DuPont Launches Next Family of Bio-Polymers; Energy and Greenhouse Gas Savings
Brazil May Be First Producer of Economical Cellulosic Ethanol

MIT Ethanol Life Cycle Analysis Highlights Benefits of Switchgrass-Derived Ethanol

Net Energy Value of different ethanol production pathways calculated using the MIT Monte Carlo method, and compared to earlier results. All the calculations have the same system boundary and use fuel’s LHV.  Click to enlarge.

Switchgrass-derived ethanol offers a slightly better net energy value than corn stover cellulosic ethanol, but the switchgrass-based fuel produces significantly lower emissions of greenhouse gases than does its corn-stover based counterpart, according to a new ethanol life cycle analysis by MIT.

The four different cellulosic ethanol pathways assessed in the study all performed much better than the five conventional corn ethanol pathways in the study, some of which showed little to no GHG abatement benefit when compared to gasoline.

Prior high-profile life cycle analyses (LCA) for corn and cellulosic ethanol have relied on single-value system inputs in their calculations. Much depends of the assumptions underlying the selection or calculation of the input value.

However, there is a wide range of variability in the inputs, and, accordingly, LCA results have also varied widely. For corn ethanol, for example, different LCAs have calculated net energy values ranging from -3.2 MJ/L to +9.0 MJ/L.

The study by Tiffany Groode and John Heywood at MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment tackles the ethanol LCA problem by incorporating a Monte Carlo simulation of the numerous normally distributed inputs accounting for the wide range of agricultural and technological variability into the analysis.

This produces a probability density function (PDF) that represents a range of outcomes for the ethanol production systems fossil energy consumption and GHG emission values. This range of outcomes, rather than the single-value results provides new insights to the ongoing debate around ethanol’s energy security and GHG reduction potential as an alternative fuel.

Greenhouse Gas emissions for different pathways. Click to enlarge.

Using the Monte Carlo methodology, Groode and Heywood calculated the net energy value (NEV) and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions for different corn- and cellulosic-ethanol production scenarios.

For the current best practice corn ethanol case, the duo calculated a net energy benefit for corn ethanol of 3.8 MJ/L plus or minus a standard deviation of 2.3 MJ/L and the emissions of 90±13 gCO2-equivalent/MJ.

Additionally, while mean values for Iowa Corn (Kernel) Ethanol production show moderate energy benefits, there is little to no GHG benefit when compared to gasoline consumption. However, on an energy basis, Iowa Corn (Kernel) Ethanol does decreases petroleum consumption by 68%, since natural gas is the main fossil fuel input.

Results reported by Shapouri, Wang, and Farrell are within one standard deviation of the Monte Carlo models results, indicating that they are all roughly equivalent given the range of variation in key inputs. However, Pimentel’s reported value [-3.2 MJ/L] is more than three standard deviations below the mean Monte Carlo NEV value, making it less than 1% probable. This is primarily a result of Pimentel’s use of older information.

The MIT researchers also assessed other alternative corn ethanol bioethanol production scenarios, including the use of gasifying DDGS to produce process combined heat and power. This scenario brought the NEV and GHG values closer to those of the cellulosic (stover and switchgrass) pathways.

However, a scenario for corn-ethanol produced in Georgia, traditionally non-corn producing state, resulted in the worst performance of any of the scenarios, with an NEV that decreased from a positive 3.75 MJ/L to a negative 7.6 MJ/L and a 47% increase in GHG emissions. The poor results stem from the increased fertilizer inputs, irrigation, and lower corn yields.

The researchers extended the model out to 2025 to project the performance of both best-practice corn ethanol and switchgrass ethanol. Although corn ethanol in 2025 shows some improvement, it still significantly trails cellulosic ethanol. 

The research was supported by BP.




Cellulosic ethanol really has potential: look at that 200% energy return (19-20MJ/L positive) and minuscule CO2 emissions (6-2g of CO2 per MJ/L compared to gasolines 90). Both 2025 estimates seem pessimistic though: right now we have 70-100 gallons per ton cellulosic ethanol conversion rates, there been laboratory level experiments that show 125-150 is possible, also if distilleries and farms were to run off alternative energy (biodiesel, wind, solar, etc) the CO2 emissions could be made negative. The numbers also show serious shortcoming of corn as a feedstock: still polluting and barely energy positive. One thing is for sure: it would be insanely retarded to implement corn ethanol in Georgia and other non-corn states.


... Something seems fishy.

Why are they citing a 10 year old study for the "Fossil Fuel Emmisions Factors"

36. U. S. DOE/EIA, “1997 Annual Energy Review” (1998).


Furthermore, I think I remember some harsh language on Groode's January 2007 report.

Robert Schwartz

"Iowa Corn (Kernel) Ethanol does decreases petroleum consumption by 68%, since natural gas is the main fossil fuel input."

Well that is comforting did somebody tell them that NG can also be an input feedstock for the production of Gasoline?

"a net energy benefit for corn ethanol of 3.8 MJ/L plus or minus a standard deviation of 2.3 MJ/L"

One SD covers ~2/3 chances with 1 in 6 above the mean and 1 in 6 below. Which means that there is a 1 in 6 chance that the number is 1.5 MJ or less and a 5% chance that the number is zero or negative. Of course, I suspect that the calculation is completely bogus see above.


That seemed like a pretty big standard deviation to me as well.


This study only focus on energy content, while in real world, cost is the only reason that things are running.

How much we need to make the cellulosic ethanol to fly?


Agreed. Cost is going to be the number one factor for cellulosic ethanol. Ethanol in any form has some serious downsides, not the least of which is the need for subsidies.

C Harget

How do you think cellulosic ethanol compares to the integrated dairy/ethanol/methane capture facility planned for Arizona, or the feedlot in Nebraska? Are there enough dairies and feedlots to make billions of gallons of ethanol?

Paul Dietz

Ethanol in any form has some serious downsides, not the least of which is the need for subsidies.

I keep seeing numbers that suggest the opposite w.r.t. cellulosic ethanol, at least once things have been proven and scaled up.


At $50 per ton of agriculture waste removed and transported to a cellosic distillary I don't see the problem?


At 100 gallons per ton, $1 per gallon to make it and wholesale prices at $2 per gallon, it is a money maker.

They may need a price floor at $2 per gallon, which is basically what the German government is doing to attract capital for renewables.

Michael A.

Any discussion of subsidies should compare the per gallon ethonal subsidy to the per gallon cost of the Iraq War. This would make for a clear comparison.


According to John Edwards candidate for next US president, the Iraq War " a bumper sticker." Is this not entertainment?


Daily updated news on biofuels, ethanol and climate issues, you will find on:

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name is required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)