Thursday, May 1, 2008

Ethanol: Crime Against Humanity?

I'd like to share my views on biofuels and corn-based ethanol in particular. With the current increase in worldwide grain prices, biofuels have come into the forefront of media scrutiny. UN expert Jean Ziegler went so far as to call them a 'crime against humanity'. Here's what I see...

World grain prices (like oil prices) are driven by extremely complex forces of supply and demand. Grain (like oil) is also a commodity that is traded in futures markets that are much too complex for me to understand right now. On the surface it is easy to make the jump from 'Americans are turning corn into fuel, thus driving up demand and lowering supply' to 'now our food prices are going up'. It sounds like an iron tight case and most 'journalists' have no reason to think much farther than that. I do agree that high grain prices are negatively affecting developing countries, and very likely will continue to cause much distress. I will make two assertions however:

1) Corn-based ethanol has a lower affect on grain prices than most people think
2) Grain prices have very little impact on American's highly processed diets

Assertion 1: I'm not going to argue that using corn for ethanol does not increase grain prices. Obviously, it has an effect. But is it the main effect as some would have you believe? Enough to be deemed a crime against humanity? There are many causes for increased prices: Higher demand...more people in general, massive amounts of populations attaining affluence allowing them to eat 'western diets' (FYI...China eats more pork than the US...PER CAPITA), biofuels, increased investment in commodities markets, lower dollar value. Lower supply: Droughts in Australia, flooding in Philippines, increased input costs (oil, petrol based fertilizers). It seems to me that all of these causes have an effect, and singling out biofuels as a main cause is a tad unfair.

One could then argue that biofuels are optional and unnecessary. My view is that grain is a commodity equal to oil. Without oil, we have no food. We are not morally obligated to provide cheap food to the world any more than the Saudis are obligated to continue to provide us cheap oil. It is imperative that we find a way to create new economical sources of fuel, or the gravy train known as the agricultural revolution is coming to an end. Corn-based ethanol is not a solution, but in my view, it IS a stepping stone to the solution.

Assertion 2: The following article does a good job of explaining exactly how much the price of corn affects grocery store prices:

An excerpt:

For example, an 18-ounce box of corn flakes contains about 12.9 ounces of milled field corn. When field corn is priced at $2.28 per bushel (the 20-year average), the actual value of corn represented in the box of corn flakes is about 3.3 cents (1 bushel = 56 pounds). (The remainder is packaging, processing, advertising, transportation, and other costs.) At $3.40 per bushel, the average price in 2007, the value is about 4.9 cents. The 49-percent increase in corn prices would be expected to raise the price of a box of corn flakes by about 1.6 cents, or 0.5 percent, assuming no other cost increases.
The article also does a comparison for high fructose corn syrup in soda as well as the effect on meat. Meat has a higher sensitivity to grain prices, as one would imagine, but the average American diet is hardly deficient in protein.

In summary, biofuels have very little impact on the prices you see in the grocery store. On a positive note, they do provide a market for innovation. There are many companies and universities currently researching and developing ways to create fuel from native grasses, trash, yard waste, agricultural waste products and algae. I believe these technologies are going to be one portion of the solution to prevent...The Long Emergency


L. Venkata Subramaniam said...

interesting...but isnt the carbon footprint larger in the case of ethanol based oil generation?

thanks for submitting to the best three blog posts competition

Chief said...

If you give me a definition of 'carbon footprint' I might be able to find you an answer.

As for energy balance, even corn ethanol has a positive balance (more energy out than put in). A widely sited study by David Pimental that claims otherwise, has been thoroughly discredited.

The main thing to keep in mind is that from a taxonomic standpoint:

biofuels > ethanol > corn ethanol

Corn ethanol is but one small portion of biofuels, and while not ideal, is not the devil's juice that it has recently been made out to be. The second and third generation fuels on the horizon are the ones that will really pay dividends.

Chief said...

edit: David Pimentel

L. Venkata Subramaniam said...

From Wikipedia:

Carbon footprint is a "measure of the impact human activities have on the environment in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced, measured in units of carbon dioxide"

So what I meant was that we are going in for ethanol because petrol (gas) prices have risen so much and ethanol based oil is cheaper.

But if you see the amount of carbon generated in producing the ethanol based oil and the amount of exhaust gases it produces, it is probably more harmful than petrol (gas).

So neither ethanol nor petrol are the long term solution. Infact higher gas prices are good because now suddenly the non-conventional energy sources are being looked into. That may be good for all of us in the long run.

But I am not an expert and really appreciate the fact that I have learnt so much by going through your blog.

Do visit my blog too and would like to hear your comments, if any.

Chief said...

I don't agree that biofuels are a greater creator of CO2 than petrol. The calculation of exactly how much carbon dioxide is produced in the manufacture of bioethanol is a complex and inexact process, and is highly dependent on the method by which the ethanol is produced and the assumptions made in the calculation.

Here is a good article that studies the energy and greenhouse gas emissions of corn ethanol.

La Wahie Biotech do Brasil said...


University of Hawai'i Professor Pengchen "Patrick" Fu developed an innovative technology, to produce high amounts of ethanol with modified cyanobacterias, as a new feedstock for ethanol, without entering in conflict with the food and feed-production .

Fu has developed strains of cyanobacteria — one of the components of pond scum — that feed on atmospheric carbon dioxide, and produce ethanol as a waste product.

He has done it both in his laboratory under fluorescent light and with sunlight on the roof of his building. Sunlight works better, he said.

It has a lot of appeal and potential. Turning waste into something useful is a good thing. And the blue-green-algae needs only sun and wast- recycled from the sugar-cane-industry, to grow and to produce directly more and more ethanol. With this solution, the sugarcane-based ethanol-industry in Brazil and other tropical regions will get a second way, to produce more biocombustible for the worldmarket.

The technique may need adjusting to increase how much ethanol it yields, but it may be a new technology-challenge in the near future.

The process was patented by Fu and UH in January, but there's still plenty of work to do to bring it to a commercial level. The team of Fu foundet just the start-up LA WAHIE BIOTECH INC. with headquarter in Hawaii and branch-office in Brazil.


Fu figures his team is two to three years from being able to build a full-scale
ethanol plant, and they are looking for investors or industry-partners (jointventure).

He is fine-tuning his research to find different strains of blue-green algae that will produce even more ethanol, and that are more tolerant of high levels of ethanol. The system permits, to "harvest" continuously ethanol – using a membrane-system- and to pump than the blue-green-algae-solution in the Photo-Bio-Reactor again.

Fu started out in chemical engineering, and then began the study of biology. He has studied in China, Australia, Japan and the United States, and came to UH in 2002 after a stint as scientist for a private company in California.

He is working also with NASA on the potential of cyanobacteria in future lunar and Mars colonization, and is also proceeding to take his ethanol technology into the marketplace. A business plan using his system, under the name La Wahie Biotech, won third place — and a $5,000 award — in the Business Plan Competition at UH's Shidler College of Business.
Daniel Dean and Donavan Kealoha, both UH law and business students, are Fu's partners. So they are in the process of turning the business plan into an operating business.

The production of ethanol for fuel is one of the nation's and the world's major initiatives, partly because its production takes as much carbon out of the atmosphere as it dumps into the atmosphere. That's different from fossil fuels such as oil and coal, which take stored carbon out of the ground and release it into the atmosphere, for a net increase in greenhouse gas.
Most current and planned ethanol production methods depend on farming, and in the case of corn and sugar, take food crops and divert them into energy.

Fu said crop-based ethanol production is slow and resource-costly. He decided to work with cyanobacteria, some of which convert sunlight and carbon dioxide into their own food and release oxygen as a waste product.

Other scientists also are researching using cyanobacteria to make ethanol, using different strains, but Fu's technique is unique, he said. He inserted genetic material into one type of freshwater cyanobacterium, causing it to produce ethanol as its waste product. It works, and is an amazingly efficient system.

The technology is fairly simple. It involves a photobioreactor, which is a
fancy term for a clear glass or plastic container full of something alive, in which light promotes a biological reaction. Carbon dioxide gas is bubbled through the green mixture of water and cyanobacteria. The liquid is then passed through a specialized membrane that removes the
ethanol, allowing the water, nutrients and cyanobacteria to return to the

Solar energy drives the conversion of the carbon dioxide into ethanol. The partner of Prof. Fu in Brazil in the branch-office of La Wahie Biotech Inc. in Aracaju - Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke - is developing a low-cost photo-bio-reactor-system. Prof. Franke want´s soon creat a pilot-project with Prof. Fu in Brazil.

The benefit over other techniques of producing ethanol is that this is simple and quick—taking days rather than the months required to grow crops that can be converted to ethanol.

La Wahie Biotech Inc. believes it can be done for significantly less than the cost of gasoline and also less than the cost of ethanol produced through conventional methods.

Also, this system is not a net producer of carbon dioxide: Carbon dioxide released into the environment when ethanol is burned has been withdrawn from the environment during ethanol production. To get the carbon dioxide it needs, the system could even pull the gas out of the emissions of power plants or other carbon dioxide producers. That would prevent carbon dioxide release into the atmosphere, where it has been implicated as a
major cause of global warming.
Honolulo – Hawaii/USA and Aracaju – Sergipe/Brasil - 15/09/2008

Prof. Pengcheng Fu – E-Mail:
Prof. Hans-Jürgen Franke – E-Mail: