Monday, April 13, 2009

Corn for Fuel?

I just returned from a road trip to visit family farms. Since the farms are in Indiana, every last acre is naturally used to grow corn, a monoculture-hybrid version that has been genetically modified to contain more sugar and less protein than its natural ancestor. This is not the type of sweet corn that can be buttered and salted and eaten hot and delicious, but rather a more industrial sort of corn destined to become feedstock, high fructose corn syrup, or ethanol. (Check out the documentary King Corn for a great look at this industrialization of corn farming.) According to the farmers in Indiana, only a tiny percentage of the nearly 93 million acres of corn planted in the U.S. are used to produce edible sweet corn – maybe a few hundred thousand acres at most. So besides high fructose corn syrup, what else is this corn being used for? The answer was apparent as I continued on that road trip.

I was intrigued to note that after spending the day driving and hiking through fields of corn silage, when we pulled into a gas station to refuel, they definitely offered something described as E-85 “flex fuel”. This is not regular gasoline – E-85 fuel is an alcohol fuel mixture of up to 85% denatured fuel ethanol and gasoline or other hydrocarbon (HC) by volume. The website touting this type of fuel bills it as the way to "Join Us on the Road to Energy Independence". Pretty convenient that Indiana offers its farmers back their own corn in the form of competitively priced fuel. Fossil fuels blended with ethanol do produce fewer harmful carbon monoxide emissions than regular gasoline, and E-85 also has a higher octane rating. Yet producing ethanol actually uses up to six times more energy than the finished fuel contains, according to UC-Berkeley research from back in 2005.

Given that this has been known for a while, what is the federal government doing subsidizing corn farmers to produce corn for ethanol? Corn is a local source of energy, as much as coal or any other harmful fuel source. However, as the economy worsens and this recession continues, policymakers may want to take a closer look at the budget for subsidies. Subsidizing a fuel that results in a net energy loss seems shortsighted; perhaps policymakers might consider instead subsidizing research into the efficiency of fuel cells. High fructose corn syrup might not be the highest and best use of Indiana corn, but I would argue that it makes miles of sense more than using it for ethanol.


combustible said...

I definitely agree with you that it seems ludicrous the federal government still touts the whole "corn for fuel" idea. Granted, it has subsided quite a bit from a few years ago...but I believe the federal government could stand to peel back on this issue even more so.

There's such a disconnect between the scientific community and the politic body that resides in Washington that this all almost seems to come down to one factor: which energy sector can most effectively lobby and market to the politicians in Washington.

I'm all for the federal government taking massive initiatives in the energy sector through funding of R&D. Be that as it may, I'm not a huge fan of the general concept of the federal government picking particular avenues, if you will, and trying to push those moreso than others.

Here's a couple of interesting articles that are very skeptical about the whole "corn for fuel" push:

contango said...

Like the post, but I have a quick question/comment about some of the conclusions: Are there any fuels that are not a net energy loss (by loss, I assume you mean that energy not converted to KE is “lost”)? It’s been close to a decade since I took thermodynamics but wouldn’t a fuel that is not a net energy loss have to have all of the energy transfers have an efficiency of 100%? I have yet to hear of a process where 100% of a fuels stored energy is converted into kinetic energy much less one that creates more energy.

If this is the case, than all fuels have a net energy loss (i.e. not all of the energy available is converted to kinetic energy of vehicle). Most of the “wasted” energy is converted to heat and noise, I presume. Am I looking at this wrong?

What is the efficiency of fuel cells? I have heard that it takes quite a lot of energy to create the hydrogen.

David Wogan said...

Thermodynamically, you'll never have any fuel that is converted to kinetic or mechanical energy at 100% efficiency. When studies or people talk about the energy balance of fuels, they usually refer to the amount of energy that goes into producing and refining the feedstock into a convenient fuel. That fuel then has an energy content that is recovered by combustion, for example. When you look at the whole system, you definitely come out less than 100%, but when looking at straight input-output of the fuel, you hope to put in less than you get out.