October 07, 2005
Brazil Shifting Toward Ethanol For Car Fuel

Fueling cars with a mix of gasoline and alcohol from sugar cane is becoming the norm in Brazil.

Alcohol made from sugar cane is becoming the fuel of choice in Brazil, and other countries - so much so that global sugar prices hit a seven-year high this week.

Faced with the high sugar price signal Brazilian farmers will plant sugar cane on more acres. If ethanol usage grows by orders of magnitude then sugar cane acreage could do likewise. Will this end up cutting into rain forests? I'd like to know how many acres of Brazlian land would be needed to shift all cars now operating from oil to ethanol. Currently Brazil makes about 400 million tonnes of sugar per year. Anyone know the ratio between tonnes of sugar and gallons of ethanol produced from it?

Ethanol from Brazilian sugar is cheaper per mile than gasoline. The market alone is enough to drive the shift toward more alcohol fuel usage.

Unlike hybrids sold in the US, for example, flex cars sold in Brazil don't cost any more than traditional models. In fact, some models are only available with flex engines now. Ethanol engines use 25 percent more ethanol per mile than gasoline. But ethanol (the alcohol produced by fermenting sugar) usually sells at somewhere between a third to half of the price of gas. Even people who were reluctant to take the plunge and buy a flex say they have been won over by the savings.

Does Brazil tax the gasoline component of mixed fuels more than the ethanol component? Is this shift driven by the real pre-tax cost of both these fuels?

Sugar traders are bullish on sugar prices due to high oil prices.

Raw sugar futures have surged by a third to almost 12 cents per lb this year, having stood at 9.04 cents at the end of 2004.

"Definitely, we're going to 12 cents," said Marius Sonnen of sugar trader Sonnen and Co. Inc. in the United States. "As long as oil prices are this high, the Brazilians will convert more cane into ethanol. I don't see any end in sight to this rally."

Note that import restrictions erected from domestic sugar producers keep the price of sugar much higher in the United States. Therefore the cost of ethanol made from sugar is much higher in the United States and US taxpayers have to pay subsidies for ethanol production.

The US sugar industry simultaneously gets restrictions on imports that drive up the price of sugar in the US market plus subsidies for conversion of sugar to alcohol since costly protected domestic sugar is too expensive to compete.

Countries such as Brazil have embraced sugar-based ethanol, which accounts for 40 percent of the fuel Brazilians pump into their gas tanks. But sugar is less expensive in that country than in the United States, where critics contend import quotas artificially raise sugar prices. The industry should not get both trade protections and a subsidy to make sugar-ethanol competitive, critics said.

Brazil could conceivably end up exporting ethanol made from Brazilian sugar. Many US candy factories have moved to Canada and other countries in order to get cheaper sources of sugar. The candy isn't subjected to import restrictions analogous to those on raw sugar. The United States might end up importing ethanol made from foreign sugar as well.

Share |      Randall Parker, 2005 October 07 11:32 PM  Energy Biomass

detribe said at October 8, 2005 2:20 AM:

Troy G. Schmitz, Andrew Schmitz, and James L. Seale, Jr.
JRTC 03-1 April 2003

The average conversion rate for sugar with respect to sugarcane over the
three-year benchmark period was calculated as 13.39 percent. This implies that one metric tonne
of sugarcane yields approximately 133.9 kilograms of sugar. The conversion rate for alcohol
with respect to sugarcane was computed by aggregating anhydrous and hydrous alcohol and
taking the average over the benchmark period. The average conversion rate for ethanol was
calculated as 7.95 percent of 1000 liters per metric tonne. Hence, one metric tonne of sugarcane
is used in the production of 79.5 liters of alcohol.

Plus lots of other statistical and cost calculation goodies

Randall Parker said at October 8, 2005 10:25 AM:


A URL on that would help.

The first article I linked to stated that Brazil had a subsidy on sugar alcohol for a while but repealed it. But are there still any subsidizes on sugar alcohol in Brazil now in 2005?

Randall Parker said at October 8, 2005 10:27 AM:

Hugh, Marvin, Garson,

I just tried to notify you all in email that I accidentally deleted your posts (while trying to fix something) and included the text of each post so you could repost. If you do not get the notification (because perhaps you use a fake email address here) then contact me in private email and I'll forward your post to you.

Sorry about that.

Garson Poole said at October 8, 2005 11:12 AM:

[Here is a reposting of my comment that was accidentally deleted.]

There is a sharply negative appraisal of the energy balance of ethanol and biodiesel production in this research report (PDF format). Here is an excerpt:

Energy outputs from ethanol produced using corn, switchgrass, and wood biomass were each less than the respective fossil energy inputs. The same was true for producing biodiesel using soybeans and sunflower, however, the energy cost for producing soybean biodiesel was only slightly negative compared with ethanol production. Findings in terms of energy outputs compared with the energy inputs were: • Ethanol production using corn grain required 29% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. • Ethanol production using switchgrass required 50% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. • Ethanol production using wood biomass required 57% more fossil energy than the ethanol fuel produced. • Biodiesel production using soybean required 27% more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced (Note, the energy yield from soy oil per hectare is far lower than the ethanol yield from corn). • Biodiesel production using sunflower required 118% more fossil energy than the biodiesel fuel produced. (Research paper received and accepted 30 January 2005)
Randall Parker has discussed the problems of biofuels on FuturePundit in the past here. Calculating the energy balance is complicated and controversial. This article mentions a debate on the issue. It seems that progress is needed to improve the conversion processes or the supposed advantages of biofuels will prove illusory. The company Novozymes mentioned by Hugh Angell above is discussed in the Wired article. I hope that technical advances are made so that biofuels make sense in the future.

Randall Parker said at October 8, 2005 11:23 AM:


Note that the energy balance is more favorable in Brazil where they get a lot more sunlight. Also, note that advances in plant genetic engineering, cultivation methods, and conversion methods can all be expected to improve the energy balance.

One of my concerns is illustrated by the first article I excerpted: The greater buying power of affluent people who want to drive will come into more direct competition with the lesser buying people of poor people who want to buy food to eat. Higher sugar prices are being driven by the demand for ethanol fuel.

Another concern is environmental: Picture the Brazilian Amazon jungles shredded to make space for sugar cane farms. Ditto parts of Indonesia, India, and Sub-Saharan Africa.

I prefer solar photovoltaics because they will produce more energy per area, not need water or fertilizer, be locatable in deserts with less biomass concentration, and also lcoated on existing structures. In short, solar photovoltaics have a much lighter environmental footprint than biomass.

Tdean said at October 8, 2005 1:28 PM:

Great progress is being made in converting cellulose and other carbohydrate-rich agricultural waste into liquid hydrocarbon fuels. This process has the potential to be even more conversion efficient than alcohol since hydrocarbons are not soluable in water so that the expensive distillation step is eliminated. http://www.utpb.edu/artsci/chem/res_bio.htm

Processing agricultural waste is relatively environmentally benign since it makes use of carbon rich material that otherwise would be burned or plowed back into the soil where it is largely oxidized in the next growing season.

A breakthrough in this area could virtually eliminate petroleum imports in a decade. But where is the foresighted leadership? Not in the big oil lackey White House, that's for sure.

gmoke said at October 8, 2005 3:54 PM:

Brazil has invested close to thirty years into an ethanol infrastructure. We don't have that option.

All the US has is the Fanjul family, Cuban emigres who fled from Castro to corrupt US politicians for their own profit. The Fanjul family and their bought Congresscritters is one major reason that US sugar is more expensive than any other place around the world. And destroys the Everglades without any fundamental recourse, legal or otherwise.

Bob Badour said at October 8, 2005 5:15 PM:


While I did not find detribe's article, I think this is a good starting off place to look for it.

Joseph said at October 8, 2005 7:39 PM:

Carbon emissions are a non-issue. After remember several cold nights in the everglades saying hello to hypothermia during a military school I could care less if it was turned into a parking lot.

What's interesting is the continual debate over final energy output on ethanol. I doubt if even the most positive study would give ethanol more than a 20% surplus after wholesale distrobution (at least in the North American area). The question is whether a small surplus is worth the effort. I don't believe it is. That leaves "importing" ethanol from overseas producers such as Brazil which should be entering it's confrontational phase with it's neighbors around 2020. I can just imagine the feeding frenzy among future's speculators when the major ethanol fuel producer starts going to war along it's borders. I think we've had this dance before.

Blathering about partisan politics doesn't change the basics. Petroleum is still the best system for fueling ground transport until new tech becomes available. Even after say fuelcells, improved batteries, Mr Fusion shoved into a DeLorean... there will still be several decades where petroleum fuel is needed for transitioning and the production of numerous industrial items. Running off and chasing ethanol, bio-deisel etc. as a national effort is foolish. If some nasty industrialist wants to make a go at it then fine but that's his concern and he shouldn't have his hand on my wallet while he's doing it. I'm allready concerned with the level of funding being given bio-desiel etc. by the government (I recommend reading the energy bill).

Tdean said at October 8, 2005 8:18 PM:


I have read the energy bill and it isn't all bad. But it's more bad than good. Or a lot less good than it could be. In January I'm getting a more efficient AC system and maybe a Prius. I just think that the oil business doesn't need any help right now. I'm in the oil business and I'm not asking for handouts. But I'm a lot more worried about what is in other bills. Like the 200-300 billion bucks for "stabilizing" the Middle East to make sure we have a dependable supply of oil. Or do you believe we are spending that much to "spread democracy"?

I love hydrocarbon fuels myself. Hard to beat that great energy density. I'd just like them a lot more if they were made by converting agri waste. If a tiny fraction of government money currently going to Iraq can get that process commercial ten years faster, that will probably be a good deal for taxpayers. How many more countries will we be invading in that time? Get real. It's all about politics and big energy is winning that game - for now.

Randall Parker said at October 8, 2005 11:53 PM:


Batteries with sufficient power density to enable a shift to electric cars might already be within sight:

KELOWNA, British Columbia, Sept. 29, 2005 (PRIMEZONE) -- EPOD International Inc. (OTCBB:EPOI) (Frankfurt:EDU.F), a developer of advanced energy management technologies, is pleased to announce the company will continue to aggressively pursue the development of its hybrid supercapacitor-based battery.

Successful results from EPOD's phase I feasibility study have resulted in management deciding to pursue phase II of the project to fully develop version one of the company's supercapacitor-based battery. Laboratory test units, as well as larger scale prototypes, will be built and tested in various renewable energy and emergency back-up power applications during Q4, 2005 and Q1, 2006. The prototype units are to be built by EPOD's joint-venture partner, the Molecular Mechatronics Group at the University of British Columbia's Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

EPOD is co-developing the hybrid battery with the University of British Columbia as an alternative power storage solution to conventional lead-acid batteries for large-scale commercial/industrial applications. The battery is anticipated to feature substantially lower cost, higher power density, longer lifespan, and will be virtually environmentally benign. Power density values of 500 W/kg have already been demonstrated with higher values projected. The EPOD hybrid battery will also be able to be charged at a much higher rate than lead-acid batteries.

That 500 W/kg is impressive. If they really mean "Watt-hours/kg" then that is over an order of magnitude higher than the 35 WH/kg for lead acid batteries. But maybe they mean specific power rather than specific energy. Still, that's a high specific power.

In his lab MIT battery researcher Donald Sadoway has batteries operating at double the capacity of lithium ion. He thinks solid state batteries could have triple the capacity of the best batteries today. Sadoway thinks it is possible to construct lithium polymer batteries that would have a specific power of 600 W/kg and a specific energy of 400 Wh/kg. That'd be more than an order of magnitude better than lead acid batteries and make electric cars possible.

otho said at October 9, 2005 1:43 AM:

According to a study by the US department of agriculture, advances in technology has brought the output ratio of ethanol derived from corn to a 35% net gain. Here is a link to their report. http://www.ethanol.org/pdfs/energy_balance_ethanol.pdf

detribe said at October 9, 2005 3:06 AM:

Re David Pimental pessimistic estimates of energy balance, there are mony studies that disagree with him, a good one is:


That said, the main justifacation of corn as a source probably is that it help farmers incomes.

The energy yield OUTPUT/INPUT with Brazilian ethanol is Average 8.3 , and best around 10.5, compared to corn in US about 1.4.

Of course the corn is just a lead in to cellulose sources such as wheat straw and corn stover. The First commercial factory doing that opens in Spain 2006, run by Abengoa.

detribe said at October 9, 2005 3:33 AM:

There are lots of good commentaries on Brazilian Ethanol technology

Here's One :


Garson Poole said at October 9, 2005 12:17 PM:

The cover story of "Science News" from last week was on biofuels, and it is available online here. It discusses several topics mentioned here, e.g., energy balance, cellulosic biofuels, Novozymes, Genencore, biodiesel, etc. Randall Parker said "The greater buying power of affluent people who want to drive will come into more direct competition with the lesser buying people of poor people who want to buy food to eat." Yes, I think that a greater reliance on biofuels created from food crops does raise the possibility of increasing food prices. Here is a quote from the Science News article:

Replacing the entire U.S. fuel supply with corn ethanol would require at least 60 percent of the nation's available cropland, according to calculations by Marcelo Diaz de Oliveira of the University of Florida in Gainesville and his colleagues.
However, the use of agricultural waste is also possible:
Use of plant waste, called cellulosic biomass, rather than corn for making fuels would eliminate the need for large, dedicated agricultural areas. "We are supportive of cellulosic ethanol," says David Hamilton of the Sierra Club in Washington, D.C. "It's more environmentally friendly and more competitive as a fuel."
Randall Parker said "I prefer solar photovoltaics because they will produce more energy per area, not need water or fertilizer, be locatable in deserts with less biomass concentration, and also located on existing structures." Wind power can also be generated in a complementary fashion to agriculture. Wind turbines can be placed in crop fields and they only require a small footprint. Turbines would provide an additional revenue stream for farmers as indicated here.

Commenter otho cited a USDA publication entitled "The Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol:An Update" located here. The report says: "Production of corn-ethanol is energy efficient, in that it yields 34 percent more energy than it takes to produce it, including growing the corn, harvesting it, transporting it, and distilling it into ethanol." This is certainly better than a negative energy balance but I hope that it can be greatly improved by technical advances.

Garson Poole said at October 9, 2005 12:28 PM:

There is a US government mandate for biofuels in the recently approved energy bill mentioned here:

The Energy Policy Act of 2005, signed by President Bush in August, requires 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel to enter the nation's fuel supply by 2012, providing 5.75 percent of the nation's transportation-fuel needs.

Tdean said at October 9, 2005 1:35 PM:

Recent research shows that, rather than fermenting sugars and trying to tame hydrogen as a transport fuel, it will be much more efficient and cost effective to convert carbohydrate and hydrogen to liquid hydrocarbon fuels. The reactions are exothermic (i.e. they produce their own heat). From Science, June 05:

"The conversion of carbohydrates to liquid alkanes requires the storage of a considerable amount of hydrogen in the fuel (i.e., essentially one molecule of H2 is used to convert each carbon atom in the carbohydrate reactant to an alkane moiety). The liquid alkanes retain 90% of the energy content of the carbohydrate and H2 reactants." http://www.sciencemag.org/cgi/content/abstract/308/5727/1446

And since the hydrocarbon products are not water soluable, they are easily separated from the aqueous solution without the expensive distillation step.

Given the very high thermodynamic efficiency of these reactions, and the fact that the products are consistent with the extant hydrocarbon transport infrastructure, this is clearly the future of bio-fuel, not fermentation derived alcohol. We are likely not far from a commercial implementation of this method and government assistance in this research would move the timetable up significantly.

peter Andonian said at October 9, 2005 5:07 PM:

Maybe I am just confused, but if ethanol costs less than $1.00 per gallon to produce, including the cost of the corn, then how could the fossil fuel imput (with fossil fuels over $2.50 per gallon) be more than $1.00 worth? Maybe farmers and ethanol companies have a secret supplier of fossil fuel at really low prices? Here is a link to the story: http://www.monsanto.co.uk/news/ukshowlib.phtml?uid=6897 Also, you get over 2.5 gallons of ethanol per bushel of corn (moving toward 3 gallons per bushel). Corn cash prices are around $1.50 per bushel. how could you get this price on corn if it takes over 3 gallons of fossil fuel (using pimental's 29% loss figure) to make a bushel of corn? I don't think corn subsidies run to 400%.

Randall Parker said at October 9, 2005 5:28 PM:


There are other inputs aside from the corn bushel. There's energy to run the conversion process for example. How much energy does that take?

peter Andonian said at October 9, 2005 8:37 PM:

I don't know the figure for this, but if the 90 cent cost in the monsanto link is correct, the energy cost must be equal or less than the total cost minus the cost of the raw materials (this assumes no other costs). Assuming around 60 cents per gallon of ethanol for corn, that leaves only 30 cents per gallon of energy input at the plant. The actual number would be lower of course, since energy is only one of many costs of running a plant. In fact, there are new processes in the works to lower the energy costs even further, and to use things like manure as fuel. Of course, the 90 cent cost may take into account the residual value of the feed, so these numbers may need to be adjusted up. My point was that a simple look at the overall cost numbers for raw corn and finished ethanol does not support the net energy loss, especially the idea that it takes more fossil fuel than it is worth (fossil fuel being expensive).

Randall Parker said at October 9, 2005 8:54 PM:


I can't answer all the questions you raise. However, in the process of looking for answers I came across a guy who is selling stoves to burn corn to heat homes in the winter.

"Corn, right now you can buy corn for, what? 1.50 a bushel and that's 56 pounds of corn in a bushel so that's a lot of corn you'll get and the fuel savings can be quite high," Tom Crowley, a heating and cooling instructor at NIACC tells KIMT Newschannel 3.

To make a million BTU's of heat, corn is about $20 cheaper.

For what it's worth, over the long haul of winterm that can mean big money if natural gas prices stay where they're at... and a bushel of corn stays below a $1.75.

The typical home uses about 50 million BTU of heat over the course of the winter. With corn, it'd cost you about $175. With the current price of natural gas, you'd pay around $1250.

That is wild. Does this really work? Why use natural gas or oil to heat a house if corn costs so much less? Well, feeding corn into the corn stove takes a lot more effort. Also, the initial set-up costs $2000. So how automated is it?

Randall Parker said at October 9, 2005 9:06 PM:

More on corn stoves

Pour a 50-pound bag of corn into the hopper, light the fire, and go about your business. Unlike the wood stove, after the initial lighting, you do not have to keep an eye on it, poke it, or refill it every hour or so. It burns for at least 24 hours. After filling the hopper of your corn stove, you can go away overnight in the winter without fear of the pipes freezing. To a person who is accustomed to burning wood, that is a luxury.

No more chopping or splitting. No more stacking. No messy ashes. There is no danger of fire, no smoke, no poisonous effluent released into the air, and a minimal amount of dust settles inside the house. For every bag of corn you burn there is a small “clinker” left in the stove to poke out to the side of the fire box. Later, when it is cool, you crumble the clinker and add it to your compost or save it to sprinkle it on your lawn in the spring. The corn stove is safe to touch on its exterior surfaces. Only the door and its window would cause a burn if touched.

Here's a higher cost calculation for corn heat:

1. Research into actual heating costs in four northeastern U.S. cities found shelled corn fuel to have the lowest cost-per-unit of effective heat over nine other “traditional” heating fuels, from oil to wood pellets. (I got this information from the distributor who sold me my corn stove.)

2. It takes 2.2 bushels of corn to produce one million BTUs of heat, at an average cost of $8.79. Producing that much heat by burning wood costs, on average, $22.07. (You can use other oil-bearing grains, too.)

At $8.79 per million BTUs of that would be $439.50 for the 50 million BTUs of heat that the other article costed at $175.

But that 2.2 bushels is only $3 to $4 at a typical $1.50 to $2 per bushel. But that might be the bulk cost on commodity exchanges. What does corn cost when purchased in from a local distributor?

peter Andonian said at October 9, 2005 10:04 PM:

Interesting stuff. One problem of course with corn for biofuels is that the total amount in the US (about 10-11 billion bushels) would yield only 30 billion gallons a year of ethanol, vs 140 bilion gallons of gasoline and another 40 billion gallons of other liquid fuel in the current US diet. The thing I find interesting about it though, is watching the effeciency get better and better. If we could get moving up the same curve with cellulotic ethanol, there would be cheap, domestic source for our liquid fuel. Energy, of course, will never be in short supply. Liquid fuels seem to be the bottleneck. Personally, I think the V2G technology combined with flex fuel engines is the way to go. Standardized nuclear with a bunch of wind and solar (much easier with V2G) would be good. For liquid fuel, ethanol is getting a good head of steam so I think it ought to be encouraged.

Engineer-Poet said at October 10, 2005 6:57 AM:

I disagree violently.  The EROEI of ethanol is far too low to promote it for any purpose whatsoever.  The ethanol production process has huge losses; a bushel of corn at 390,000 BTU plus 88,000 BTU of heat for distillation makes 2.66 gallons of ethanol at perhaps 224,000 BTU, for a net loss of over 53%.  Ethanol has about 70% of the per-gallon energy content of gasoline, so that 2.66 gallons burned in a car getting 30 MPG equivalent would drive it a mere 56 miles.

Instead, take the same corn and burn it in a corn stove with a Stirling cogenerator at 30% efficiency.  You get 117,000 BTU-worth of electricity, or 34.3 kWh.  If you used this to charge a plug-in hybrid using 350 Wh/mile, that bushel of corn would push the car for a whopping 98 miles... and you'd still have 273000 BTU of heat at the stove (suitable for space heat) PLUS 88,000 BTU of distillation heat you didn't use.

The corn stove might be usable with e.g. pelletized switchgrass or Miscanthus with some change in ash-handling procedures.  Ethanol?  It drives up evaporative emissions and requires energy-wasting changes in petroleum refining; we not only should not mandate and subsidize it, we probably shouldn't allow it.

Tdean said at October 10, 2005 8:15 AM:


That is a good analysis, but I see no reason for violence. The general concept of distributed generation using agricultural, forestry and even lawn waste to produce electricity or liquid fuels for transportation reduces gathering cost and may be very cost effective as well. Corn generated ethanol is all about farm subsidies, politics and nothing else. But the situation is different with sugarcane in Brazil. That seems to be cost effective for them, and it is a natural to raise sugar prices, their biggest export.

Engineer-Poet said at October 10, 2005 9:47 AM:

This discussion made me curious regarding the potential for producing more useful energy using sugarcane than the ethanol pathway would allow.  Unfortunately, detribe's cite does not mention whether the cane produced is measured as-harvested or by dry weight.  This forces me to guesstimate or use other data for things I'd rather have all from one source, but here goes.

If a metric ton of cane produces 79.5 liters (21.0 gallons) of ethanol, the aforementioned 30-MPG equivalent car (21 MPG of ethanol) would go 441 miles on a ton of cane.  Cane as harvested is 13.39% sugar per the above, 70% water (a ton of high-quality cane appears to yield about half its mass in juice), and the balance includes 14% plant fiber (bagasse).  If the bagasse has the same heat content as other biomass (17.4 million BTU/metric ton) each ton of cane yields fuel worth 2.44 million BTU.  If this could be converted to electricity at 25% efficiency, it would yield 178 kWh; at 40% (possible with gasification in combined-cycle plants, perhaps) it would yield 285 kWh.  Used in a PHEV consuming 350 Wh/mile, this electricity could run the car between 510 and 815 miles.

The electricity from bagasse might yield close to twice as much mileage as the ethanol from the sugar.

If the distillation heat is 33,000 BTU/gallon, the 21 gallons of ethanol would require 693,000 BTU of heat per ton of cane.  The waste heat from the bagasse consumption would amount to perhaps 50-70% of the bagasse energy content, or 1.22 million to 1.71 million BTU per ton of cane.  It appears possible for Brazil to grow cane as an energy crop, power its own consumption (including for transport) using the bagasse and export both sugar and ethanol.

It looks like Brazil is in good shape as long as the population doesn't get too big and the fertility of the land allows cane yields to be maintained.

Randall Parker said at October 10, 2005 10:45 AM:

Penn State has a neat site called "Energy Strategies" for comparing heating fuels.

Check out their cost comparison calculator for a large variety of heating fuels. The funny thing about their calculator graphs is that their #2 fuel oil graph against corn only goes to $2 per gallon. Probably 4 or 5 years ago that seems like a reasonable choice.

Anyone know what 50 lb bags of corn cost in your area? For me 50 lb of popcorn costs $15. But bulk corn from farmers should be below $2 per 50 lb.

Check out their corn equivalents table which compares common units of various fuels to how much corn has the same amount of energy. Note that 1 gallon of #2 heating oil contains the same heat as 22 lb of corn.

They also have a fairly sophisticated discussion of the useful heat content of shelled corn.

What I wonder: How much volume and weight would be needed for a typical home in Michigan or Massachusetts to store enough corn to get thru a complete winter. What would be the expense of building a bin to automatically feed in the corn into a furnace so that one could use corn heat as conveniently as oil heat. Note that delivery would be a problem as well. The corn has to get from the delivery truck into the big bin feeder.

What I also wonder: What would be the expense of building a steam electric generator to get both electricity and heat from burning corn in a house? One would need batteries as well due to the fluctuation of demand within the house and the inability of a steam electric system to respond as quickly as the demand fluctuates. Also, the corn electricity would probably become cost inefficient during the warmer months when heat is not needed.

In the future when photovoltaics become much cheaper corn heat/electric could complement a solar/battery system. The cooler months also are months of lower sunshine. So corn steam electric could replace some of the solar electric and also provide heat at the same time.

Randall Parker said at October 10, 2005 11:10 AM:

The Penn State corn equivalents table lists 1 million BTUs of natural gas as the equivalent of 170 lb of corn (which is just slighly more than 3 bushels). I do not know how much retail distribution adds to natural gas prices but on commodity exchanges lately natural gas as been between $12 and $16 per million BTU.

The United States has some of the highest natural gas prices in the world. European prices are about half US prices. So US customers are paying a large premium due to the lack of LNG terminals for off-loading imported natural gas.

At world market prices natural gas looks like it might be competitive with corn as a heating source. Check out this Penn State cost graph on corn versus natural gas as heating sources. But in some parts of the country natural gas is not available in residential neighborhoods and certainly not out in the country. So where natural gas is not available corn could be an attractive heating fuel if only an economical way of storing large amounts of corn could be found.

Imagine one could store a couple thousand bushels of corn in a big feeder big attached to one's house. What would be the cost of 40 or 50 bushels of corn delivered to one's own feeder bin?

Engineer-Poet said at October 10, 2005 12:40 PM:

A house using the equivalent of 50mcf of natural gas per season would only need about 150 bushels.  Using 1.25 ft^3/bu of shelled corn, you've got a rather small bin:  8 feet high (floor to ceiling in the basement), about 12 feet wide and a couple feet deep.

Make the bin dry and clean enough and it's an emergency food supply too.

Bob Badour said at October 10, 2005 12:50 PM:

How many bushels per acre? What are the other options for that acre?

Out here in the sticks lots of places already have large corn bins called silos.

Randall Parker said at October 10, 2005 12:55 PM:


The space area seems managable for some houses.

A basement bin strikes me as problematic:

1) Some areas of the country have no basements.

2) Basements tend to be damper. Undesirable for corn storage.

3) You need more height to feed into the burner. The burning location could be 2 or 3 feet off the ground inside the stove. Throw in the 8 feet height and you are at 10 feet at the top. You could make the bin wider.

4) You need a way to deliver the feed into the bin. Therefore a chute into the basement would be needed. Though that does make delivery from a truck downward into a bin more easy since the entire bin would be below the surface level of a dump truck's dumper.

I can see how a truck could come with a deployable conveyor belt or maybe a long tube for delivering corn along sides of houses into back yard bins.

Corn bins would be a lot easier to manage with new houses built to accomodate them.

Randall Parker said at October 10, 2005 1:08 PM:

(this is a repost of an accidentally deleted comment - MT Blacklist has a bug that is driving me nuts)

Here is another cost comparison of corn and other fuels for heating.

That list seems a bit outdated since natural gas and fuel oil prices have risen so much.

Many of the corn stoves have automated corn fuel feeding systems but need to be refueled either every day or every other day. To make corn heating more widely practical far larger feeder bins are needed. Still, the northeastern US, which as of 200 used 82% of all heating oil in the United States, is seeing a large rise in demand for stoves that burn various forms of biomass. Heating oil prices are at over $2.50 per gallon and biomass alternatives are now a third or a quarter the cost in fuel (couple thousand dollar conversion cost and need to add daily fuel for most stoves though).

Engineer-Poet said at October 10, 2005 3:05 PM:

I'll bet something like a shop vac could move shelled corn (or other pellets) around a bin without a lot of machinery.  Just fluidize it a bit and it will flow toward your outlet.  Same thing carries it uphill to your burner.

jimcrack said at October 10, 2005 3:34 PM:

Oil is the name of the game behind ethanol, and there are better ways to save oil than for Brazil to distill sugarcane. This policy dating back to the 70's was directly implicated in regressive social economics, because of the tendency to displace land for food production, even for cattlefeed, which is more cost effective than open grazing on marginal jungle land. It has been found that growing rubber trees in the Brazilian uplands is more effective than doing so on the Amazon river basin, because temperatures drop at night to 55 F killing fungal blight, which made Brazilian rubber uncompetitive in the 1930's. That industry was severely set back by US and european BUNA (butyl nitrate) derivatives for tires. Since it takes about 50 lbs petroleum to create one tire, it makes some sense to bring back natural rubber, and magnetize jobs south into the mountains, saving mass clearing of northern Amazon forests. This is an investment in a CO2 carbon sink, and a much more acceptable import for the US than sugar ethanol, which will never happen on the watch of oil hoohahs like Sens Ted Stevens, Trent Lott, and the Texans.

Joseph said at October 11, 2005 10:37 AM:

Randall Parker

Ahh thanks for the link. Interesting article though gallingly vague at times.

The argument on ethanol viability won't be solved until an non-subsidised production plant is built and actually competes large scale. As displayed here the information available produces a large spread of conclusions. If the mentioned 34% is attainable and sustainable then it might be worth a go ( I would still shudder at the concept of fuel futures being predicated upon grain futures though).

patrick said at October 12, 2005 9:11 PM:

Two comments.
1.All this stuff about energy conversion rates for ethanol ignore one big point. The energy used in the factory doesn't have to come from oil. In fact it would usually come from coal or nuclear or something. So the objections to the ethanol numbers on pricing don't apply if you use coal prices, and the entire ethanol project actually becomes a round about method of liquifying coal or using nuclear power to drive a car.
2. Use a steam or stirling engine in the car, and run on corn directly.

Also, how does the cost of corn compare to other grains such as wheat or rice?

And would a grain made especially for fuel be cheaper still? For one thing you could ignore all the food handling safety requirements, you could use contaminated, fungi ridden waste grain, and long term you could optimise (use genetic engineering etc), or just select from grains that have previously been rejected for food because of taste, toxins, a whole range of reasons that just don't apply to fuel.

Steven D. Gottlieb said at October 27, 2005 10:37 AM:

One thing that never seems to get mentioned is that some fuel technologies, such as alcohol brewing and distillation (and for you cellulose buffs, the acid pickling that renders raw biomass into usable cellulose), could be piggybacked onto others that waste heat. For example, most large scale electric steam turbine utilities (coal/oil/gas burners and even nuclear) are about 35 percent efficient (this may be a slightly obsolete number). Most of the rest of the energy is recapturable for cogenerative fuel processes. All of the three above energy consuming steps in making ethanol are low temperature, even the highest temperature process, that of distilling, requiring considerably lower temperatures than that which would boil water. In short, the btu's are there, the economic and environmental costs have already been paid by the electric utility, and the absolute temperatures are useful.

So even if it is true that a gallon of ethanol returns less energy than it has taken in production, that may prove to be irrelevant both economically and ecologically.

Ron Wagner said at October 29, 2005 2:37 AM:

Just bought a corn stove. At $1.85 per bushel it will be less than half the cost of natural gas, even before natural gas prices rise. We love the flame as well. Farmers can barely make it at that price.
I love supporting the farmers.

I prefer wind and solar producing hydrogen, but any alternative is better than being dependent on foreign oil. Political activism will determine the fuels of the future. There are many ways to go. The key is to have competition for the consumer. Many options will ensure lessening the monopolistic success of the big oil companies. E-85 ethanol operability should be mandated on all new cars.

We have unlimited biomass potential also. Sewage, Switchrass, peat, algae, manure,wood pellets, you name it.

All the best,

Ron Wagner

Central Illinois

vkhosla said at November 12, 2005 8:42 PM:

For an authoratative and deep analysis of this please see "The Debate on Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Impacts of Fuel Ethanol" avaialbale at www.transportation.anl.gov/pdfs/TA/347.pdf
and "Updated Energy and Greenhouse Gas Emissions Results of Fuel Ethanol (Septemer 2005, 456kb pdf)" at www.transportation.anl.gov/pdfs/TA/354.pdf

mogfix said at December 12, 2005 6:19 PM:

Please, could someone PLEASE [ogodpleaseoplease]stop quoting me Pimental's figures on how many BTU's go into producing the tractor that plows the field that grows the corn that fuels the car that JAC built and instead find out the BTU lost producing a gallon of GASOLINE? Anyone? Remember the figures, to be a fair comparison, have to go as deep [the BTU's to build the supertankers, refineries, pipelines] as Pimental's research. Better add in the cost of a continual military presence in the middle east: [how much do army E2's sell for at the A&P?]
Someone please do some honest math for a change, and post an honest comparison. Meanwhile, could someone also tell me who funded Pimental's research? Can't have been the DOE, their numbers differ.

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


Obviously the supertankers and refineries are getting operated with huge energy surpluses or else the petroleum economy wouldn't produce any surplus gasoline to sell in gas stations. So this call for energy-based comparison makes no sense. That the petroleum economy produces more energy than is used for extraction and processing is glaringly obvious.

If Pimental is correct then getting ethanol from corn increases oil imports. So his numbers are very important.

Ron said at January 4, 2006 7:08 PM:

Hey, just wondering---what do big corporations, such as Frito-Lay, do with all the oils they cook with after they're done with them? Can't USED oils be recycled into biodiesel and thus make it more economical to produce fuel (after all, the oils have served their purpose), or would it be virtually impossible to economically round up significant amounts for commercial fuel use?

Iqbal Shaikh said at January 18, 2006 12:47 PM:

Dear Sir,

I am Iqbal Shaikh, I am from Pakistan,Hyderabad.

Sir, I want to buy a complete ethanol plant, which is using in cars,

Please tell me, How much cost of this plant?
How much place to fix it?
Please give me complete details about it,
If you intrested to fix the plant here in Pakistan,
Please Contact me,

Best Regards,

Iqbal Shaikh,
Hyderabad, Sindh, Pakistan.
Cell No. +923009373368
Phone No. +92223818743
E-mail: danish_shaikh43@gawab.com, alrayankhan@yahoo.com.

B.L. Bolton said at January 31, 2006 7:57 AM:

Here in Nebraska, Ethanol is king. Say what you will, with out it, our rural economies would be totally demolished. It is hard enough for the family farm to survive the way it is. Many of the plants in the state are looking into inovative ways to get multiple uses out of the process. Most of the corn syrup used in producing Pepsi nation wide (or might be Coke) comes from Columbus's MCP (Minnisota Corn Processors) plant, which uses the parts not used for sugar production to convert into ethanol. I believe the massive Cargill plant in Blair does the same thing. All of the other plants pelletize their waist product which is sold to cattle producers as top quality feed.

One indovative plant near Mead Nebraska is being built on the sight of a large cattle feeding operator. They will be powering the ethanol plant off of the methane prodeced in a digester that will process the manure. The byproduct from this digester will be used to fertilize local corn fields. Corn from these fields will be fed to the cattle, as will the byproduct from the ethanol plant... a full circle that 1. eliminates natural gas inputs into the distilling process 2. reduces petrol based fertilizers 3. reduces toxic runoff of fertilizers 4. reduces toxic runoff of feed lots 5. produces a clean burning ethanol with minimal outside energy sources.

Many other plants have built plants alongside them to capture some of the gasses vented off in the proccess (carbon dioxide among them) and is bottling this for industrial uses... a job that otherwise would be requiring additional outside energy to accomplish. Not all of the steps in the process are taking place in a vacume, and are run independently of each other. There is a bigger picture that does factor into the equasion to help ballence it.

John Rumsey said at February 9, 2006 10:40 PM:

It appears we must use a mix of energy sources in the near future. Some types of fuels/power sources are suitable for fixed sites such as home heating, such as renewable biomass fuels, solar power and electricity from the power grid. Which is the best, alone or in combination with others, remains to be worked out. There is a lot of technology out there. Some will be suppressed due to economic/political greed or selfishness unless we talk about itand push for it.
The air dried biomass from sugar cane and other plants can be burned to distill the ethanol. My father engineered [with 2 Cornell University professors]the Gene Gun that shoots DNA into seeds, which may enable plant biologists to breed plants that are very oil-rich and capable of growing where food crops are marginal. There are processes that can make liquid fuels from biomass. The main energy is free, from the sun. The energy sources used in processing should be a mix of dry biomass combustion, solar and electric. Coal can be burned cleanly and there are great reserves of low-sulfur coal in the western U. S. that the Democrats won't allow to be mined, because ex-Ku Klux Klan member Sen. Byrd wanted to protect West Virginia's high-sulfur coal mine {got him votes too}.
One of the main consumers of petroleum is in motor vehicles. Autos have a different requirement for their energy source, it must be easily portable, energy dense and liquid or a gas [so it can be easily delivered to the engine]. Electric vehicles do not have the range and require too long to recharge. Internal combustion engines require extremely complicated pollution reducers, expensive fuels and still pollute. Using the IC engine with an auxiliary electric motor, as in hybrids now on the market, increases milage, but there is still pollution and the fuel is still made from oil.
A steam-electric hybrid using the steam engine at its most efficient speed range to run a generator, which would keep the batteries that ran the electric drive motor[s] fully charged would be better. Using forced air external combustion makes less pollution than an IC engine. Any combustible liquid or gas can be used. At first they could use diesel fuel or kerosene, then fuel oil, vegetable oils, ethanol; eventually other fuels would be developed.
The use of hydrogen as a fuel may be clean, but it is more expensive in energy cost to produce, it is explosive [ie. the Hindenburg], more difficult to handle, dangerous to store and refilling your fuel tank might be a problem. Fuel cells using hydrogen have their place, but not in automobiles.
If anyone out there wants to exchange ideas about steam-electric hybrids e-mail:

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