Biofuel not worth it?

via ScienceDaily, from a new Cornell study. Everyone knows that the ethanol subsidy is just a farm subsidy, but it’s sort of depressing to see data that makes biodiesel generally look like a net loss. If it takes more fossil fuel to produce the biodiesel than we get out of it, we’re taking a step back.

Ethanol And Biodiesel From Crops Not Worth The Energy

ITHACA, N.Y. — Turning plants such as corn, soybeans and sunflowers into fuel uses much more energy than the resulting ethanol or biodiesel generates, according to a new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study.

“There is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” says David Pimentel, professor of ecology and agriculture at Cornell. “These strategies are not sustainable.”

Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Berkeley, conducted a detailed analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as for producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants. Their report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, the study found that:

  • corn requires 29 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced;
  • switch grass requires 45 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced; and
  • wood biomass requires 57 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In terms of energy output compared with the energy input for biodiesel production, the study found that:

  • soybean plants requires 27 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced, and
  • sunflower plants requires 118 percent more fossil energy than the fuel produced.

In assessing inputs, the researchers considered such factors as the energy used in producing the crop (including production of pesticides and fertilizer, running farm machinery and irrigating, grinding and transporting the crop) and in fermenting/distilling the ethanol from the water mix. Although additional costs are incurred, such as federal and state subsidies that are passed on to consumers and the costs associated with environmental pollution or degradation, these figures were not included in the analysis.

“The United State desperately needs a liquid fuel replacement for oil in the near future,” says Pimentel, “but producing ethanol or biodiesel from plant biomass is going down the wrong road, because you use more energy to produce these fuels than you get out from the combustion of these products.”

Although Pimentel advocates the use of burning biomass to produce thermal energy (to heat homes, for example), he deplores the use of biomass for liquid fuel. “The government spends more than $3 billion a year to subsidize ethanol production when it does not provide a net energy balance or gain, is not a renewable energy source or an economical fuel. Further, its production and use contribute to air, water and soil pollution and global warming,” Pimentel says. He points out that the vast majority of the subsidies do not go to farmers but to large ethanol-producing corporations.

“Ethanol production in the United States does not benefit the nation’s energy security, its agriculture, economy or the environment,” says Pimentel. “Ethanol production requires large fossil energy input, and therefore, it is contributing to oil and natural gas imports and U.S. deficits.” He says the country should instead focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion.

12 thoughts on “Biofuel not worth it?

  1. Two points:
    1) A good portion of the conversion of biomass to biodiesel encapsulates the saponification (i.e., soap-making) process. People will always need soap, and therefore there will always be the soap-making industry. Smart biodieselers will offset some of the above cost by skimming off the soap industry, thus taking care of some of their by-products and cooking the numbers to sound less gloom and doom.
    2) The advantage of biodiesel and ethanol is the clean output. The cost of scrubbing engine output should be factored into the cost of making fossil fuel. Alcohols, for example, burn much more cleanly than petroleum products. I’ve set my toilet on fire with grain alcohol and Zippo fluid to prove this. This is a hidden cost that is not included in the bottom line.
    In short, these figures are semi-bunk.

    1. I disagree. The reason this is bad news is that biofuels won’t decrease our use of or dependence on fossil fuels; in fact, they make things worse. That doesn’t change the advantage of clean output, but if you have to use more oil to make biodiesel or ethanol than you would have otherwise, any pretense that we’re using less resources evaporates. (Ha ha, evaporates.)
      Biofuels are a great use for the excess soy and corn we have floating around due to our batshit insane subsidies, but unless these data are just factually wrong it’s the opposite of a solution to oil dependence.

      1. as a national solution to dependence on fossil fuels, biodiesel certainly fails, but on a more individual basis, biodiesel can make economic/ecological sense. and the fossil fuel usage here is an equivalency, you’re not actually using x gallons of fossil fuels to produce the biodiesel, you’re using the equivalent amount of wattage/electricity to produce it (at least with cooking oil biodiesel/transesterification, which is all i am really familiar with.. i know some processes actually utilize fossil fuels in the mixing or making of the fuel itself). i don’t really get how anyone can tout it as any kind of energy solution on a large scale, though.

      2. you’re not actually using x gallons of fossil fuels to produce the biodiesel, you’re using the equivalent amount of wattage/electricity to produce it
        It’s not just that you burn energy producing the biodiesel, but that agriculture itself is totally dependent on petroleum for fertilizer too. The engines that farm things are only part of the problem.

      3. you’re not actually using x gallons of fossil fuels to produce the biodiesel, you’re using the equivalent amount of wattage/electricity to produce it
        It’s not just that you burn energy producing the biodiesel, but that agriculture itself is totally dependent on petroleum for fertilizer too. The engines that farm things are only part of the problem.

      4. as a national solution to dependence on fossil fuels, biodiesel certainly fails, but on a more individual basis, biodiesel can make economic/ecological sense. and the fossil fuel usage here is an equivalency, you’re not actually using x gallons of fossil fuels to produce the biodiesel, you’re using the equivalent amount of wattage/electricity to produce it (at least with cooking oil biodiesel/transesterification, which is all i am really familiar with.. i know some processes actually utilize fossil fuels in the mixing or making of the fuel itself). i don’t really get how anyone can tout it as any kind of energy solution on a large scale, though.

    2. I disagree. The reason this is bad news is that biofuels won’t decrease our use of or dependence on fossil fuels; in fact, they make things worse. That doesn’t change the advantage of clean output, but if you have to use more oil to make biodiesel or ethanol than you would have otherwise, any pretense that we’re using less resources evaporates. (Ha ha, evaporates.)
      Biofuels are a great use for the excess soy and corn we have floating around due to our batshit insane subsidies, but unless these data are just factually wrong it’s the opposite of a solution to oil dependence.

  2. Two points:
    1) A good portion of the conversion of biomass to biodiesel encapsulates the saponification (i.e., soap-making) process. People will always need soap, and therefore there will always be the soap-making industry. Smart biodieselers will offset some of the above cost by skimming off the soap industry, thus taking care of some of their by-products and cooking the numbers to sound less gloom and doom.
    2) The advantage of biodiesel and ethanol is the clean output. The cost of scrubbing engine output should be factored into the cost of making fossil fuel. Alcohols, for example, burn much more cleanly than petroleum products. I’ve set my toilet on fire with grain alcohol and Zippo fluid to prove this. This is a hidden cost that is not included in the bottom line.
    In short, these figures are semi-bunk.

  3. I remember on C-Span coverage of the New Hampshire primary, an old man cornered Howard Dean at a rally about his ethanol-boosting in Iowa. He said he was a chemical engineer and that everyone knew ethanol cost more energy than it produced. Dean ignored him. It’s funny, every four years everyone who wants to be president cares a lot about ethanol for six months, then you never hear about it again.

  4. I remember on C-Span coverage of the New Hampshire primary, an old man cornered Howard Dean at a rally about his ethanol-boosting in Iowa. He said he was a chemical engineer and that everyone knew ethanol cost more energy than it produced. Dean ignored him. It’s funny, every four years everyone who wants to be president cares a lot about ethanol for six months, then you never hear about it again.

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