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Old 02-04-2013, 09:15 AM   #41
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Im not convinced whatsoever.

I dont even need fancy charts that point out a comparison that's unimportant [honestly, are you kidding me with this btu cost crap?], I need this simple paragraph:

Quote:
Because a gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline, the production cost of ethanol must be multiplied by a factor of 1.5 to make an energy-cost comparison with gasoline. This means that if ethanol costs $1.10 per gallon to produce, then the effective cost per gallon to equal the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline is $1.65. In contrast, the current wholesale price of gasoline is about 90 cents per gallon.
http://www.oregon.gov/energy/RENEW/B...ages/Cost.aspx
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Old 02-04-2013, 11:35 AM   #42
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Originally Posted by DaveC
You're more than entitled to protest any specific method of promoting those things, like laws that are stupid
This is exactly the point. Is that not what people are questioning? Cost-benefit. Unintended consequences. Etc., etc.
Of course, you are right, that's the debate. At least on the surface. But then, after Joe provides a short dissertation complete with references and clear explanations using small enough words that any of us can understand, I read this:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Braineack
Im not convinced whatsoever.

I dont even need fancy charts that point out a comparison that's unimportant [honestly, are you kidding me with this btu cost crap?]
Scott, I love you. I'd give you my only roll of toilet paper if you asked for it, but you're embarrassing all of us. This is not debating a stupid law, this is actively, stubbornly clinging to ignorance.

You don't have to believe everything Joe writes, just consider the possibility that there might be some truth in there, then we can move forward.
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Old 02-04-2013, 11:39 AM   #43
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sure, but i dont care.





guess what else? next year super bowl 33 will be the most watched show in history.
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Old 02-04-2013, 12:04 PM   #44
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Originally Posted by Joe Perez View Post
So, is it bad for the environment?

Not according to any definition of the word that I'm familiar with.

Right off the bat, FFV vehicles achieve a 22% overall reduction in greenhouse gasses when run on E85 from DM corn feedstock, and a 64% reduction when looking at cellulosic ethanol.



Moreover, particulate-matter emissions (a leading direct cause of respiratory ailment and death in humans) decrease by 50%.

Furthermore, in 2011, ethanol use reduced reduced CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by 25.3 million metric tons. That's equal to the emissions of 4 million cars- equivalent to getting rid of nearly every single vehicle in the entire state of Alabama. And mind you, this is real data, based mostly on E10. Going to E85, you can easily extrapolate the data upwards to see what a truly radical shift this is.

which is offset by the increase in GHG emissions caused during production:



source: Fuel-Specific Lifecycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions Results


Joe P for president.



oh a fancy chart:

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Old 02-04-2013, 02:16 PM   #45
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Originally Posted by Braineack View Post
I dont even need fancy charts that point out a comparison that's unimportant [honestly, are you kidding me with this btu cost crap?], I need this simple paragraph:
Quote:
Because a gallon of ethanol contains less energy than a gallon of gasoline, the production cost of ethanol must be multiplied by a factor of 1.5 to make an energy-cost comparison with gasoline. This means that if ethanol costs $1.10 per gallon to produce, then the effective cost per gallon to equal the energy contained in a gallon of gasoline is $1.65. In contrast, the current wholesale price of gasoline is about 90 cents per gallon.
You're quite correct, and I assume this to be fairly common knowledge. In past threads, I have ranted about the need to mentally adjust posted per-gallon fuel prices at gas stations when comparing E10 to E85, based on the energy-density disparity between the two fuels. For FFV engines, the real-world mileage derating, both from academic journals and as reported by actual FFV owners, typically falls within a range of 20-30%. For engines optimized specifically for E85 or E100 (typically higher-compression, direct-injection turbocharged engines), the disparity is slightly lower.

(source and source and source and source and source and source)

That having been said, in the past several posts which I have made, I've been careful to cite only those comparisons made on a BTU-equivalent or mileage-equivalent basis. For such datasets, no density-correction factor need be applied. If one is looking directly at fossil BTU input per deliverable BTU output it is truly an apples-to-apples comparison. So, like the cat pushing the watermelon, your argument is invalid.



What is unavoidable is that the market price of certain commodities tends to be highly volatile, both in the positive and negative directions.

Here is the spot price of corn, in inflation-adjusted dollars per bushel, from 1950 to the present day:



(Data source)


And here is the spot price of crude oil, along the same timescale and also inflation-adjusted:



(Data source)


As a matter of long-term averages, the historical trend for the price of corn has been generally downwards, while the historical trend for the price of crude oil has been general upwards. It is reasonable to assume that the price of crude oil will continue to increase as a factor both of increased global demand from developing markets as well as the rising cost of extraction due to regulatory changes and the depletion of "easily accessible" oil stocks which has begun to shift oil exploration towards more complex operations (eg: shale oil, hydro-fracking, etc).


TL; DR:

So, in the short-term, we should continue to expect that the consumer retail cost of ethanol vs gasoline will continue to shift back and forth across a certain price continuum, especially now that subsidies on the production of ethanol as a motor fuel have expired, while subsidies on the production of oil remain intact.

Thus, if one is to consider only the short-term, direct economic consequences to the consumer, a clear winner does not exist in the question of E100 vs. E85 vs. gasoline.

If one adopts a broader perspective, and considers the environmental, ecological, human-health, political, and macro-economic consequences of a transportation technology based principally on renewable and domestically-produced fuel as compared to a non-renewable and largely imported fuel, then the arguments against ethanol as a motor fuel seem oddly... non-sustainable.

Don't believe me? Ask a Brazilian- they've been doing this since the 80s.

Ethanol Production in Brazil: Bridging its Economic and Environmental Aspects
The economics of ethanol production in Brazil: A path dependence approach
Ethanol nation: Brazil finds energy freedom with sugar-based fuel
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Old 02-04-2013, 02:20 PM   #46
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still too much to read !!!!
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Old 02-04-2013, 02:41 PM   #47
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Originally Posted by Joe Perez View Post
According to the Energy Information Administration (EIA), the global average price of a barrel of crude oil jumped from $56.64 to $99.67 between 2005 and 2008, an increase of 76%, while the global demand for oil increased by only 1% -- from 84.58 million barrels per day to 85.46MBD. Tight global supplies and supply chains had accelerated the price rise over small volume increases, as producers hit the limit of what they could produce and deliver.
[...]
Significantly, this increase in biofuel production was the dominant contributor to U.S. imports of foreign oil falling over that same period, during a period of robust economic growth and falling U.S. oil production. Certainly, anyone concerned about domestic energy security would find that statistic encouraging.
I'll have to look in to this report in more depth, and compare 2005 - 2008 with 2008 - 2012. Not that it would necessarily detract from the point of corn ethanol reducing crude oil imports, but I think there is more nuance here. I am better versed in the post-global financial crisis US energy scene than the pre.


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In light of the diminishing supplies of inexpensively accessible oil, it seems likely that biofuels' role in directly replacing petroleum and softening the impact of diminishing crude supplies will become paramount in the coming years, especially as 2.5 billion people in "Chindia" continue to undergo their industrial revolutions, 6 billion people on the planet catch up to the personal mobility mass consumer lifestyles that 1 billion of us take for granted, and we approach the peak of easily accessible conventional oil supplies.

The forthcoming oil shocks will be partially mitigated by higher ethanol supplies -- and for that, we have reason to thank the corn ethanol industry.
I might argue with the assertion in the above paragraph, because it seems like an "A/B" choice between crude oil and biofuels, leaving out a number of other options, namely natural gas. If the technology pioneered in the USA with nat gas fracking is able to pass the scrutiny hurdles of China, Australia and Europe, you may find a reduction in global demand for crude oil.

I think biofuels, including "gen2 biofuels" will be a part of an "all of the above" reduction in crude oil. I would question whether there role will be "paramount."

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Yet, the economist in me cannot help but wonder about the opportunity costs that we have incurred over the last several decades. Specifically, by not investing the tens of billions of dollars necessary to scale up second- and third-generation biofuels that could displace 100% of our petroleum consumption with non-food based feedstocks, rather than the investments that were made in first-generation biofuels that have led us to be subservient to an Agricultural Industrial Complex that dictates our national biofuels policy.
Don't you know "investment" is a euphemism the Obama administration constructed to make "government spending on crony corporations" more palatable?!

Fun trivia fact: Who is the US's largest consumer of next generation biofuels?

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Originally Posted by Joe Perez View Post
Furthermore, these figures assume 100% corn feedstock, using present-day refining and transportation technology. Looking back at 60 years of historical data, the productivity of corn farmers has grown dramatically. In 1950, average corn yields were roughly 38 bushels per acre, while today, an average corn yield is slightly over 150 bushels per acre. And more importantly, this has followed an almost rock-steady trendline which would support the conclusion that productivity will continue to grow in the future.
An excellent point, but I think it's always dangerous to assume a trend continues unabated, especially over a longer time period. That does not necessarily refute your main points, but it's worth saying.

After all, even if corn crop efficiency did not improve but levelled off, that doesn't mean biofuels more generically can't continue to ramp up as new technologies mature.

Great posts; thanks for taking the time to research and synthesize some of the info.
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Old 02-04-2013, 02:54 PM   #48
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Originally Posted by Joe Perez View Post
And here is the spot price of crude oil, along the same timescale and also inflation-adjusted:

(Data source)

As a matter of long-term averages, the historical trend for the price of corn has been generally downwards, while the historical trend for the price of crude oil has been general upwards. It is reasonable to assume that the price of crude oil will continue to increase as a factor both of increased global demand from developing markets as well as the rising cost of extraction due to regulatory changes and the depletion of "easily accessible" oil stocks which has begun to shift oil exploration towards more complex operations (eg: shale oil, hydro-fracking, etc).
I am not sure that the bolded section is a good interpretation of the data. The huge spikes in the 1970s were results of political manipulation from the OAPEC Arab oil cartel in 1973 and then the US and Iran in 1979.

I would argue that, unless you are modelling consistent Middle East political turmoil that directly influences US crude oil imports (maybe not unreasonable), interpreting that chart to say the long-term trend for inflation-adjusted oil prices is upward is incorrect.
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Old 02-04-2013, 02:55 PM   #49
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The problems with Ethanol that I have heard in the past is that we can't grow enough corn to completely replace gas not because of land or yield problems, but because we don't have enough water to grow that much corn. Productivity will of course continue to grow, but does it scale?
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Old 02-04-2013, 02:56 PM   #50
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breadlines.
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Old 02-04-2013, 03:45 PM   #51
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Originally Posted by Scrappy Jack View Post
I'll have to look in to this report in more depth, and compare 2005 - 2008 with 2008 - 2012. Not that it would necessarily detract from the point of corn ethanol reducing crude oil imports, but I think there is more nuance here. I am better versed in the post-global financial crisis US energy scene than the pre.
The chart which I included in my last post included crude oil up to 2011. The 2012 data is not yet fully compiled, but I do have part-year data available.

Overall, crude pricing across the 2005-2012 followed the trend which you would expect. A sharp downturn following decreases in business activity and consumption, followed by a steady uptick as production adjusted downwards to meet demand along with a partial recovery in demand towards pre-recession levels. Here is the raw data for that timeframe, again, adjusted for present-day dollars:
2005 $58.83
2006 $66.45
2007 $71.03
2008 $97.33
2009 $57.18
2010 $75.05
2011 $88.93
2012 $93.47
Since demand for oil in eastern nations (especially China and India) continues to increase in pace with their double-digit economic growth, it seems probable that the price of oil will resume its gradual upward climb.

It is tempting to make comparisons to the oil shock (and subsequent recovery) of the late 70s and early 80s, however it's important to bear in mind that during this period, the "urbanification" of markets in China and the other eastern nations, and the subsequent rise in worker income and car ownership (including Russia) had not yet really taken off. Consequently, demand for oil more closely mirrored the trends of the 1950s and 60s during that time period, in which North America and Europe were really the only players of any consequence.





Quote:
I might argue with the assertion in the above paragraph, because it seems like an "A/B" choice between crude oil and biofuels, leaving out a number of other options, namely natural gas. If the technology pioneered in the USA with nat gas fracking is able to pass the scrutiny hurdles of China, Australia and Europe, you may find a reduction in global demand for crude oil.
It is certainly not my intention to make binary assumptions, or to encourage anyone else to do the same. I have often argued that nearly ever major economic, political and environmental decision has consequences which fall along a broad continuum. It is absolutely essential for a reasoned discussion that one specifically avoid the presupposition that all decisions and policies must be of the "either / or" variety.

In the specific context of our present discussion, I have made comparisons between gasoline, E10 and E85. In particular, the inclusion of E10 was meant to demonstrate that even in a very simplistic equation, the participation of ethanol in the transportation fuel landscape has been, and will continue to be, a matter of incremental progress.

On the subject of CNG, I have specifically made the exact argument which you are now putting forth. Specifically, reference These Three Posts, in which I specifically discuss the viability of CNG as an alternative to (or complement for) gasoline / E10 as a motor vehicle fuel, citing its domestic sourcing, health and environmental benefits, ease and low-cost of adoption / conversion, and already existent distribution infrastructure.



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I think biofuels, including "gen2 biofuels" will be a part of an "all of the above" reduction in crude oil. I would question whether there role will be "paramount."
I can comment only by observing the distinction between "will be" and "can be."

It is entirely possible that both industry and the consumer will continue to reject the adoption of fuels other than gasoline on a large scale until some cataclysmic event or paradigm shift forces such change to occur. While I don't mean to sound alarmist (and please don't take this as a literal comparison), the underlying scenarios described in such works of fiction as "Red Storm Rising" and "Mad Max" are predicated upon plausible, if massively exaggerated, extrapolation of trends which existed in the 1980s and continue to exist today.

If the entire Chinese economy were to collapse, and lithium battery technology were simultaneously to improve by an energy-density factor of two or more, then I expect that a combination of low oil prices and enhanced consumer-perspective viability of range-extended hybrid vehicles would mean that the near-term adoption of fuels other than gasoline would be almost immediately halted.

By comparison, if recent historical trends (economic, political and technological) continue to hold true, then I foresee that the adoption of biofuels (principally dominated by ethanol) as a fossil-fuel alternative will continue to expand along a similar trajectory to what we have seen over the past two decades, most probably increasing in speed as the cost & yield factors of biofuel production improve and the price of petroleum continues to increase.



Quote:
Don't you know "investment" is a euphemism the Obama administration constructed to make "government spending on crony corporations" more palatable?!
Yes. And whether (and to what degree) said "investment" yields direct benefits to the consumer is so complex a debate that I'm not even sure how I'd go about researching it. Certainly, this subject falls outside of a discussion of the technical merits of one fuel vs. another.




Quote:
Fun trivia fact: Who is the US's largest consumer of next generation biofuels?
I honestly don't know. The UK leads the world in importation of biofuel as a percentage of total fuel importation, but their small size probably makes this irrelevant. I would assume that China and Russia are large consumers of biofuel, however I'm having a difficult time finding an absolute answer to the specific question of whether or not the majority of US-generated biofuel is exported, and if so, who the largest consumer is.

While attempting to research that question, I did run across one interesting article from Reuters concerning the future of second-gen biofuels, and particularly cellulosic ethanol. It is, admittedly, forward-looking in nature (think SEC disclosure), however it cites reputable sources.

In particular:
Among the most anticipated of the new production plants is KiOR Inc's (KIOR.O) Columbus, Mississippi, facility. The company expects to begin production in the second half of 2012 and turn wood products into components, or blendstocks, that can be used in gasoline and diesel fuel.

The KiOR plant will process farmed Southern Yellow Pine trees at the equivalent of about $25 per barrel of oil, or about one-quarter the price U.S. crude oil.

Nearly 400 million gallons of new biofuels production is expected to go on line this year in the United States, according to data compiled by industry publication Biofuels Digest.

Another 1.7 billion gallons of additional capacity is forecast to start up from the beginning of 2013 through 2015, bringing total capacity to nearly 2.3 billion gallons.

(...)

With a capacity of 62.5 million gallons per year, KiOR's $222 million Columbus plant will be the largest of its kind in the United States and is expected to produce fuel at about $1.10 per gallon, well below the current NYMEX wholesale gasoline price of nearly $3 per gallon.
(source)

Incidentally, take note of the last paragraph which quotes the NYMEX wholesale price of gasoline. So far as I can tell, this data is both accurate and current, and stands in contrast to the uncited price of 90 cents per gallon which Brainey quoted in an earlier post. Specifically, if you look Here, you can pull up current, projected, and historical wholesale gasoline pricing from the California Energy Commission. I admit that gasoline pricing in CA is generally higher than in the rest of the US, but at present, this differential is closer to 10-20%, and not the 300-400% that would be necessary to justify a 90 spot price.



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An excellent point, but I think it's always dangerous to assume a trend continues unabated, especially over a longer time period. That does not necessarily refute your main points, but it's worth saying.

After all, even if corn crop efficiency did not improve but levelled off, that doesn't mean biofuels more generically can't continue to ramp up as new technologies mature.
Absolutely, it is impossible to predict the future. If it were, there'd be no need for securities and commodities markets.

At best, we can take a combined view of historical data and reasonable predictions of emerging technologies, and attempt to create a projection of future performance.
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Old 02-04-2013, 03:55 PM   #52
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The problems with Ethanol that I have heard in the past is that we can't grow enough corn to completely replace gas not because of land or yield problems, but because we don't have enough water to grow that much corn. Productivity will of course continue to grow, but does it scale?
This is absolutely correct. There is not enough irrigated cropland in the US to completely displace all gasoline consumption, even given the most optimistic estimates of improvements in crop yield and conversion efficiency.

Corn-based ethanol is a transitional technology, based upon present-day feedstock availability and installed conversion capacity. This is why I have cited cellulosic ethanol (part of the "second-gen" technology which Scrappy Jack referred to earlier) in most of my comparisons.

One of the reasons for the significantly improved environmental and economic deltas in cellulosic ethanol production as compared to gasoline and corn-derived ethanol is that it consumes feedstocks which require little to no cultivation or irrigation. In other words, it consumes feedstock materials which occur naturally in large quantities, such as sawgrass and pine wood, in addition to the natural fiberous by-products which are commonly discarded from the production of nearly every grain-type agricultural harvest in the US- not just corn, but also wheat, rye, barley, rice, and so on.

In other words, the production of ethanol from cellulosic (fiberous) feedstock is much more easily scalable than reliance upon corn-based feedstock. It is for this reason that the vast majority of distillation capacity either currently under construction or planned for the immediate future, is of this latter variety, in contrast to the relatively old-tech plants currently in existence which are reliant upon a single crop.

That being said, there is no need for cellulosic ethanol production to radically displace corn-based production. It will evolve alongside it, and as the technology matures and the economies of scale dictate, corn-based facilities will slowly be converted over to consume cellulosic feedstock.
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Old 02-04-2013, 04:06 PM   #53
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Thanks Joe, that makes perfect sense.

I was surprised that people were still investing heavily in an alternative fuel which literally could not replace gas, but if you can make ethanol from sawgrass and such, then that is obviously less of a problem. It even made me angry that people were still putting money into a dead-end technology. Thanks for clearing that up, you are insightful as always.
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Old 02-04-2013, 05:03 PM   #54
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Originally Posted by Joe Perez View Post
The chart which I included in my last post included crude oil up to 2011. The 2012 data is not yet fully compiled, but I do have part-year data available.

Overall, crude pricing across the 2005-2012 followed the trend which you would expect. A sharp downturn following decreases in business activity and consumption, followed by a steady uptick as production adjusted downwards to meet demand along with a partial recovery in demand towards pre-recession levels. Here is the raw data for that timeframe, again, adjusted for present-day dollars:
2005 $58.83
2006 $66.45
2007 $71.03
2008 $97.33
2009 $57.18
2010 $75.05
2011 $88.93
2012 $93.47
Since demand for oil in eastern nations (especially China and India) continues to increase in pace with their double-digit economic growth, it seems probable that the price of oil will resume its gradual upward climb.
Sorry; I meant the details of oil pricing versus oil demand and supply growth, along with the pricing and demand and supply growth of alternatives - including biofuels but also natgas, coal, solar, etc.

Quote:
It is tempting to make comparisons to the oil shock (and subsequent recovery) of the late 70s and early 80s, however it's important to bear in mind that during this period, the "urbanification" of markets in China and the other eastern nations, and the subsequent rise in worker income and car ownership (including Russia) had not yet really taken off. Consequently, demand for oil more closely mirrored the trends of the 1950s and 60s during that time period, in which North America and Europe were really the only players of any consequence.
That was really more my point: that discrete intermediate trends (1973 OAPEC embargo, 1979 oil crisis, 2008-2009 global financial crisis) should not be confused as one longer-term trend. I think you can make a more compelling case for an upwardly biased intermediate trend over the past several years.

I think we are on the same page, but wanted to spell it out for others that are not as invested research-wise on the topic.


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[RE: US's largest consumer of next generation biofuels]
I honestly don't know.
Don't quote me on this until I can cite a source as I may be confusing the most aggressive growth in demand vs largest current consumption, but I am pretty confident it is the Pentagon.
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Old 02-04-2013, 06:28 PM   #55
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I was surprised that people were still investing heavily in an alternative fuel which literally could not replace gas, but if you can make ethanol from sawgrass and such, then that is obviously less of a problem. It even made me angry that people were still putting money into a dead-end technology. Thanks for clearing that up, you are insightful as always.
There is obviously going to be capital cost involved in the conversion of existing plants from corn to fiber feedstocks. These will, of course, be relatively small as compared to the initial capital cost of constructing a new plant, and will furthermore be able to benefit from whatever existing supply lines (be it rail or pipeline) are in place between the point of distillation and either the point of consumption or of a major shipping port or terminal.

One benefit of moving to cellulosic production is that it enables distillation plants to be economically constructed in areas which are densely populated but remote from regions in which corn crops are grown. The southeastern US, for instance, is rich in naturally-occuring and easily replenished fiberous feedstocks, and is advantageously located from the point of view of oceanic shipping ports. Likewise, the northwestern US is rich in easily-replenished pine forest, which will benefit consumers in the western US, including regions such as southern California which stand to benefit greatly not just from the lower economic cost of such fuels, but also the significant health and environmental advantages.


Of course, even if no such conversion were to occur, the capital investments which have already been made in corn-based ethanol production are not lost. While these facilities would to be less efficient than newer cellulosic-input refineries, they would continue to enjoy the same reduced-fossil-input advantages over traditional fuels that they do today. And since present-day US corn production is sufficient to feed these refineries at a large capacity, and global demand for corn is not likely to grow at a rate faster than corn-production capacity, they can continue to operate at (or perhaps even above) their present-day capacity indefinitely, or at least for so long as is required for cellulosic production to grow to meet 100% of demand.
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Old 02-04-2013, 06:40 PM   #56
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Right, it's just without the cellulosic production, I would have called the capital investments made into ethanol a waste, because they could have been spent on something that actually has a chance to replace gas/diesel, like Hydrogen fuel cell or other types of biodiesel which could be produced in enough quantity. Not having known about cellulosic ethanol production, I assumed it was the corn lobby which was the cause of what I assumed was some very short-sighted thinking.
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Old 02-04-2013, 07:16 PM   #57
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Right, it's just without the cellulosic production, I would have called the capital investments made into ethanol a waste, because they could have been spent on something that actually has a chance to replace gas/diesel, like Hydrogen fuel cell or other types of biodiesel which could be produced in enough quantity. Not having known about cellulosic ethanol production, I assumed it was the corn lobby which was the cause of what I assumed was some very short-sighted thinking.
Well, again- nothing is entirely black and white.

I don't think you can exclude "the corn lobby" (or similar) as part of the reason that we have the beginnings of an ethanol infrastructure today. It's important to keep in mind that cellulosic ethanol production is in its infancy, just moving out of the laboratory and small-scale test plants into large production. Even just ten years ago, the capability to perform this sort of refining at an industrial scale simply did not exist. So even if ethanol production in the US did start out as the result of pork-barrel lobbying, I consider that to be just a stepping stone which helped jump-start the technology into what has become an efficient, self-sustaining industry

Nor do I consider ethanol to be exclusive of biodiesel, or vise-versa. The two fuel technologies service entirely different target markets, and can easily co-exist as two elements in a sustainable fuel infrastructure.



I do take issue with the specific citation of "hydrogen fuel cells" as something which have a viable chance of replacing gas/diesel in any useful capacity. Hydrogen is the biggest greenwashing scam in the whole industry.



The problem isn't the fuel cells themselves. Right now they suck, but that's a simple technological issue which can be solved by materials science. The problem is actually the hydrogen itself.


Where is it supposed to come from?


A lot of people seem to assume that hydrogen is a magical substance which is perfectly clean and freely available. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The production of hydrogen at an industrial scale is a dirty business. Even though hydrogen is all around us, it is non-existant in nature in its elemental form. In order to obtain pure hydrogen, you need to extract it from some other material to which it is bound. And there are only two ways to do this which are economical at a large scale.

The first, and by far the most common method, is called steam reformation. This sounds innocent enough, but what it means is that hydrogen is stripped out of some fossil fuel- mostly NatGas, and to a much lesser degree, coal. Not only is this process energy-intensive, but it relies upon fossil fuel as the primary feedstock! From the standpoint of energy output vs. fossil energy input, reformed hydrogen is worse than just burning the fossil-fuel directly in the engine. It generates huge amounts of CO2 as a by-product, and is hugely inefficient. And yet 95% of US hydrogen production comes from this method.

The second method, and the one that most of us learn about in junior high school chemistry, is Electrolysis. Put simply, you run an electrical current through water, and it disassociates into hydrogen and oxygen. Now, this method has the advantages of not directly consuming fossil fuels, and not generating CO2 as a byproduct. There's only one small problem: it consumes massive amounts of electricity. Optimistically, you might expect to get a 50% return on input, and that's just the potential energy output of the process. The theoretical maximum efficiency of a fuel cell is around 65%, and given present-day technology, we're around half that. So from end to end, the process is hideously wasteful.

Now, we certainly have the capability to generate electricity without consuming fossil-fuel or generating atmospheric emissions, but at present we're not doing a whole lot of this. It's not even worth talking about "green" electrolysis until we've first eliminated fossil fuels from the traditional electrical grid, and even then we'd be better off using the electricity to charge batteries than to inefficiently generate hydrogen to be inefficiently consumed.


There are other methods of hydrogen production available. Catalytic thermolysis, algae bioreactors, biomass gasification, etc. At present, none of these are anything more than a laboratory experiment, and none of them can, by definition, ever deliver a "well to wheel" efficiency which exceeds either internal combustion of cellulosic ethanol, or renewable generation of electricity for EV charging, or any of a number of other of methods which are actually possible (and economically viable) given present-day technology.


(deep breath.)

Long story short: It is theoretically possible that in the future, we may have the infrastructure to generate and consume hydrogen in a manner that isn't worse than burning gasoline directly. But the probability that it will ever exceed the efficiency of any of a number of rival technologies (within our lifetime, anyway) is quite small.
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Old 02-04-2013, 08:50 PM   #58
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