July 07, 2005
Corn Ethanol And Biodiesel Net Energy Losers

David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek have once again analyzed plants as ethanol energy sources and found the energy cost of growth and processing outweighs the energy produced.

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.

Another group of researchers found sugarcane ethanol in Brazil to be a net producer of usable energy whereas corn ethanol in the United States provided only a small net benefit.

A new study of the carbon dioxide emissions, cropland area requirements, and other environmental consequences of growing corn and sugarcane to produce fuel ethanol indicates that the "direct and indirect environmental impacts of growing, harvesting, and converting biomass to ethanol far exceed any value in developing this energy resource on a large scale." The study, published in the July 2005 issue of BioScience, the journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences (AIBS), uses the “ecological footprint” concept to assess needs for ethanol production from sugarcane, now widespread in Brazil, and from corn, which is increasing in the United States.

In Brazil, ethanol from fermentation of sugarcane is used pure or blended with gasoline to yield gasohol, which contains 24 percent ethanol. In the United States, ethanol made from corn, production of which is heavily subsidized, is used in an 85 percent ethanol mixture called E85. In 2003, ethanol-blended gasoline accounted for more than 10 percent of gasoline sales in the United States.

The authors of the study assessed the energy required to produce the crops and to manufacture and distribute the resulting fuels. In the United States, ethanol yielded only about 10 percent more energy than was required to produce it; in Brazil, where a different process is used, ethanol yielded 3.7 times more energy than was used to produce it. The researchers, Marcelo E. Dias de Oliveira, Burton E. Vaughan, and Edward J. Rykiel, Jr., also weighed effects of fuel ethanol use on carbon dioxide emissions, soil erosion, loss of biodiversity, and water and air pollution, assuming vehicles representative of each country. Specialized software was used to analyze the sensitivity of the conclusions to diverse assumptions in the analysis.

Dias de Oliveira and colleagues then looked at some consequences of moving to greater fuel ethanol use. The results were unfavorable to fuel ethanol in either country. In Brazil, reducing the rate of deforestation seemed likely to be more effective for taking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. In the United States, reliance on ethanol to fuel the automobile fleet would require enormous, unachievable areas of corn agriculture, and the environmental impacts would outweigh its benefits. "Ethanol cannot alleviate the United States’ dependence on petroleum," Dias de Oliveira and colleagues conclude. They argue for the development of multiple alternatives to fossil fuels. Ethanol may, however, still be useful in regions or cities with critical pollution problems, they write, and to make use of agricultural wastes.

My guess is that Pimental and Patzek have more accurate results because they have accounted for more factors. They've repeatedly published on this topic and have refined their model. So they are probably closer to the truth at this point. However, this is just a guess on my part.

I continue to be skeptical of biomass as a major source of energy to replace oil. While crops grown for biomass purposes may not measure up it is possible that waste biomass from sewage, residential green waste, and other sources might eventually become usable as sources of net energy.

The future development of more energy efficient means for converting biomass materials into liquid hydrocarbons combined with advances in agricultural technologies might eventually make crops net energy producers. But increased demand for crop land, water, and pesticides for energy producing crops will bring environmental costs. We'd be better off advancing technologies for nuclear, solar photovoltaics, and batteries so that we can reduce our use of liquid fuels for transportation.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 July 07 06:04 PM  Energy Biomass

Mike Anderson said at July 7, 2005 8:16 PM:

waste biomass from sewage, residential green waste, and other sources might eventually become usable as sources of net energy

I don't think so. My lawn gets mowed twice a month. Once I've fermented that, it's going to take one helluva daily shit for me to have gas to drive to work. (1 gallon ~ 3kg @ 42 MJoule = 126 Mjoule ~ 30,000 Cal) Unless you think I'm going to eat 30,000 Calories of subsidized corn every day.

Patrick said at July 8, 2005 1:39 AM:

Biofuels CAN be net positive. During the Bouganville Island War with New Guinea, the island rebels ran their machines on coconut oil. Clearly this was net positive because they had no oil imports.

Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that "Biomass fuels are net negative given economical farming practices with 2005 technology."

odograph said at July 8, 2005 6:12 AM:

Re. Bouganville and coconut oil ... I'd be willing to guess that some number of car-less natives worked hard in the plantations, in order to fuel some much smaller number of cars. Basically in the worst case we get back to human and animal labor as a large input in the manufacturing process.

I'm not really that much of a pessimist, but I don't think we should let up on the research until we have solid ideas for development.

There is too much "premature infrastructure" being put in place for "iffy" technologies. See also the Hydrogen Highway.

Engineer-Poet said at July 8, 2005 7:38 AM:

Mike Anderson:  There's a difference between "net energy" and "LOTS of net energy".

I've long wondered how difficult it would be to use plants, e.g. ponds of water hyacinths (not problematic in zones with cold enough winters to kill them off) for tertiary wastewater cleanup.  The excess plant growth could be fed to methane digesters.  Unfortunately, I have no idea where to begin the payback analysis of a concept like this; just for starters, how do you allocate costs between the wastewater cleanup function and the energy production end?

Randall Parker said at July 8, 2005 10:20 AM:


Compare total costs of such a facility to a conventional facility that does not produce energy. The sewage has to be cleaned up. What is the incremental cost of the energy production capability? It is the cost difference between the two types of facilities.

Jim said at July 8, 2005 12:03 PM:

RP, I agree, on both your point in the post and in your comment. regarding your comment, i've often thought about this, if you take the case of a business in the boonies that operates off a septic tank already... how much more does it take to seal it off from O2, introduce the proper bacteria to produce methane, and vent the excess through a small gas fired turbine to generate electricity (i.e. capstone turbine). i don't know the efficiences involved and volumes where it would make sense, but when your fuel is crap....

Joseph said at July 8, 2005 12:04 PM:

I can only assume they're doing the math for worst case, marginal land, high irrigation needs etc.. I don't support the biofuel concept as is but seriously if farmers performed at what I believe is the assumed level we would have all starved to death by now.

Having said that even best case I doubt there's a really large margin. In worst case conditions such as poor land, smut/insect problems, drought etc. yes it would be a defecit. I think the main rub is the computations are predicated on using the marginal lands. Really would we want to tie up our best farmland for fuel production instead of food production? There are better ways to do this.

Randall Parker said at July 8, 2005 12:34 PM:


Regarding marginal land yo are missing the obvious point: The non-marginal land in the United States is already in production growing corn and other crops for human and animal food. the abandoned farms in the United States are where the growing conditions are lousier. The increase in production for biomass energy production would therefore most certainly come from bringing marginal land into production.

The reason that Brazil has a far more favorable ratio of energy-out to energy-in is that they have not brought their best potential farm land into production. But even without a shift toward biomass they will do so in order to provide grain to rapidly developing countries in Asia.

Worse, for Brazil the shift of land into farm production comes at the expense of tropical rain forests and other neat ecological areas. Brazil already has a big problem with harvesting natural areas for timber and farming and this problem will worsen without the introduction of biomass energy production technologies.

Another reason that Brazil may have more favorable biomass energy ratios is the greater sunlight that comes from being on the equator.

Jim said at July 8, 2005 12:45 PM:

to cross-check their results, coming at in from an economic angle, are there any countries that do not mandate ethanol and the market produces fuel ethanol anyhow? i doubt it

brazil also screws themselves longterm, because the soil is rather poor compared to u.s. - it's quite rich after burning down the forest, but then it degrades from then on out, compared to central illinois where the topsoil has been measured at over 100 feet deep! the deepest recorded worldwide. so brazil isn't necessarily using a longterm renewable resource, even if extra growing season makes it more feasible today.

AA2 said at July 8, 2005 2:29 PM:

Why do the enviro-kooks always choose energy 'solutions' that are the worst possible idea?.. I have believed for awhile now that their real goal isn't actually the environment, but instead their goal is de-industrialization.

Engineer-Poet said at July 8, 2005 8:33 PM:

I do believe AA2 is onto the kooks too!

There is a group of people out there who think that industry, and even agriculture, are evils which ought to be eliminated.  Needless to say, I'm not one of them; I've been taking apart nonsense such as theirs for the last sixteen months on my blog, and for much longer elsewhere.

Booth McKeown said at July 8, 2005 8:46 PM:

Perhaps it would be more realistic to look at biodiesel, ethanol, hydrogen, et al, as methods of storing energy in a useful form, rather than as energy "sources." Obviously it takes more energy to split a water molecule into its constituent hydrogen and oxygen than the burning of the hydrogen produces, or even it's use in a fuel cell; however, it's much more practical to run a vehicle powered by a fuel cell than one powered directly with solar cells. And it doesn't have to be fossil fuel energy used to produce ethanol or biodiesel...solar, geothermal, wind, and other forms of renewable, non-polluting energy can be used.

Engineer-Poet said at July 8, 2005 9:48 PM:

The problem with using carbon-based chemicals as energy stores is that you either have to store the CO2 for recycling, or exhaust to the atmosphere and spend the energy to recapture carbon again.  Doing this on the scale of US (let alone world) petroleum consumption is an enormous undertaking.  On top of this, regenerating hydrocarbons requires hydrogen, and most systems for producing hydrogen from electricity or other non-chemical energy sources are rather lossy.  (Future developments may change this; the hydrogen from algae trick is a great possibility.  But AFAIK nothing is competitive yet.)

If you use batteries of some kind you don't have that loss/recapture problem.  Secondary cells like Li-ion are getting close to competitive, but zinc-air fuel cells (primary batteries) have great performance and look cheap enough to be a near-term alternative.  Li-ion only needs recharging, and regeneration of zinc metal is done electrolytically; any process that gives you electricity will run the cycle, and rather efficiently to boot.

Randall Parker said at July 8, 2005 10:36 PM:


When electricity is used to charge a Li-ion or NiMH or Zinc-Air battery what is the efficiency? I feel batteries charging and they are hot. So some energy must be lost. But I've yet to come across efficiency tables.

Engineer-Poet said at July 9, 2005 5:32 AM:

Efficiency of batteries seems to be unimportant to most users; they care much more about how much they can get out than what they have to put in.  The closest thing to an efficiency table that I've found is an efficiency graph for lead-acid batteries (!) in short cycles, posted as part of a V2G white paper by AC Propulsion.

In general, hot batteries mean they are fully charged and no further energy can go into storage.  Battery voltage falls with temperature, which is how NiCd and NiMH chargers detect that the battery is full; at full charge the battery starts heating up and voltage starts falling instead of rising.

Engineer-Poet said at July 9, 2005 5:35 AM:

(FWIW, the efficiency graph for the PbSO4 batteries tested by the DoE never fell below 91%.  I've read that overall efficiency of PbSO4 is around 70% due to the need to overcharge them for equalization purposes, so I expect that Li-ion and such would be much higher.  The overall efficiency of any battery that self-discharges will depend on how actively it is used, of course.)

Paul Weir said at July 9, 2005 11:24 AM:

One more nail in the coffin of the enviroMENTALS stupid renewable ideas. They have no clue about why we use fossil fuels and nuclear reactors. They have the by far the best power desity and the best and most useful charictaristics. THATS WHY WE HAVE USED THEM FOR 100 YEARS!!! There is nothing better and never will be. I don't believe any of the doomsayers that we are running out of oil and natural gas. The only reason the price is higher is because we have not built any new oil refineries since I think the late 70's. Because of the enviro idiots blocking any attempt. Same with drilling for oil in the USA. Its time to build many more nuclear power plants in the USA using the new generation of designs. We should not use natural gas and oil for power generation, we should use them for chemical processes where they are better spent. Then use nuclear for most power generation. Windmills and solar power are also fatally diffuse and the poorest possible choice for generating electricity.

Paul "No Fear" Weir

Tom said at July 9, 2005 2:37 PM:

It would be great if there was a link to the study, rather than just an article summarizing the study.

But what does this tell us? Is it that biodiesel and ethanol shouldn't be produced?


It just tells us that in the current environment, where ethanol from certain sources is heavily subsidized, lots of producers make it inefficiently. Because if they can spend $1 to get 90 cents, and the government gives them an extra 20 cents, it's still worth it. Take away the subsidy and you'll take care of this problem. Only people who would make a reasonable profit *without* a subidy would bother.

If the goal is to make sustainable sources of energy take over for fossil fuels, which CAN BE DONE to a limited extent, we'd be better off "punishing" purchasers of fossil fuels than "rewarding" creators of renewable fuels. Slap an extra tax on ALL fossil fuels (say 50 cents a gallon for gasoline, and a similar tax based on energy content on other fuels), and you'll have about the same effect as subsidizing ethanol on the consumption side, but without the net loss production.

James Bowery said at July 9, 2005 6:12 PM:

I've been working on a totally out-of-left-field approach:

Diesel engines that burn algae-slurry rather than coal-slurry.

"Rather than coal-slurry"?

Diesel's first engine burned coal powder.

Coal slurry diesel engines are an active area of development.

Algae is the most efficent converter of solar energy to biomass energy available and it comes naturally as a slurry.

Every processing step of the algae (for example, high centrifuge, drying, cold-pressing the oil from the high oil-content algae) costs energy, operation and capital equipment.

Algae slurry diesel, if it can be made to work given the nitrogen oxides and sulpher content, looks like the right way to go.

Another kooky idea of mine? Yeah. But it just might work and the development costs are relatively low. The deployment costs are high but not compared to stuff like "the hydrogen economy".


gmoke said at July 9, 2005 8:13 PM:

I tend to trust David Pimentel, having known his work for many years now.

However, I also like Bill McDonough's ecological design principles; waste equals food, use only avaiable solar income, respect diversity, and love all the children. I wonder if "industrial ecologies" like this example from Goodland KS might make a difference in Pimentel's numbers.

from http://www.treehugger.com/files/2005/07/small_town_gree.php

Small Town Kansas Makes Sustainability Investment

July 9, 2005 07:30 AM - John Laumer, Philadelphia

There's enough good design news in this story to overcome even a hopeless G8 meeting. A group of investors in Goodland Kansas (where sunflowers are big), has decided to bundle three energy efficient technologies, linking mass and energy flows from a co-generation plant for electricity, an ethanol fermentation/distillation plant, and a biodiesel plant, all on a single site. Making electricity co-gen is the X2 gain. Using the co-gen plant's waste heat (steam) as an input for making ethanol makes it X3. Using the ethanol plant waste sludge as an input to the biodiesel plant makes it X4. Now all they have to do to achieve X5 status is adopt some of the new cellulosic enzymes, recently reported in TreeHugger, to up their ethanol production efficiency. The upshot is an environmental footprint far and away better than previously reported life cycle studies have indicated for biodiesel. TreeHuggers can certainly forgive the use of coal if mercury emissions curbed with best available technology(fingers crossed for X6).

Imagine the contribution to local sustainability that such projects could make if the biodiesel produced were consumed by local farmers who in turn produced the celluloses and plant sugars as well as food for consumers. Writing a post like this makes me think its something I dreamed after eating too much organic food during a Kansas tornado and I better wake up and re-check the source. Gratefully, it seems good enough to become true! Excerpts from The Salina Journal, of July 6, 2005, follow.

"...The Goodland Energy Center, as the compound has been coined, is backed by local investors who are simply doing "everything they can to make the area vital," said Ron Pickman, the chief operating officer of the project and former Goodland city manager...The three plants will be built about four miles west of Goodland, right next to a sunflower processing plant"....

"We eliminate waste, because we use it all," Pickman said...

The coal-fired plant will be owned by Goodland Energy Resources, the ethanol plant by E. Caruso and the biodiesel plant by ReNewable Energy Resources, all Goodland-based companies that were formed for this project.

The plants are expected to create 60 to 100 new jobs and possibly another 100 to 200 ancillary jobs that will support the projects...Construction is expected to begin on the compound within about 45 days and be producing by September 2006.

Engineer-Poet said at July 10, 2005 7:00 AM:

At last!  Somebody decided to do it right!

AA2 said at July 10, 2005 10:30 AM:

My feeling for the batteries from reading lately is Lithium-Sulfur looks to have a lot of potential.

Eric H said at July 11, 2005 5:42 PM:

The problem with this post is that the title is inaccurate. It should read, "Subsidized Ethanol And Biodiesel Net Energy Losers" because corn, soybeans, and sunflowers are not even close to being the best sources for those fuels. Brazil uses sugar cane, and jatropha and canola are generally regarded as better biodiesel sources.

See this report that claims that making biodiesel from rapeseed (canola) yields 320% more energy that goes in: http://devafdc.nrel.gov/pdfs/3813.pdf

Also, there are recent reports that indicate that algae and cellulose from farm waste (the chaff) is promising.


The problem, gentlemen, isn't with the idea of renewable fuels, it's with government involvement. ADM owns lots of soybean, corn, and Congressional infrastructure, hence soybeans and corn are used to grow lobbyists ... er, or something like that (lobbyists are used as fertilizer for ethanol plants?).

BTW, Randall - Brazil is closer to the equator, but that doesn't necessarily translate into greater insolation (energy received from the sun). They also have more cloud coverage, and parts of the Amazon are probably off limits to farming. Check out the southwestern US! - on this map:


Randall Parker said at July 11, 2005 7:53 PM:

Eric H,

I downloaded the 312 page PDF you referenced on biodiesel, canola, soy, and so on. That DOE report is from 1998. I can't see where it makes a specific claim about canola/rapeseed's supposed superior energy efficiency. Can you point me to a passage that led you to believe that?

The report makse a broad assertion that biodiesel gets 3.2 units of energy out for every unit put in. I do not believe them. Pimental and Patzek have spent several years since then refining their models for energy inputs for biomass energy. I think the DOE document is just a rosy scenario assertion. See section 2.5.1 of the DOE report for this blurb:

Energy Balance. Biodiesel and petroleum diesel have very similar energy efficiencies. The base case model estimates life cycle energy efficiencies of 80.55% for biodiesel versus 83.28% for petroleum diesel. The lower efficiency for biodiesel reflects slightly higher process energy requirements for converting the energy contained in soybean oil to fuel. In terms of effective use of fossil energy resources, biodiesel yields around 3.2 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil energy consumed in the life cycle. By contrast, petroleum diesel’s life cycle yields only 0.83 units of fuel product energy per unit of fossil energy consumed. Such measures confirm the “renewable” nature of biodiesel. The life cycle for B20 has a proportionately lower fossil energy ratio (0.98 units of fuel product energy for every unit of fossil energy consumed). B20’s fossil energy ratio reflects the impact of adding petroleum diesel into the blend.

Look at the cost of canola oil in stores. It is way too expensive to be a liquid fuel.

The solar insolation of the US southwest isn't much use for agriculture. The US southwest is short on water and that problem is getting worse.

In some parts of the United States (e.g. California) farm water costs effectively are subsidized.

Proaltenergy said at July 12, 2005 3:04 PM:

Updated: July 7th, 2005 02:55 PM EDT
Investors to Build Biodiesel, Ethanol Plants in Kansas
Between $35 and $45 million budgeted for new energy plants

GOODLAND -- A group of local investors on Tuesday announced plans to spend between $35 million and $45 million to build a coal-powered power plant and biodiesel and ethanol plants at one compound west of Goodland.

The Goodland Energy Center, as the compound has been coined, is backed by local investors who are simply doing "everything they can to make the area vital," said Ron Pickman, the chief operating officer of the project and former Goodland city manager.

The three plants will be built about four miles west of Goodland, right next to a sunflower processing plant.

"The reason it's so feasible is because the power plant is co-generational," said Jerry Fairbanks, vice president of First National Bank in Goodland, which is an investor in the project.

"There are a lot of products from each plant that can be recycled and used by the others."

That keeps costs lower and is better for the environment, he said.

He said he's not sure anything like it has been done in the same compound.

The 20 to 28 megawatt coal-fired power plant will produce electricity and steam. Steam is required to run the ethanol plant, which will produce a molasses-like substance needed to create fuel at the biodiesel plant.

"We eliminate waste, because we use it all," Pickman said.

Biodiesel is a clean-burning alternative fuel, produced from renewable resources; ethanol, another type of fuel, is a grain alcohol produced by fermenting the starch in corn or sorghum and then distilling it.

Each plant will be owned and operated individually, though there are some crossover investors. Each plant is backed by about 20 or fewer investors.

The coal-fired plant will be owned by Goodland Energy Resources, the ethanol plant by E. Caruso and the biodiesel plant by ReNewable Energy Resources, all Goodland-based companies that were formed for this project.

A real commitment "It's a real commitment on the part of the people that live in and around Goodland," Fairbanks said.

That's what makes the project so strong, Pickman said.

"This is local people trying to stimulate the local economy and help Goodland maintain a place on the map," he said. "I firmly believe everything involved in this project will be a tremendous benefit to northwest Kansas."

The plants are expected to create 60 to 100 new jobs and possibly another 100 to 200 ancillary jobs that will support the projects.

Construction is expected to begin on the compound within about 45 days and be producing by September 2006. ReNewable Energy Resources will handle project development and engineering. Investors are still in negotiations with several contractors to build the plants.

Selling electricity The coal-fired plant will be a wholesaler, meaning it will sell electricity to a city or company, which in turn will sell the power to residents and businesses.

There are currently no customers lined up for any of the plants, but Fairbanks said that shouldn't be a problem.

"I think all small towns struggle with energy and the cost of energy," he said.

Potential customers of the power plant could include the city of Goodland, though no deal has been reached, surrounding towns and other power providers.

No price structure has yet been determined, but Pickman said the goal will be for the power plant to be competitive with other wholesalers in the area.

Ethanol and biodiesel shouldn't be too hard to find buyers for either, he said.

"The investors are quite confident in everything about this project.

I don't think there are any worries," Pickman said.

Flag said at July 13, 2005 2:37 AM:

In general, hot batteries mean they are fully charged and no further energy can go into storage. Battery voltage falls with temperature, which is how NiCd and NiMH chargers detect that the battery is full; at full charge the battery starts heating up and voltage starts falling instead of rising.

Engineer-Poet said at July 13, 2005 6:31 AM:

Seems to be an echo in here....

Eric H said at July 13, 2005 7:18 PM:

I wasn't arguing for farming in the Southwest, just pointing out that "nearness to equator" doesn't necessarily translate to more insolation. However, there is a possibility that the Southwest is a good place for algae, plus they are developing drought-resistant plants, and you obviously haven't been to the Southwest this year: the Rio Grande is higher than I can remember seeing it in years.

Pimentel has been looking only at corn to ethanol conversion. It is questionable at least to use that research to paint all biofuels with the same brush. Corn is different than other plants, ethanol is different than biodiesel.

You need to decide whether you want to argue about canola's energy costs or its economic costs - this started out as a discussion about energy costs, but now you have rejected canola because of its retail price. The U of Idaho calculated a breakeven production cost of about $1.90 several years ago, and I have calculated a corrected retail price of about $3.50 (assuming their analysis was correct). If petroleum goes up drastically, $3.50 will sound pretty good.

But it all pales in comparison to the potential yield from algae.

Randall Parker said at July 13, 2005 8:50 PM:

Eric H,

Some of the dams on the Colorado River are gradually draining and revealing levels that haven't seen air in decades. That river flows throught the Southwest to Baja. It cuts thru Arizona.

Pimentel lists several plants. Look again at my post. Maybe there are better plants it is true. But he doesn't just look at corn.

Energy costs versus economic costs: Look, people aren't going to switch to a fuel that is very expensive. But when a fuel costs a lot that is an indicator that a lot of energy was required to produce it. If a lot of labor is required that labor drives to work and has a home electric bill and uses energy in other ways. If lots of capital equipment is required then that equipment takes energy to produce or the steel and other materials used in it take energy to produce and the minerals extracted to use to make the materials take energy to produce.

Eric H said at July 17, 2005 5:10 PM:

Last year, Elephant Butte was at record lows, this year it is barely above them despite high snow runoff and precipitation. How can that be? It appears that lake levels are functions of inflows and outflows as well as the levels in previous periods, and from the database, it appears that Lake Powell's I/O is at or near average, and the level is rising where last year it was falling (same is true for EB).


Pimentel's research has concentrated on corn and ethanol (google "pimentel corn", "pimentel ethanol" "pimentel biodiesel" and finally "pimentel biodiesel -corn" to get an idea of where his concentration has been). He has occasionally incorporated other biomass, but rarely looked at biodiesel. The processes aren't the same, and the efficiency of engines running on the two aren't the same, so it doesn't make any sense to compare ethanol distilling with biodiesel brewing with the same model. Ethanol requires distillation and therefore heat, whereas biodiesel only requires mixing with a recoverable catalyst (and the process is exothermic).

Please define "fuel that is very expensive". I said $3.50, which, in real terms, is less than people were paying in 1980 for gas. "Were paying" is a pretty good indicator that they will pay that again. We must also consider what "very expensive" means in terms of alternatives. If gasoline costs $5, and biodiesel costs $3.50, and those prices are going to hold indefinitely, it is not clear to me why people wouldn't switch to biodiesel.

But I see that you are switching back to the energy costs, and I will say that you were right about the study I pointed out: it has to do with soy. Here's a study that *actually* deals with rapeseed and finds a return as high as 3.71 (sorry about last time): http://www.biodiesel.co.uk/levington.htm

Rapeseed yields 110 to 145 gallons/acre, whereas soy only yields 40 to 50 gallons, so it only makes sense that it would be more efficient. Algae is on the order of 10,000 to 20,000 gallons/acre. And the recent breakthrough announced by Huber et al changes the picture in a much larger way, since they are basically using waste from a different production stream and so the energy required to grow and harvest the crop shouldn't even count in the return equation (why? they go toward human consumption and are already calculated in *those* costs and returns).

I will also say that I am always skeptical of these EROIE claims, especially when written by the very government agencies in charge of promoting "renewable" programs (DOEn and DOAg). If these things are feasible, then they shouldn't need subsidies, so I am also flat-out against subsidizing them.

Eric H said at July 17, 2005 6:33 PM:

People were "only" paying $3 in real terms in 1980. My bad.

Connie said at August 2, 2005 8:41 PM:

I remain cautiously optimistic about corn ethanol, although corn is one of the most intrinsically damaging crops imaginable to the environment, as Pimentel alludes to in his most recent studies at Cornell (ref sciencedaily.com). Water and land are severe limiting factors on corn production in any event, therefore there is an ethical and opportunity cost to displacing food production for home-grown fuel. But consider the following factors which pundits on both sides have failed to fully examine:

*Corn can be grown in conjunction with other distillery compatible crops, perhaps soybeans. This would optimally reduce nitrogen and energy demands characteristic of corn
*Pimentel among others notes organic techniques in the production of most US cash crops cost no more energy than conventional agriculture. Studies I am aware of note a significant lead time in recouping growth productivity from a switch from conventional to organic regimes, but organic provides some hedge against drought, and would in any case stress soil conservation during tilling and harvest, bettering the energy balance of corn production, and tolerating the production of low-grade and waste corn,
*A wild possibility is reviving the oldest "organic" technique of fallowing land. Not popular in the modern economic world, but beneficial if sorghum, switchgrass, and shrub provide higher marginal returns as fuel and other things,
*The latest "concern" that the producer-to-pump costs of transporting corn ethanol are a burden to consumers (est $0.10/gal) is largely unfounded. Tankers shipping gasoline from urban refineries to rural areas can ship ethanol on the backhaul. This combined with localization of ethanol consumption where it is produced should, as a rule of thumb, increase capital utilization and capital energy efficiency at the distribution level by 30%. The phaseout of MTBE production and addition/replacement of refinery capacity will further mix it up as far as what investments will be available to accomodate ethanol. There may be a blending problem between gasoline and ethanol, but some of this assumes promotion of the old 80-20 ethanol/gasoline from the 1970's: There is no reason why a 10-90 blend or such should not be the most beneficial to the greatest number of consumers,
*Apparently advances in genetics have not even been considered. The USDA has bred corn with 17% more cornstarch than commercially used today. A limitation of fermentation is the tendency of yeast and bacterial equivalents to die in the acidic environments of alcohol: This is being solved by current research in acidophilic life-forms. A synergy of the two technologies to increase ethanol yields per bushel by 30% will end the case for energy loss. Some energy gains would be seen in the azeotropic efficiency of distilling water with high as opposed to low concentrations of alcohol,
*There is a mindset that corn ethanol is out to replace all gasoline. This is absurd, like the apparent assumption that we will use windmills and solar to produce all electricity, and run our cars. If corn ethanol can reduce petroleum importation by so much as 5%, this is a significant accomplishment. Biofuel producers will have found a profitable niche irrespective of subsidies (food, not energy, is the biggest competitive force in agriculture) and petrolem prices will even FALL. This is a manifestation of successful energy policy, and one which the ecowarriors neither anticipate or welcome.
*And, by the way, there is no law that says we must export food, or not devote more agriculture to energy. The economist Gary Becker argued that the US could have been a net IMPORTER of food, because of our comparative global advantage in industry, and the higher marginal returns of agriculture in the developing world, given the underutilization of labor there, and the maldistribution of fertilizer and agricultural technology toward the developed countries. Whenever we talk of agricultural subsidies, we should look at the bottom line in our trade deficit, which export agriculture is increasingly unable to remedy. Paying government checks to farmers is not the issue: Borrowing money forever to do so, is. Until recently, it was pointed out that eliminating dependence on all foreign oil would eliminate the trade deficit as well. Paying ourselves to turn low-grade energy into motor fuel isn't such a bad idea.

GMO Pundit said at January 30, 2006 10:18 PM:

A recent series of article in the journal Science makes it clear that Pimentel and co-workers are underestimating the energy balance for bioethanol by leaving out energy credits for animal feed.

An energy assessment for biodiesel may do this too:

but in any case the energy ratio for biodiesel is much more encouraging

GMO Pundit

devinevision said at February 10, 2006 2:47 AM:

I'm no engineer. I kind of got excited by the idea of fueling my car with fermented corn at first but my brief study (culminating at this site) has convinced me that ethanol fuel is presently unfeasable. Why, a gallon of denatured alchohol at the hardware store costs about 10 dollars! Go buy a quart of the cheapest whiskey you can find and note the price of that!

This unfeasability is artificially sustained by governement sudsidies. These subsidies, by their very nature, reduce or eliminate any incentive to improve through american ingenuity the energy costs of production that cause ethanol fuel to be unfeasable. True to it's marxist roots, the government then will try to force innovation by penalizing the status quo as some have suggested as much in this thread. Already some states in this union have begun to force through legislation the production of ethanol based fuels and have begun penalizing those who do not use them by taxing them more.

Still, it seems apparent to me that although the fact that ethanol fuel in unfeasable is presently true it need not be always true. I truly believe, if left to our own devices, americans could make ethanol a profitable fuel source. Maybe nuclear powered distillaries? The problem is that with profitability will come the inevitable detractions of widescale industrial activity. The enviroment will suffer somehow and the eco-nazis will mobilize. The government will tax and sudsidy and screw around with the normal market forces that normally would drive research and development....ect.

Still... the idea of paying some Iowa farmer, some distillary workers and a few corrupt american businessmen ( not to mention Uncle Sam) to fill up my tank seems more attractive than paying people who burn cities down because they don't like a cartoon or who hack people's heads off with dull kitchen knives while being video taped. I don't know....3.50 a gallon may not be so bad after all. Keep working on it boys.

raksha said at February 25, 2006 6:19 PM:

non renewable sourcesaregoing to last stage s.in such we imagine our joiners condition ,can u imagine they will use bicycle and use bullcart for tranport mean.such condition to produce and deveploded lots of other sources i think now these sources take time to resresch but futur king and dollar daughter

Prof. Geo said at March 26, 2006 1:37 PM:

Well, it's about the net energy, and the energy density, folks. It's also about time, which is running out fast. Therefore, we have little time or "energy credits" (a.k.a. cheap fossil fuel) left to be messing around trying to make a quick buck off our neighbors on some government-subsidized ethanol gambit, either corn, soybeans, sunflowers, grass, wood, sewage or whatever your favorite biomass--marine algae? All these schemes need a serious energy budget evaluation. I cannot believe that such biomass schemes will make a big dent, if any, in our energy consumption. There is only so much organic fertilizer around, and then petrochemical-based fertilizers must be applied. If Brazil is doing this sugar cane-ethanol trick without fertilizer, then they must be mining their tropical soil for N,P,K and it will inevitably deplete. Remember the second law--there's nothing "free" in our little corner of space-time.

Frankly, as a beg-and-spend scientist, this oil depletion future shock has got me going on like an economist, "economics" which seems OK in theory but looks like voodoo in practice (e.g., 3% growth indefinitely on a finite planet? Give me a break!). As soon as I learned Bill Gates was investing in ethanol in the NY Times today, I knew I smelled a rat, and found this blog. Anyway, biomass fuels are certainly worth a hard look, but hitching our energy future upon the same industrial agriculture business that got us into this mess seems foolish to me. Recall the climate is changing in uncertain ways and our precious topsoil is eroding, thanks to the "green revolution" and big industrial agriculture malpractice. My bias is PowerDown as a stop-gap and a mad scramble to embrace "our friend the atom" ASAP. Let's hope we don't run out of uranium as fast as we are apparently going through natural gas and coal.

mark justus said at March 29, 2006 7:48 AM:

I only want to comment on some of the concerns about ethanol and biodiesel. In the Western area of Kansas, corn is raised for cattle feed and not for human consumption. If there was no ethanol plant here, the same energy would still be used to raise the crop for sale to cattle feeders. The by product from ethanol, wet distillers grains, is a high performance feed that is in demand by the feeders. Our plant in Goodland was sized to only take the amount of corn that is fed to cattle, make ethanol and then supply the local feeders with the by product feed. A strong misconception is applied to corn usage for ethanol when it could go for food. In our geographic area that just simply isnt true.All corn here is raised for feed.

The other point to biodiesel is the feedstock. Our program primarily uses waste fats or non edible fats from cattle processing plants that has little or no value. We have the ability to use either 100% fat or 100% vegetable oil. Since vegetable oil is expensive in comparison to animal fats most producers will use fats for their production.

Randall Parker said at March 29, 2006 4:28 PM:

Mark Justus,

When ethanol is made from waste from existing plants that are making useful products then it might provide a net benefit. But ethanol production is getting scaled up way past that point. There's not enough waste material to make the amount of ethanol being produced. So an increasing fraction of the produced ethanol is coming from plants that take in and use corn only to produce ethanol.

Narsi Santhanam said at March 30, 2006 3:00 AM:

Hi all,

This is a nice column, in fact I found the comments to be equally or more enlightening than the article in itself. Thanks for the inputs...

I also read another long discussion on the subject from another researcher in which he has said that the two Cornell sciestists had overestimated the energy requirements at every stage of the biofuel production from corn. I forget the web page, but his article argues that even if it turns out that bio-based diesel is not as cost-effective as petro diesel right now, the difference is quite small...hope this input is of help

I was also wondering if I could let you know about a page we co-ordinate on biodiesel - http://www.castoroil.in/reference/plant_oils/uses/fuel/bio_fuels.html . Thought some of you could find it useful...apologies if you consider it shameless advertising :-)

Thanks, cheers


Narsi Santhanam said at March 30, 2006 3:07 AM:

And in this page we provide some inputs for castor oil as biodiesel - http://www.castoroil.in/uses/fuel/castor_oil_fuel.html


Pavitra Raghav said at April 17, 2006 10:54 AM:

While the jury appears to be still out on the overall energy efficiencies of bio-fuel and biodiesel usage, I think there could be another perspective still worth considering.

In parts of India, there is a tree called the Jatropha which grows in abundance. Until a couple of years ago, no one cared about the trees, and they just grew and stood there. A few folks were using the oil for lamps, but that was just about it. In the last few years however, the jatropha oil has been found to be a potential candidate for biodiesel, and now the village folk in these parts of India are putting the trees to better use, and hopefully are earning more than what they were earlier. In cases such as the Jatropha, where the oil has not found use in other industries or functions, and that had been put to little economic use, the biodiesel economics appear to be pretty much in the positive, at least for those limited geographies.

While such economic perspective may or may not make sense for developed countries, for countries such as India where many villages are still quite poor, incremental income from assets currently unutilised is indeed welcome news...or so methinks!

Thanks for your time


tater said at May 10, 2006 7:21 AM:

odd, I cannot see why alcohol production takes more energy than it puts out. you get a crop, let it rot(ferment) then you distill the alcohol (use the dregs to run the still, or solar)

9 acres will provide me with enough fuel for a year and I commute about 100 miles a day.

so I plan on doing so. i'll let you guys argue about if it is possible.

do or do not, there is no try.

ron said at May 13, 2006 8:09 PM:

I just happened to run into this site while looking for an industrial source for alchohol to mix my own gasohol at a more reasonable cost. I know the chemical industry uses a lot of it for various things. What I have noticed in reading through these comments is that many of you writing here are probably way smarter than me but here is the rub, if my wood box is empty I go the hell out and get more wood, I don't sit on my ass and bitch about being cold. Instead of talking about why it won't work why don't some of you people with diplomas start posting information concerning real ways to make it work. My point being that I and others like me, may not be smart enough to do the math or invent the formulations but I can read a set of blueprints and turn them into the equipment needed to save our own collective asses. I am looking into my own small scale bio-desil,alchohol, bio-mass, producer gas, production and help is always appreciated. I think it's right for us as individuals and in my case, Americans in general, to take matters into our own hands and do for ourselves before we get it done to us.

Biodiesel said at May 16, 2006 3:35 AM:

Found this page for resources on biodiesel from algae - Biodiesel from Algae - info, Links

Ec, Plant Oils A-Z

Willis said at May 16, 2006 8:57 PM:

Ron, thanks for posting. You say:

"Instead of talking about why it won't work why don't some of you people with diplomas start posting information concerning real ways to make it work."

Ummm ... perhaps because it doesn't work?


TheSUBWAY.com said at April 18, 2008 9:28 AM:

We found an interesting article about the problems with Ethanol on ConsumerReports.org:


"But there are some problems with increasing ethanol blends. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, so increasing the amount of ethanol in gasoline will likely result in lower fuel economy. Increasing standard fuel blends from zero to 10 percent ethanol, as is happening today, has little or no impact on fuel economy. In tests, the differences occur within the margin of error, about 0.5 percent. Further increasing ethanol levels to 20 percent reduces fuel economy between 1 and 3 percent, according to testing by the DOE and General Motors. Evaluations are underway to determine if E20 will burn effectively in today's engines without impacting reliability and longevity, and also assessing potential impact on fuel economy."

TheSUBWAY.com would like to invite readers to post their own views and ideas in TheSUBWAY.com's Investor Forum:


stockpromoter07 said at April 21, 2008 7:18 AM:

It's good to hear BP & GM talk about alternative fuels, but 50 years to implement is too long.


Perhaps this link will spark more attention:


It is GM's electric concept car the Chevy Volt. If more people begin to demand alternative fuel cars, we should be able to speed the rate at which the technology is developed.

We have started an Investor Forum where Investors can meet and discuss topics like this:


wally said at May 26, 2008 7:12 AM:

You nitwits.

This has nothing to do with net energy gain/loss. This has to do with buying votes of the farm states. GWB had his boys do a redo of the energy cycle gain loss studies coming up with a predictable result. We all know how much to trust anything coming from the Cheney/Bush boys! ala mass destruction stories al Quaeda etc.

Most studies show that more energy is used in making a gallon of ethanol than the ethanol contains. ie we use a gallon or so of diesel/natural gas to make a gallon of ethanol.

I estimate that for each 10,000 gallons of ethanol subsidy we buy one vote.

There fore we need to have 10000gallons/vote X 250000 votes/electoral victory = 2,500,000 gallons/victory produced to buy victory in the state of Nebraska (assuming 500,000 total votes).

Brandon Stone said at June 28, 2013 12:44 PM:

You know, it's just a matter of time until we have water filtration systems that'll run vehicles and equipment. Something along those lines. Or maybe it'll still have to highly rely on a high powered energy source, well you've got atoms, you've got water, you've got thermal and solar energy. It's all around only they don't want us to know which is why people don't realize this yet but that day is coming and that's for darn sure.

Brandon Stone said at June 28, 2013 12:44 PM:

You know, it's just a matter of time until we have water filtration systems that'll run vehicles and equipment. Something along those lines. Or maybe it'll still have to highly rely on a high powered energy source, well you've got atoms, you've got water, you've got thermal and solar energy. It's all around only they don't want us to know which is why people don't realize this yet but that day is coming and that's for darn sure.

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