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Published on July 28th, 2009 | by Jennifer Lance

23

Grow Corn to Power Biomass Power Plant to Power EVs, not Ethanol

ethanol vs. biomass

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A lot of concern has been expressed about ethanol.  From the overuse of antibiotics to watering down Waxman-Markey in support of corn farmers, it is questionable as to whether ethanol is the solution America needs for its foreign oil dependency. Thomas R. Blakeslee of the Clearlight Foundation thinks we are better off using corn for Combined Heat and Power (CHP) biomass power plants to run electric vehicles rather than converting it to ethanol.

Blakeslee writes in Renewable Energy World:

Corn ethanol is one of the worst wastes of biomass: An acre of corn produces about 330 gallons/year if you cook it using fossil fuel.

Use the ethanol as a heat source and the net yield drops to 214 gallons/year.  Car gas mileage is 30% lower with ethanol. At 25 miles/gallon we can only drive 25 X 214 = 5350 miles per year on an acre of corn.

If we take that same acre of corn and burn it to make electricity to charge an electric car, we will be able to drive the car 22 times as far!  About 117,096 miles per year!

Only 8% of US powerplants use CHP, compared to 53% in Denmark, and such plants can exceed 90% efficiency.  Blakeslee argues CHP is more applicable in rural settings, but there are problems with what to do with the heat when there is no demand, such as in the summer months, and the thermal output from CHP plants would not be directly used to power cars.  Considering the excessive need for water and fertilizer to grow corn, it may be better suited for biomass rather than ethanol when considering efficiency.

Image by Larsz on Flickr under a Creative Commons License


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About the Author

Jennifer lives on 160 acres off-the-grid in a home built with her own two hands (and several more skilled pairs of hands) from forest fire salvaged timber. Her home is powered by a micro-hydro turbine, and she has been a vegetarian for 21 years. Jennifer graduated from Humboldt State University with a degree in art education and has been teaching art to children for over 16 years. She also spent five years teaching in a one-room schoolhouse before becoming the mother of two beautiful children. Jennifer has a Master's Degree in Early Childhood Education and is currently teaching preschool, as well as k-8 art. She enjoys writing, gardening, hiking, practicing yoga, and raising four akitas. Jennifer is the founder and editor of Eco Child's Play (http://ecochildsplay.com) "I’ve always been concerned about the earth and our impact upon it. Now that I have children, I feel compelled to raise them with green values. From organic gardening to alternative energy, my family tries to leave a small carbon footprint." Please visit my other blog: http://reallynatural.com



  • http://greenoptions.com/author/susan Susan Kraemer

    Great idea!

  • http://greenoptions.com/author/susan Susan Kraemer

    Great idea!

  • http://recycled-energy.com miggs

    Yes, good idea. And quick reply to the idea that it’s unclear what we’d do with a CHP plant’s heat in the summer months. Manufacturing facilities need heat year-round for industrial processes like drying, smelting, etc. That’s where a lot of the low-hanging fruit for CHP is.

    I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, a company that does CHP. RED’s principals, Tom and Sean Casten, are two of the country’s leaders in this field. And there’s an awful lot of potential in CHP if we’re willing to remove some of the regulatory barriers. According to EPA and DOE estimates, the U.S. has enough recoverable waste energy to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. That’s a monstrous figure — more than virtually any other proposed solution. We should be doing more of this.

    • Corn

      Corn makes you poop more efficiently

  • http://recycled-energy.com miggs

    Yes, good idea. And quick reply to the idea that it’s unclear what we’d do with a CHP plant’s heat in the summer months. Manufacturing facilities need heat year-round for industrial processes like drying, smelting, etc. That’s where a lot of the low-hanging fruit for CHP is.

    I’m associated with Recycled Energy Development, a company that does CHP. RED’s principals, Tom and Sean Casten, are two of the country’s leaders in this field. And there’s an awful lot of potential in CHP if we’re willing to remove some of the regulatory barriers. According to EPA and DOE estimates, the U.S. has enough recoverable waste energy to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 20%. That’s a monstrous figure — more than virtually any other proposed solution. We should be doing more of this.

  • Mr. Sinister

    Any fool can do the math and determine that using biomass for electricity is more efficient than producing ethanol using traditional fermentation techniques. I don’t think anyone would consider this a shocking revelation. However, since we don’t live in Utopia, there are a couple of important things to consider.

    First, where exactly are all of the electric vehicles that you plan to charge with this biomass conversion? Nowhere! Because mass production of affordable electric vehicles and the supporting infrastructure is still many years away. Even when they do become available, it will take many more years before EV’s begin to constitute a significant percentage of vehicles on the road. In comparison, there are already millions of flex-fuel vehicles on the road that are capable of utilizing ethanol. The added cost of producing an E85-capable vehicle is miniscule compared to the cost of hybrid or fully electric drive-trains. The cost of adding E85 to existing fueling stations is small when compared to the cost of adding EV charge points anywhere that a person might wish to park their car.

    Second, there are dozens of companies out there racing to develop next-generation techniques for converting biomass into liquid fuels, with the potential to significantly improve yield per acre from any feedstock, including corn.

    Finally, if all you plan to do is harvest the biomass and burn it, then there’s no point to growing corn at all. There are many sources of biomass that require far less water, nutrients, etc. to grow. Corn is a choice crop because of it’s versatility. It can be used for human consumption, animal feed, ethanol production, etc.

    Face facts … liquid fuels are not going to be displaced any time soon. Petroleum-based fuels are not sustainable, so what’s the alternative? At the moment, it’s ethanol and biodiesel. Maybe corn-based ethanol in it’s present form isn’t the most efficient use of biomass, but it’s here and it works. Remember that ‘better’ is always the enemy of ‘good’.

  • Mr. Sinister

    Any fool can do the math and determine that using biomass for electricity is more efficient than producing ethanol using traditional fermentation techniques. I don’t think anyone would consider this a shocking revelation. However, since we don’t live in Utopia, there are a couple of important things to consider.

    First, where exactly are all of the electric vehicles that you plan to charge with this biomass conversion? Nowhere! Because mass production of affordable electric vehicles and the supporting infrastructure is still many years away. Even when they do become available, it will take many more years before EV’s begin to constitute a significant percentage of vehicles on the road. In comparison, there are already millions of flex-fuel vehicles on the road that are capable of utilizing ethanol. The added cost of producing an E85-capable vehicle is miniscule compared to the cost of hybrid or fully electric drive-trains. The cost of adding E85 to existing fueling stations is small when compared to the cost of adding EV charge points anywhere that a person might wish to park their car.

    Second, there are dozens of companies out there racing to develop next-generation techniques for converting biomass into liquid fuels, with the potential to significantly improve yield per acre from any feedstock, including corn.

    Finally, if all you plan to do is harvest the biomass and burn it, then there’s no point to growing corn at all. There are many sources of biomass that require far less water, nutrients, etc. to grow. Corn is a choice crop because of it’s versatility. It can be used for human consumption, animal feed, ethanol production, etc.

    Face facts … liquid fuels are not going to be displaced any time soon. Petroleum-based fuels are not sustainable, so what’s the alternative? At the moment, it’s ethanol and biodiesel. Maybe corn-based ethanol in it’s present form isn’t the most efficient use of biomass, but it’s here and it works. Remember that ‘better’ is always the enemy of ‘good’.

  • Mr. Sinister

    Any fool can do the math and determine that using biomass for electricity is more efficient than producing ethanol using traditional fermentation techniques. I don’t think anyone would consider this a shocking revelation. However, since we don’t live in Utopia, there are a couple of important things to consider.

    First, where exactly are all of the electric vehicles that you plan to charge with this biomass conversion? Nowhere! Because mass production of affordable electric vehicles and the supporting infrastructure is still many years away. Even when they do become available, it will take many more years before EV’s begin to constitute a significant percentage of vehicles on the road. In comparison, there are already millions of flex-fuel vehicles on the road that are capable of utilizing ethanol. The added cost of producing an E85-capable vehicle is miniscule compared to the cost of hybrid or fully electric drive-trains. The cost of adding E85 to existing fueling stations is small when compared to the cost of adding EV charge points anywhere that a person might wish to park their car.

    Second, there are dozens of companies out there racing to develop next-generation techniques for converting biomass into liquid fuels, with the potential to significantly improve yield per acre from any feedstock, including corn.

    Finally, if all you plan to do is harvest the biomass and burn it, then there’s no point to growing corn at all. There are many sources of biomass that require far less water, nutrients, etc. to grow. Corn is a choice crop because of it’s versatility. It can be used for human consumption, animal feed, ethanol production, etc.

    Face facts … liquid fuels are not going to be displaced any time soon. Petroleum-based fuels are not sustainable, so what’s the alternative? At the moment, it’s ethanol and biodiesel. Maybe corn-based ethanol in it’s present form isn’t the most efficient use of biomass, but it’s here and it works. Remember that ‘better’ is always the enemy of ‘good’.

  • Aureon Kwolek

    Blakeslee’s figure of 22 times more mileage is way off. The correct ratio of electric vs liquid fuel is about 5 to 1. You get 5 times more miles out of a same size vehicle using electric vs liquid fuel.

    Blakeslee is using old information. An acre of corn averages over 150 bushels, and from each bushel, ethanol producers are now getting 3 gallons. So that’s 450 gallons per acre. That will go higher as we integrate cellulosic technology, using corn cobs and corn stover residues. Corn will soon produce 960 gallons of ethanol per acre. We also get 50 bushels of distillers grains animal feed and about 20 gallons of corn oil out of that same acre, in addition to the fuel.

    Blakeslee’s concept is not realistic. 95% of the vehicles we have on the road today require liquid fuel, not electricity, and they benefit from ethanol as an oxygenator. Electric vehicles are coming, but it will take 20 years before they replace what we have. And the mainstream vehicle won’t be a pure EV. It’ll be a plug-in hybrid with a small range extender engine that runs on liquid fuel. That could be ethanol, or a 50-50 solution of ethanol-water. This would replace imported oil entirely with domestic fuel.

    Plug-in vehicles are expected to bring about a major shift to electric power to charge EV and Plug-in Hybrid batteries. But corn was never meant to be a biomass crop. You only get about 8 tons per acre per year. Miscanthus and super sorghum produce 20 to 30 tons of biomass per acre per year. And algae is producing over 100 tons of biomass per acre per year. Several companies are reporting over 200 tons per acre per year. How we integrate algae production into waste streams and other synergistic industries will make it cost effective as a biomass source. And how we grow it. Fast growing heterotrophic algae produced for biomass in dark tanks has an up-front capital cost of about 1/4 of that for algae grown in sunlight for oil.

    Blakeslee advocates that we burn 8 ton per acre per year corn. Bad idea. Then how would we feed all of our livestock? Furthermore, when you GASIFY biomass, instead of burning it, you get twice as much energy out of it.

    We don’t use a lot of water to grow corn. Over 85% of corn is Not irrigated. And likewise, most of the corn that is irrigated is grown for human consumption or livestock feed, not ethanol. Corn was never meant to be a biomass crop. It was and still is a livestock feed crop. 75% of all feed corn is used exclusively to feed animals. The other 25% is used to make ethanol, and 1/3 of that comes out as a byproduct – a high protein animal feed supplement called distillers grains.

    Comparing electric power produced at a stationary power plant to liquid fuel used in a moving vehicle, is like comparing apples to oranges. The problem with ethanol is that today’s engines are not designed for it. They’re designed for gasoline, not ethanol. The two fuels have different characteristics. Ethanol has 30% higher octane and a much faster flame speed and vaporization rate than regular gasoline. Design an engine around that, like Ricardo and lotus has done, and you get engines that get more power and better mileage on ethanol than they get on gasoline. These “Ethanol Optimized” engines that are coming are cheaper, lighter, and smaller, yet they get the torque and the efficiency of advanced diesel engines.

    We also have super efficient, low cost reformers that can strip all the hydrogen from ethanol mixed with water, as a fuel. These reformers also strip HALF the hydrogen OUT of the WATER mixed with the ethanol. Think about that before you go judging ethanol prematurely.

    CHP is a good idea – but for what application. You wouldn’t put CHP where you couldn’t use the waste heat. CHP is being installed at corn ethanol power plants where digested waste water centrate, or gasified biomass, or manure to biogas provides the power. This is a win-win application, because the waste heat is applied to the fuel distillation.

    Blakeslee correctly advocates CHP and poses the problem of waste heat that can’t be used, but he has no solution. It has been estimated that about half of the energy we produce is lost as waste heat. There is a huge potential if we can convert it to more electric power. The “Cyclone Waste Heat Engine (WHE) does that. This engine converts waste heat into steam and then into additional electric power. You can also configure it to roof-top solar thermal collectors, another breaking technology that may surpass solar-voltaic.

    There is something much, much bigger coming than what Blakeslee advocates. We won’t be burning feed corn to make electric power. That would be obsolete before you even get it off the ground. We will be growing massive amounts of algae on the corn ethanol waste stream. Algae that can also be gasified into “synth gas” and then converted to electric power. “Genifuel” President, Jim Oyler has cutting edge technology to do just that. And the algae does not have to be dried. Wet algae can be cost effectively gasified into electric power. This has the potential to replace coal, and it goes way beyond burning corn for power.

    • Corn

      The poop in my previous comment was a false accusation it actually makes it so you cant poop

  • Aureon Kwolek

    Blakeslee’s figure of 22 times more mileage is way off. The correct ratio of electric vs liquid fuel is about 5 to 1. You get 5 times more miles out of a same size vehicle using electric vs liquid fuel.

    Blakeslee is using old information. An acre of corn averages over 150 bushels, and from each bushel, ethanol producers are now getting 3 gallons. So that’s 450 gallons per acre. That will go higher as we integrate cellulosic technology, using corn cobs and corn stover residues. Corn will soon produce 960 gallons of ethanol per acre. We also get 50 bushels of distillers grains animal feed and about 20 gallons of corn oil out of that same acre, in addition to the fuel.

    Blakeslee’s concept is not realistic. 95% of the vehicles we have on the road today require liquid fuel, not electricity, and they benefit from ethanol as an oxygenator. Electric vehicles are coming, but it will take 20 years before they replace what we have. And the mainstream vehicle won’t be a pure EV. It’ll be a plug-in hybrid with a small range extender engine that runs on liquid fuel. That could be ethanol, or a 50-50 solution of ethanol-water. This would replace imported oil entirely with domestic fuel.

    Plug-in vehicles are expected to bring about a major shift to electric power to charge EV and Plug-in Hybrid batteries. But corn was never meant to be a biomass crop. You only get about 8 tons per acre per year. Miscanthus and super sorghum produce 20 to 30 tons of biomass per acre per year. And algae is producing over 100 tons of biomass per acre per year. Several companies are reporting over 200 tons per acre per year. How we integrate algae production into waste streams and other synergistic industries will make it cost effective as a biomass source. And how we grow it. Fast growing heterotrophic algae produced for biomass in dark tanks has an up-front capital cost of about 1/4 of that for algae grown in sunlight for oil.

    Blakeslee advocates that we burn 8 ton per acre per year corn. Bad idea. Then how would we feed all of our livestock? Furthermore, when you GASIFY biomass, instead of burning it, you get twice as much energy out of it.

    We don’t use a lot of water to grow corn. Over 85% of corn is Not irrigated. And likewise, most of the corn that is irrigated is grown for human consumption or livestock feed, not ethanol. Corn was never meant to be a biomass crop. It was and still is a livestock feed crop. 75% of all feed corn is used exclusively to feed animals. The other 25% is used to make ethanol, and 1/3 of that comes out as a byproduct – a high protein animal feed supplement called distillers grains.

    Comparing electric power produced at a stationary power plant to liquid fuel used in a moving vehicle, is like comparing apples to oranges. The problem with ethanol is that today’s engines are not designed for it. They’re designed for gasoline, not ethanol. The two fuels have different characteristics. Ethanol has 30% higher octane and a much faster flame speed and vaporization rate than regular gasoline. Design an engine around that, like Ricardo and lotus has done, and you get engines that get more power and better mileage on ethanol than they get on gasoline. These “Ethanol Optimized” engines that are coming are cheaper, lighter, and smaller, yet they get the torque and the efficiency of advanced diesel engines.

    We also have super efficient, low cost reformers that can strip all the hydrogen from ethanol mixed with water, as a fuel. These reformers also strip HALF the hydrogen OUT of the WATER mixed with the ethanol. Think about that before you go judging ethanol prematurely.

    CHP is a good idea – but for what application. You wouldn’t put CHP where you couldn’t use the waste heat. CHP is being installed at corn ethanol power plants where digested waste water centrate, or gasified biomass, or manure to biogas provides the power. This is a win-win application, because the waste heat is applied to the fuel distillation.

    Blakeslee correctly advocates CHP and poses the problem of waste heat that can’t be used, but he has no solution. It has been estimated that about half of the energy we produce is lost as waste heat. There is a huge potential if we can convert it to more electric power. The “Cyclone Waste Heat Engine (WHE) does that. This engine converts waste heat into steam and then into additional electric power. You can also configure it to roof-top solar thermal collectors, another breaking technology that may surpass solar-voltaic.

    There is something much, much bigger coming than what Blakeslee advocates. We won’t be burning feed corn to make electric power. That would be obsolete before you even get it off the ground. We will be growing massive amounts of algae on the corn ethanol waste stream. Algae that can also be gasified into “synth gas” and then converted to electric power. “Genifuel” President, Jim Oyler has cutting edge technology to do just that. And the algae does not have to be dried. Wet algae can be cost effectively gasified into electric power. This has the potential to replace coal, and it goes way beyond burning corn for power.

  • Aureon Kwolek

    Blakeslee’s figure of 22 times more mileage is way off. The correct ratio of electric vs liquid fuel is about 5 to 1. You get 5 times more miles out of a same size vehicle using electric vs liquid fuel.

    Blakeslee is using old information. An acre of corn averages over 150 bushels, and from each bushel, ethanol producers are now getting 3 gallons. So that’s 450 gallons per acre. That will go higher as we integrate cellulosic technology, using corn cobs and corn stover residues. Corn will soon produce 960 gallons of ethanol per acre. We also get 50 bushels of distillers grains animal feed and about 20 gallons of corn oil out of that same acre, in addition to the fuel.

    Blakeslee’s concept is not realistic. 95% of the vehicles we have on the road today require liquid fuel, not electricity, and they benefit from ethanol as an oxygenator. Electric vehicles are coming, but it will take 20 years before they replace what we have. And the mainstream vehicle won’t be a pure EV. It’ll be a plug-in hybrid with a small range extender engine that runs on liquid fuel. That could be ethanol, or a 50-50 solution of ethanol-water. This would replace imported oil entirely with domestic fuel.

    Plug-in vehicles are expected to bring about a major shift to electric power to charge EV and Plug-in Hybrid batteries. But corn was never meant to be a biomass crop. You only get about 8 tons per acre per year. Miscanthus and super sorghum produce 20 to 30 tons of biomass per acre per year. And algae is producing over 100 tons of biomass per acre per year. Several companies are reporting over 200 tons per acre per year. How we integrate algae production into waste streams and other synergistic industries will make it cost effective as a biomass source. And how we grow it. Fast growing heterotrophic algae produced for biomass in dark tanks has an up-front capital cost of about 1/4 of that for algae grown in sunlight for oil.

    Blakeslee advocates that we burn 8 ton per acre per year corn. Bad idea. Then how would we feed all of our livestock? Furthermore, when you GASIFY biomass, instead of burning it, you get twice as much energy out of it.

    We don’t use a lot of water to grow corn. Over 85% of corn is Not irrigated. And likewise, most of the corn that is irrigated is grown for human consumption or livestock feed, not ethanol. Corn was never meant to be a biomass crop. It was and still is a livestock feed crop. 75% of all feed corn is used exclusively to feed animals. The other 25% is used to make ethanol, and 1/3 of that comes out as a byproduct – a high protein animal feed supplement called distillers grains.

    Comparing electric power produced at a stationary power plant to liquid fuel used in a moving vehicle, is like comparing apples to oranges. The problem with ethanol is that today’s engines are not designed for it. They’re designed for gasoline, not ethanol. The two fuels have different characteristics. Ethanol has 30% higher octane and a much faster flame speed and vaporization rate than regular gasoline. Design an engine around that, like Ricardo and lotus has done, and you get engines that get more power and better mileage on ethanol than they get on gasoline. These “Ethanol Optimized” engines that are coming are cheaper, lighter, and smaller, yet they get the torque and the efficiency of advanced diesel engines.

    We also have super efficient, low cost reformers that can strip all the hydrogen from ethanol mixed with water, as a fuel. These reformers also strip HALF the hydrogen OUT of the WATER mixed with the ethanol. Think about that before you go judging ethanol prematurely.

    CHP is a good idea – but for what application. You wouldn’t put CHP where you couldn’t use the waste heat. CHP is being installed at corn ethanol power plants where digested waste water centrate, or gasified biomass, or manure to biogas provides the power. This is a win-win application, because the waste heat is applied to the fuel distillation.

    Blakeslee correctly advocates CHP and poses the problem of waste heat that can’t be used, but he has no solution. It has been estimated that about half of the energy we produce is lost as waste heat. There is a huge potential if we can convert it to more electric power. The “Cyclone Waste Heat Engine (WHE) does that. This engine converts waste heat into steam and then into additional electric power. You can also configure it to roof-top solar thermal collectors, another breaking technology that may surpass solar-voltaic.

    There is something much, much bigger coming than what Blakeslee advocates. We won’t be burning feed corn to make electric power. That would be obsolete before you even get it off the ground. We will be growing massive amounts of algae on the corn ethanol waste stream. Algae that can also be gasified into “synth gas” and then converted to electric power. “Genifuel” President, Jim Oyler has cutting edge technology to do just that. And the algae does not have to be dried. Wet algae can be cost effectively gasified into electric power. This has the potential to replace coal, and it goes way beyond burning corn for power.

  • http://www.clrlight.org Tom Blakeslee

    Good comments. I just want to point out that I don’t advocate burning corn but just used it for a fair comparison of the two approaches. The crop to engine shaft efficiency is just much freater with gasification/electric.

    Until we get better batteries plug-in hybrids will give us all of these benefits up to a 40-mile commute for the Chevy volt for example. Ethanol may be a good choice to power the range extender.

    In summer waste heat can power air conditioners and refrigerators, pool heaters, etc. The important thing is to stop throwing away our precious energy.

  • http://www.clrlight.org Tom Blakeslee

    Good comments. I just want to point out that I don’t advocate burning corn but just used it for a fair comparison of the two approaches. The crop to engine shaft efficiency is just much freater with gasification/electric.

    Until we get better batteries plug-in hybrids will give us all of these benefits up to a 40-mile commute for the Chevy volt for example. Ethanol may be a good choice to power the range extender.

    In summer waste heat can power air conditioners and refrigerators, pool heaters, etc. The important thing is to stop throwing away our precious energy.

  • http://www.clrlight.org Tom Blakeslee

    Good comments. I just want to point out that I don’t advocate burning corn but just used it for a fair comparison of the two approaches. The crop to engine shaft efficiency is just much freater with gasification/electric.

    Until we get better batteries plug-in hybrids will give us all of these benefits up to a 40-mile commute for the Chevy volt for example. Ethanol may be a good choice to power the range extender.

    In summer waste heat can power air conditioners and refrigerators, pool heaters, etc. The important thing is to stop throwing away our precious energy.

  • STEVEN LEONANRD

    i LOVE THE thought.

    Its getting the corn to fuel for diesel has me a littel concerned as th an afortable way to procees it

  • STEVEN LEONANRD

    i LOVE THE thought.

    Its getting the corn to fuel for diesel has me a littel concerned as th an afortable way to procees it

  • STEVEN LEONANRD

    i LOVE THE thought.

    Its getting the corn to fuel for diesel has me a littel concerned as th an afortable way to procees it

  • STEVEN LEONANRD

    would sweat corn give more fuel ?

  • STEVEN LEONANRD

    would sweat corn give more fuel ?

    • Mr. Corn

      Did you mean “Sweet corn” Mr, Leanord?

  • STEVEN LEONANRD

    would sweat corn give more fuel ?

  • derek corn

    So if the Weed would make the kush babies mad high would corn reduce the effect? of corn babies on crack?

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