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University of Minnesota Study Finds Cellulosic Ethanol Carries Lower Human Health Economic Costs Than Gasoline or Corn Ethanol

A new study by researchers at the University of Minnesota finds that cellulosic ethanol has fewer negative effects on human health because it emits smaller amounts of fine particulate matter. Other earlier work has shown that cellulosic ethanol and other next-generation biofuels also emit lower levels of greenhouse gas emissions. The study will be published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in February and will be posted online this week.

The study is the first to estimate the economic costs to human health and well-being from gasoline, corn-based ethanol and cellulosic ethanol made from biomass. The authors found that depending on the materials and technology used in production, cellulosic ethanol’s environmental and health costs are less than half the costs of gasoline, while corn-based ethanol’s costs range from roughly equal to about double that of gasoline.

Our work highlights the need to expand the biofuels debate beyond its current focus on climate change to include a wider range of effects such as their impacts on air quality.

—Jason Hill, lead author, resident fellow in the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment

Total environmental and health costs of gasoline are about $0.71 per gallon, while an equivalent amount of corn-ethanol fuel costs from $0.72 to about $1.45, depending on the technology used to produce it. An equivalent amount of cellulosic ethanol, however, costs from $0.19 to $0.32, depending on the technology and type of cellulosic materials used.

“These costs are not paid for by those who produce, sell and buy gasoline or ethanol. The public pays these costs.”
—Prof. Stephen Polasky, co-author

The authors looked at pollutants emitted at all stages of the life cycles of the three types of fuel, including when they are produced and used. They considered three methods of producing corn-based ethanol and four methods of producing cellulosic ethanol.

The paper also points out that other potential advantages of cellulosic biofuels, such as reducing the amount of fertilizer and pesticide runoff into rivers and lakes, may also add to the economic benefit of transitioning to next-generation biofuels.

Regents professor David Tilman of the university’s ecology, evolution and behavior department also contributed to the paper, as did scientists from Stanford University and the Argonne National Laboratory of the US Department of Energy. Research funding was provided in part by the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, a signature program of the University of Minnesota’s Institute on the Environment.


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