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

5 July 2005

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.

July 5, 2005 in Biodiesel, Ethanol | Permalink | Comments (25) | TrackBack (5)

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Comments

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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!

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!

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!

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.


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.

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

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!

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!

I do believe you've missed the point of the accounting exercise.
(Though use of waste oil does change the numbers a great deal.)

So biodiesel isn't a silver bullet. Neither are hybrids. Or mass transit. Or wind farms. Or solar cells. Or hydro. Or bicycles. Or telecommuting.

No kidding.

It will take a mixture of energy sources and uses. Biodiesel may become a big part of that picture, or may be limited to something closer to simply using the waste oil from other processes.

Either way, continuing to make it cheaper relative to petrol is a good thing for both the environment and the economy. No worries.

Zinc looks like it kicks ass better than biodiesel.  I worked up the numbers I was promising myself I would and got a huge surprise, so go read Going negative.

my friend works at the biodiesel plant in vegas. they have a viable business buying soybeans, electricity and natural gas and selling: biodiesel; soymeal; glycerine; and dilute glycerine+water solution (used to supress dust at construction sites). there costs rise somewhat as energy prices rise but are more than compensated by a higher market price for their diesel. its seems like "scientific" net-loss studies are clearly false in the face of profitable, operating biodiesel plants.

Patzak and Pimental is partisan Big Oil bullshit....

I imagine the “new study” by Pimentel and Patzek in Natural Resources Research showing negative energy value in all biofuels is a repeat of what these advocates have been saying for the past 15 years. Hopefully, scores of respectable scientists will tear it apart, limb by limb, even though it may contain some useful and important analyses, especially on water table depletion and contamination.

Perhaps the biggest technical problem in Patzek’s works is the value used for the fossil energy input in production of fertilizer. This energy requirement has been steadily decreasing over the past 35 years. The theoretical minimum for NH3 is around 25 GJ (HHV) per ton of NH3. The mean for plants built in the 1960s was 75 GJ/t, and for new plants constructed in 1997 it was around 33 GJ/t. The average for all U.S. plants in 1995 was 40 GJ/t, or 11.1 MWh/t, or 17,600 BTU/lb. Patzek (in a 2003 paper) mentions this 1995 U.S. average number, then inflates it (unnecessarily) 10% for transportation and handling. He then jumps to an energy value for urea (which is more energy intensive than ammonia and accounts for about 50% of nitrogen application) from the 1980’s (28,800 BTU/lb), inflates it by 10% for transportation and handling, and applies this number to all fertilizers.

A more realistic number for mean fossil energy per pound of fertilizer just 5 years from now is about half of what Patzek assumes. And of course, 20 years from now, it could easily be just 20% of what Patzek assumes if there is aggressive support of production of renewable fertilizers on wind farms.

Then there is the question of how much fertilizer is used. Are the reported numbers in pounds of NH3 or pounds of nitrogen? Pimentel assumes agricultural reports are always quoting nitrogen fertilizer amounts in nitrogen content, whereas in some cases they were reporting ammonia amounts and nitrogen would be 14/17 as large. He then consistently uses the highest reported fertilization rates from various studies. His phosphorus application rates, for example, are at least 30% above more commonly reported mean rates, which are steadily decreasing.

There are similar problems in his analysis of energy required for processing the corn into ethanol, where he relies heavily on data from the 80’s, which he then inflates by 20% to account for the energy required to make the concrete and steel in the ethanol plant (even though the plants may have a 40 year design life). His credits for the value of co-products are unrealistically low by even greater proportions. His analysis of ethanol from cellulose and hemicellulose is not even worthy of comment.

Finally, for special effects, Patzek likes to report the total energy input, including the solar energy, just after he’s been summing fossil energy input and net energy output in an attempt to mislead the unwary reader into thinking the total ethanol energy output is 35% of the fossil energy input – though he is careful not to actually state that.

Pimentel’s support of solar and wind is commendable, but that is no excuse to distort the case for biofuels. It is certainly quite possible that analyses by biofuel supporters are rather optimistic for current standard practice; but this is excusable, as there has been a significant trend toward improving efficiencies over the past 15 years, even though fossil energy costs have been very low during most of that period. With fossil energy costs now rising rapidly, we can expect rapid strides in all efficiencies over the next five years.

In fairness, the above brief comments on previous works by Patzek and Pimentel may not apply to their most recent article in Natural Resources Research. If anyone has a copy, I'd be interested in seeing it - though not interested enough to buy it.

See Shapouri, http://www.ethanolrfa.org/net_energy_balance_2004.pdf , for a balanced analysis of corn-ethanol.
See U.N. report #26, http://www.fertilizer.org/ifa/publicat/pdf/part1.pdf , for all you ever wanted to know about the fertilizer industry.
See Greene, “Growing Energy”, NRDC, http://www.bio.org/ind/GrowingEnergy.pdf for serious analysis on cellulosic ethanol.
See Doty, http://www.dotynmr.com/PDF/Doty_FutureFuels.pdf , for a sound look at Future Fuels.
See Patzek, http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/patzek/CRPS416-Patzek-Web.pdf , for some extremely biased rambling based on obsolete data.

F. David Doty, PhD, physics

We have here a company in Germany that takes a different route. Their fleet of company cars and trucks runs on plant oil, the same as used for dressing your salad, but they buy bulk, of course, and fill up on their own premises. Engines require a conversion to the tune of $2000. Financial input is redeemed within about a year, taking into account a price difference of about 30% below fossil fuel and normal business mileages. The only disadvantage is a faint scent of french fries (sorry, freedom fries) which users seem to appreciate as witness their self-righteous grin all the way to the bank.

Conversion is required to cope with high viscosity of plant oil, which would hardly matter in summer, but winter cold requires pre-heating of fuel. Under summer conditions, most previous generation Diesel engines could virtually do without the conversion, at all.

It appears that Biodiesel offers the wrong path anyway, as it is aggressive to materials in piping and seals whereas salad oil is so harmless you can smoke (but you don't have to) while filling up.

We have just published in the company's weblog a six-way comparison, a table featuring Biodiesel and plant oil as compared to fossil Diesel and natural gas and liquefied petroleum gas compared to fossil petrol. The article is in German, so I don't expect you to check it. If you do, bear in mind figures are based on German market conditions where fossil fuels are taxed heavily compared to the US.

The company is Soli fer Solardach, planners and builders of solar thermal heating systems (text in English), based in the Saxon town of Freiberg. Founder/owner, Timo Leukefeld, incidentally, will be attending the ISES 2005 Solar World Congress in Orlando, Florida, shortly, so you can ask for him there. Buy him a drink (carrot juice, JAck Daniels, figure it out yourself) and he'll confirm to you that once a year, at Christmas, he tops up the tank with the best olive oil Italy can deliver.

Please waht is content of biodiesel. How the biodieseel produced. for information only.

Read excerpt below...If Brazil can do it why can't we?
http://www.gasandoil.com/goc/news/ntl52722.htm

Brazil's ethanol effort helps country lead to oil self-sufficiency
20-06-05 While Americans fume at high gasoline prices, Carolina Rossini is the essence of cool at the pump. Like tens of thousands of her fellow citizens, she is running her zippy red Fiat on pure ethanol extracted from Brazilian sugar cane. On a recent morning in Brazil's largest city, the clear liquid was selling for less than half the price of gasoline, a sweet deal for the 26-year-old lawyer.
"You save money and you don't pollute as much," said Rossini, who paid about $ 18 to fill her nearly empty tank. "And it's a good thing that the product is made here."

Three decades after the first oil shock rocked its economy, Brazil has nearly shaken its dependence on foreign oil. More vulnerable than even the United States when the 1973 Middle East oil embargo sent gas prices soaring, Brazil vowed to kick its import habit. Now the country that once relied on outsiders to supply 80 % of its crude is projected to be self-sufficient within a few years.
Developing its own oil reserves was crucial to Brazil's long-term strategy. Its domestic petroleum production has increased sevenfold since 1980. But the Western Hemisphere's second-largest economy also has embraced renewable energy with a vengeance.

Today about 40 % of all the fuel that Brazilians pump into their vehicles is ethanol, known in Brazil as alcohol, compared with about 3 % in the United States. No other nation is using ethanol on such a scale. The change wasn't easy or cheap. But 30 years later, Brazil is reaping the return on its investment in energy security while the United States writes checks for $ 50-a-barrel foreign oil.
Much of Brazil's ethanol usage stems from a government mandate requiring all gasoline to contain 25 % alcohol. Vehicles that ran solely on ethanol fell out of favour in Brazil in the 1990s because of an alcohol shortage that pushed drivers back to gas-powered cars. But thanks to a new generation of vehicles that can run on gasoline, ethanol or any combination of those two fuels, more motorists such as Rossini are filling up with 100 % alcohol again to beat high gas prices.

Algae can provide 20 times the biodiesel than corn? It can grow in a few days? That's what the weather channel says? Well, why should we wait for some lab to "perfect" the process? If I can grow algae that is just 5 times effective than corn, why not buy the equipment I need and make my own biodiesel?

If you can buy the equipment for around $2000 the market will explode?


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