5 Common Ethanol Myths Exposed – as Crap!

Fact or Crap is a fairly popular board game that pitches itself as an “edgy” version of Trivial Pursuit.  If you like trivia and enjoy saying that something “is crap”, then, you’ll probably enjoy it … and – as regular readers have probably guessed by now – I love it!  So, when I saw the Argonne National Laboratory issued a report last week that attacked 5 of the most common myths about ethanol and bio-fuels (myths which, it should be noted, have been posted as “rebuttals” to several articles by different commenters) I was only too happy to share them here with you.

Myth No. 1
Ethanol Require More Energy to Produce than it Yields (is not “net-positive”)

Argonne’s research has shown that corn ethanol delivers a positive energy balance of 8.8 megajoules per liter, and that cellulosic ethanol has a potential net yield nearly 600 % than that of corn.

Myth No. 2
Ethanol Production Reduces Food Supply

Most of the people who maintain this view don’t understand how ethanol is produced, or else they have ulterior political agendas / strong profit motivations to steer people away from ethanol.  Despite the obviousness of these motives, though, people seem to keep chanting their ridiculous “No Food for Fuel” mantras – without realizing that only 1 % of all corn grown in the US is eaten by humans (if that).  The vast, sweeping majority is “No. 2 yellow field corn”, which (per the study) humans cannot eat, and which is used as animal feed/food supplements, and (you guessed it) ethanol production.

Argonne goes on to state that 1 bushel of corn used for ethanol also produces 1.5 lbs. of corn oil, 17.5 lbs. of high-protein animal feed (called DDGS), and 2.6 lbs. of corn meal.  To reiterate:  that is in addition to the 2.8 gallons of ethanol produced.

Despite this, it has been difficult to sway people from their “food-versus-fuel” debates long enough to get them into library or science museums – which is OK, since those debates have pushed significant research into developing next-generation biofuels that do not use “food like” crops.  Camelina, switchgrass, and algea-based fuels are just a few examples of this.

Myth No. 3
Ethanol Production Emits More Greenhouse Gas than Gasoline

Back in 1996, the EPA analyzed various sources of air pollution and confirmed that petroleum-fuelled vehicles (including busses, over-the-road trucks, and non-road equipment) are the largest contributors to hazardous air pollutants.  Further studies published in 2010 revealed that vehicles powered by ethanol produced 30 % fewer carbon emissions and 50% less tailpipe particulate matter. And blending ethanol with gasoline (as in E15 and E85) dramatically reduces carbon monoxide tailpipe emissions and tailpipe emissions of volatile organic compounds that form ozone – all while doubling as a high-octane performance fuel.

Myth No. 4
Ethanol Production Requires Too Much Water

Producing one gallon of ethanol requires approximately 3.5 gallons of water, which is more than it takes to process a gallon of gasoline.  In either case (gasoline vs. ethanol), however, that water doesn’t just disappear – it goes back into the ground and, eventually, into the water table … and there is where the big differences begin to appear.

Simply, water that is used in the ethanol process begins as water and goes into the ground as just that:  water.  It’s not carcinogenic, polluted, or harmfully “contaminated”.

The water used in oil extraction?  That water mixes with fine particles and bitumen until it becomes a sort of “slurry”, which (according to Alberta Environment, a government organization which oversees Canadian oil production in the Alberta province) takes “several years to settle into a yogurt-like goop – the technical term is ‘mature fine tailings’ – that is contaminated with toxic chemicals such as naphthenic acid and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and would take centuries to dry out on its own.”

Argonne’s study speculates that much of the criticism surrounding ethanol’s water requirements stem from the perceived (read:  imagined) need to irrigate corn in drier climates.  The majority of ethanol, however, is produced from rain-fed crops grown in the Midwest.

Myth No. 5
Cars Get Lower Gas Mileage on Ethanol

On the surface, this isn’t crap – it’s fact.  Completely burning 1 gallon of gasoline and 1 gallon of E85 will net 25% less energy from the E85.  Here’s the thing that most people miss,  however:  internal combustion engines do not burn 100% of the gasoline you put into them.

I know I’m going to get static from this from the conservative comment-bots, so I’ll quote Wikipedia (as a neutral source) on these points, directly …

Modern gasoline engines have an average efficiency of about 18% to 20% when used to power a car. In other words, of the total heat energy of gasoline, about 80% is ejected as heat from the exhaust, as mechanical sound energy, or consumed by the motor (friction, air turbulence, heat through the cylinder walls or cylinder head, and work used to turn engine equipment and appliances such as water and oil pumps and electrical generator), and only about 20% of the fuel energy moves the vehicle.

The article goes on to mention ways to improve an engine’s overall efficiency …

The efficiency depends on several factors, one of which is the compression ratio. Most gasoline engines have a ratio of 10:1 (premium fuel) or 9:1 (regular fuel), with some high performance engines reaching a ratio of 12:1 with special fuels. The greater the ratio the more efficient is the machine. Higher ratio engines need gasoline with higher octane value, which inhibits the fuel’s tendency to burn nearly instantaneously (known as detonation or knock) at high compression/high heat conditions.

Today, carmakers are turning to smaller engines equipped with turbochargers to help cars extract more horsepower (and, therefore, motive force) out of smaller engines – and “more from less” is the very definition of improved efficiency.  Here’s the thing with turbochargers, though:  they work by compressing air into an engine’s combustion chamber at greater than atmospheric pressures, in a bid to get more of that gasoline to burn (by combining it with more oxygen which is, you know, how stuff burns).

At the moment, these turbochargers are limited in the amount of overall compression they can provide – and they’re limited by gasoline, which has (depending on where you live) an upper octane rating of 91-94 PON (equivalent to 95-98 RON).  Ethanol’s octane rating?  The great state of Texas rates conventional E85’s octane rating at 113 – significantly higher, even, than VP109 motorsports fuel (a fact already being exploited by high-performance tuning firms like Switzer Performance and Dyno-Comp).

So, yeah – in your car ethanol might get you 25% less energy … but in a high-boost turbo car like the Chevy Cruze or the tiny new Ford EcoBoost 3-cylinders?  Optimized to run ethanol-specific software?  That ethanol will burn cleaner, last longer, and make more power – making “No. 5” crap, too.

There you have it, people.  5 common “Ethanol bad!” myths that have been thoroughly de-bunked.  Copy/paste onto your Facebook, share with your friends, and troll the climate-change deniers wherever possible.

Sources:  Argonne National Laboratory (via Autopia),  Alberta Environment, National Geographic, VP Drag Racing Fuels, etc.

 

Jo Borrás

I've been in the auto industry 1997, and write for a number of blogs in the IM network. You can also find me on Twitter, at my Volvo fansite, or chasing my kids around Oak Park, IL.