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Fuel to the Fire: Another Study Concludes Biodiesel and Ethanol “Not Sustainable”

A new Cornell University and University of California-Berkeley study from long-standing critics of biofuels slams both ethanol and biodiesel.

“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 new analysis of the energy input-yield ratios of producing ethanol from corn, switch grass and wood biomass as well as of producing biodiesel from soybean and sunflower plants.

The two have collaborated before on similar research. The current report is published in Natural Resources Research (Vol. 14:1, 65-76).

In terms of energy output compared with energy input for ethanol production, their calculations determined that:

  • Corn requires 29% more fossil energy than the fuel produced;

  • Switch grass requires 45% more fossil energy than the fuel produced;

  • Wood biomass requires 57% 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% more fossil energy than the fuel produced;

  • Sunflower plants requires 118% 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.

Pimentel has for a number of years been one of the most outspoken critics of ethanol. His conclusions and methodologies are vigorously contested by biofuel supporters, such as Hosein Shapouri at the USDA (earlier post). This current paper, and well as a different study published in BioScience (earlier post) will undoubtedly provoke a counter response.

Pimentel would prefer to see the country focus its efforts on producing electrical energy from photovoltaic cells, wind power and burning biomass and producing fuel from hydrogen conversion.

Comments

Tman

It is well known that ethanol from corn is very energy intensive, but did the study look at new wave of plant-to-fuel proceses like sunfuel? I would like to see how sunfuel made from whole plants or discarded plant parts bodes with fossil fuel.

Lucas

bushit!

These people must be in the oil companies pockets.

We can get all the biodiesel we need from non-food algae around the Salton Sea. The study has been done. What we need now is for our goverment to wake up.

Lucas

bushit!

These people must be in the oil companies pockets.

We can get all the biodiesel we need from non-food algae around the Salton Sea. The study has been done. What we need now is for our goverment to wake up.

Lucas

bushit!

These people must be in the oil companies pockets.

We can get all the biodiesel we need from non-food algae around the Salton Sea. The study has been done. What we need now is for our goverment to wake up.

Lucas

The dry residule from waste sugarcane/beets can be used to distill the alcohol that is used to esterfy the biodiesel. Once the system has been established with normal increases in technique and productivity it will become self-sustaining.

Are we going back to horses and buggies? Come on! We need some postive thinking around here. Sure there will be things that don't work as well as we would like but considering the alternative - if we want a world that makes progress - we are going to have to hold our noses and dive in!

Engineer-Poet

I wonder if Pimentel hasn't gone over the edge this time; it's trivial to show that firewood is a net energy gain, so if woody biomass is harvested using itself as the energy source (using e.g. bio-oil from wood pyrolysis to run the engines of the equipment) it's awfully hard for it to be energy-negative.

What this issue needs is honest brokers, and I hope this doesn't mean Pimentel is just another partisan.

tom

If such energy intensive products like pesticides and anhydrous ammonia are not used as well as the best engineering practice for distillationthe whole energy budget changes drastically. If Pimentel only looked at Archer Daniels Midland wasteful and antiquated methods methods of course there is an energy deficet.
Soy beans yeild about 48 gallons of oil per acre while jojoba yeilds about 200 gallons per acre on land not suitable for other crops.

Brook

The NREL study of 1998 say's virtually the opposite (see page 59):
http://www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/fy98/24089.pdf

Biodiesel has a Net Energy gain of 3.2
Ethanol has a Net Energy gain of 1.34

Both of these values have been significantly improved upon since that study was published.

What to believe? Here's a fact for you from Prof. Patzek's own website - he is the Director of the UC Oil Consortium, which get's up to $120k/yer from each company in the program. How unbiased do you think he is now?
http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/ucoil.html

If you actually read his paper (p.66 of Natural Resources Research, vol 14, no. 1) and look at the numbers he uses, you will find that he concludes that it takes 271 gallons of ethanol equivalent of energy to produce 914 gallons of ethanol. That is actually 3.4 times more output than input (this includes ALL energy inputs, even the energy of Labor!!).
http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/uc_scientist_says_ethanol_uses_m.htm

GET THE FACTS!

Brook

The NREL study of 1998 say's virtually the opposite (see page 59):
http://www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/fy98/24089.pdf

Biodiesel has a Net Energy gain of 3.2
Ethanol has a Net Energy gain of 1.34

Both of these values have been significantly improved upon since that study was published.

What to believe? Here's a fact for you from Prof. Patzek's own website - he is the Director of the UC Oil Consortium, which get's up to $120k/yer from each company in the program. How unbiased do you think he is now?
http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/ucoil.html

If you actually read his paper (p.66 of Natural Resources Research, vol 14, no. 1) and look at the numbers he uses, you will find that he concludes that it takes 271 gallons of ethanol equivalent of energy to produce 914 gallons of ethanol. That is actually 3.4 times more output than input (this includes ALL energy inputs, even the energy of Labor!!).
http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/uc_scientist_says_ethanol_uses_m.htm

GET THE FACTS!

Brook

The NREL study of 1998 say's virtually the opposite (see page 59):
http://www.nrel.gov/docs/legosti/fy98/24089.pdf

Biodiesel has a Net Energy gain of 3.2
Ethanol has a Net Energy gain of 1.34

Both of these values have been significantly improved upon since that study was published.

What to believe? Here's a fact for you from Prof. Patzek's own website - he is the Director of the UC Oil Consortium, which get's up to $120k/yer from each company in the program. How unbiased do you think he is now?
http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/ucoil.html

If you actually read his paper (p.66 of Natural Resources Research, vol 14, no. 1) and look at the numbers he uses, you will find that he concludes that it takes 271 gallons of ethanol equivalent of energy to produce 914 gallons of ethanol. That is actually 3.4 times more output than input (this includes ALL energy inputs, even the energy of Labor!!).
http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/uc_scientist_says_ethanol_uses_m.htm

GET THE FACTS!

Rahul Iyer

So we spent the $30 to buy the journal to read the paper...and Patzek's conclusions are dubious at best.

The tables of data he cites in his paper are terrible...he actually assumes that 56kg of cemement and 32kg of steel (ss and standard) are 'consumed' to make 1000kg (~250gallons) of biodiesel...I'm not sure what kind of plant eats itself that fast...but their operator might want to look in to that.

I didn't like him very much when I took classes from him at Cal...and now I see quite clearly that indeed he's in the pocket of his research funders. Sad...very sad.


odograph

E-P, I read that to mean "Wood biomass" "for ethanol production"

It is one of the bullet points under that heading. I'd assume it is based on some enzyme reaction: celulose -> starch -> sugars -> ethanol.

odograph

Tom, you might be amused to learn that refined jojoba oil currently sells for $140.00 a gallon, retail (link

I used to have a good link to the story, from jojoba's early days as a future fuel replacement, to its being planted on way too marginal land, to it retrenching as a supply for the cosmetic industry (etc.).

But I think it is still exactly the kind of cautionary tale we should be taking seriously. It is very easy for a newspaper or magazine to do a "wonderful future" article, and it is very easy for companies to issue optimistic press releases. Unfortunately such texts do not assure success.

I worry, frankly, that we are seeing a lot of "jojoba" in the news (and the blogs) right now.

odograph

Sorry man, my fingers get flying and I do "a/" instead of "/a"

back_ache

He is speaking nonsense, my car runs on recycled soy bean oil, it has has better performance and at the last emmisions test was down my a third from what it was on conventional deisel.

And the power used to produce it? They collect it in a biodeisel powered truck, filter it, mix in some vegetable alcahol to thin it, leave it to stand for six weeks and then deliver it in the biodeisel powered truck. Not a huge energy input!

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