild along the highways in Missouri to fuel every vehicle in the state for the next year. And if you're still concerned we might not have enough land on which to grow our ethanol crops, here's an idea: ban tobacco, the most useless excuse for a crop ever seen on the face of the earth, and use that land to grow ethanol crops. The only downside would be that healthcare costs would drop by at least 20%. Oh... wait....

5. Any gas based car can be converted to run on ethanol, although cars made before 1985 that have carburetors will need several more modifications. Most cars made after 1980 will do just fine with only a cheap converter kit installed. Of course flex fuel vehicles are ready to go.

6. There is nothing better that you can put in your vehicle than ethanol. You'll get around 15% more horse power than with gas. Your motor will have almost no carbon buildup at all which means it will last two to three times longer. Imagine getting 500,000 miles on your car before its first overhaul! There are almost zero emissions. Your motor will run so cool that in many cases you won't even need a radiator. Some naysayers claim that you'll get worse mileage; however, if you design a motor with ethanol in mind you can get better mileage than with gas. Also (and this is a biggie), ethanol burns over 98% clean. That means we can get rid of our catalytic converters and other pollution control items that kill our gas mileage and performance. Your fuel mileage will be considerably better with ethanol. We can also go back to making simple cars that we can all work on again. Wouldn't that be nice?

7. Ford's Model T was designed to run on ethanol. Both Henry Ford and Charles Kettering (of GM back in the day) referred to ethanol as "the fuel of the future". The only reason we're running on gas today is because Rockefeller and his oil baron pals got together and priced gas so cheap (even taking a loss on it for a few years) that ethanol couldn't compete back in the 1920s.

8. GM is plainly on the ethanol bandwagon and will have the world’s largest ethanol plant, 100 million gallons/year, up and running by the end of 2010, and they already have 2.5 million flex fuel vehicles on the road. GM has also invested heavily in Coskata, a company that's producing ethanol from agricultural leftovers and municipal and industrial waste. They claim to be able to produce ethanol for around a dollar a gallon in the near future using an entirely different technology in making it. They say: "During gasification, carbon-based input materials are converted into syngas using well-established gasification technologies. After the chemical bonds are broken using gasification, Coskata's proprietary microorganisms convert the resulting syngas into ethanol by consuming the carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrogen (H2) in the gas stream. Once the gas-to-liquid conversion process has occurred, the resulting ethanol is recovered from the solution using "pervaporation technology.""

9. One of the many myths about ethanol is that it will corrode engine parts, especially seals. This is only partially true. Ethanol is hard on gaskets and seals made from cork, and can eventually erode iron fuel tanks and lines (though it would take a long time) because of the small amount of water present in ethanol. Also, fuel pumps have to be made to withstand the slight electrical conductivity of ethanol. However, all cars made after 1980 or thereabouts have corrosion resistant tanks and fuel lines, they have no cork gaskets anymore, and they all have the correct fuel pumps. A lot of ethanol corrosion myths are based on ethanol's evil cousin--methanol--the stuff they use in race cars which is generally made from wood grain alcohol and is very hard on a motor. There's a fantastic video on YT showing the torn apart motor of a 2000 Chevy Tahoe which was run almost entirely on E85 for 100,000 miles. This vehicle is NOT a flex fuel vehicle, and it never had an ethanol converter kit installed. It was completely stock. I've never seen such a clean looking motor inside. Even the seals look like new:

10. The question on your mind should be, why doesn't the general public know all this? Why have we been sold this ridiculous bill of goods? Of course the answer lies where it usually does when politics are concerned--in money. Very simply put, ethanol has no rich men with deep pockets to fund campaigns or to even fund their own lobbyists, while the oil industry is so powerful and has so much money to throw at legislators, even funding their campaigns, that ethanol is completely shut-out. Big oil spent over $400 million in lobbying while Bush and Cheney were in office, and 80% of it went to republicans. (When Bush and Cheney, two oil magnets themselves, took office, they put together a special energy taskforce in 2001 and wouldn't tell anyone who was on it. It was later leaked in 2005 that every person on it was a representative from a big oil company). But now that the democrats are in control we're seeing big oil starting to toss quite a bit of money their way as well. Among all the people running for political office in 2008, the person who received the largest campaign contribution from big oil was John McCain. However, you may find it harder to guess who the person was that received the second largest amount. It was Barack Obama who raked in a cool million from them. Yeah, it's good to be president.


Noel Griese said...

Your article is littered with errors. Ethanol provides 15 percent less energy than gasoline, not 15 percent more. The reason that ethanol can't be shipped in undedicated pipelines doesn't have to do with its corrosive properties so much as the fact that ethanol is a universal solvent that attracts water and then contaminates conventional fuels batched with the water-saturated ethanol. It also is mildly corrosive, attacking pipeline seals. It can be a satisfactory motor fuel - note that Indy cars run on methanol or ethanol.

C W Seper said...

"Ethanol provides 15 percent less energy than gasoline, not 15 percent more."

I didn't say a word about "energy". I said ethanol provides 15% more horsepower, and it does due to its higher octane.

"The reason that ethanol can't be shipped in undedicated pipelines doesn't have to do with its corrosive properties..."

I never said that's why. I said that this is the reason most often given by ethanol detractors, and it is.

Yes, alcohol is a solvent, but there is no such thing as a "universal" solvent unless you're into secret alchemy. It does a pretty fair job on shellac I can tell, having just refinished a guitar neck with amber tinted shellac last week, and certainly it works to disolve SOME other things, but certainly not ALL other "fuels". And what if it did? What other fuels are we mixing it with in E-85? It also will not attack pipeline seals unless they're made of cork. I've never heard of pipeline seals made of cork.

If my article is "littered with errors" you haven't shown any.

C W Seper said...

By the way, speaking of solvents, there are few that can match gasoline in that department. Got some tar, gum, dye or anything else that's tough to get out with thinner or alcohol? Try gas; it will dissolve just about anything.