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Study Concludes That Land Set-Asides Can Be Better Climate Investment Than Corn Ethanol

A new study concludes that, depending on prior land use, carbon (C) releases from the soil after planting corn for ethanol may in some cases completely offset C gains attributed to biofuel generation for at least 50 years. Based on an analysis of 142 soil studies, the study also found that soil carbon sequestered by setting aside former agricultural land was greater than the carbon credits generated by planting corn for ethanol on the same land for 40 years and had equal or greater economic net present value.

The study also found that once commercially available, cellulosic ethanol produced in set-aside grasslands should provide the most efficient tool for GHG reduction of any scenario examined. The researchers from DUke University, Texas A&M University and Universidad Nacional de San Luis om Argentina suggested that conversion of CRP lands or other set-aside programs to corn ethanol production should not be encouraged through greenhouse gas policies.

The paper appears in the March edition of the journal Ecological Applications.

One of our take-home messages is that conservation programs are currently a cheaper and more efficient greenhouse gas policy for taxpayers than corn-ethanol production...Until cellulosic ethanol production is feasible, or corn-ethanol technology improves, corn-ethanol subsidies are a poor investment economically and environmentally.

—Robert Jackson, the Nicholas Professor of Global Environmental Change at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment

Nevertheless, farmers and producers are already receiving federal subsidies to grow more corn for ethanol under the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.

The report said that cellulosic species such as switchgrass are a better option for curbing emissions than corn because they don’t require annual replowing and planting. In contrast, a single planting of cellulosic species will continue growing and producing for years while trapping more carbon in the soil.

The report noted that a cost-effective technology to convert cellulosics to ethanol may be years away. So the team contrasted today’s production practices for corn-based ethanol with what will be possible after the year 2023 for cellulosic-based ethanol.

By analyzing 142 different soil studies, the researchers found that conventional corn farming can remove 30 to 50% of the carbon stored in the soil. In contrast, cellulosic ethanol production entails mowing plants as they grow, often on land that is already in conservation reserve. That, their analysis found, can ultimately increase soil carbon levels between 30 to 50% instead of reducing them.

The worst strategy for reducing carbon dioxide emissions is to plant corn-for-ethanol on land that was previously designated as set aside—a practice included in current federal efforts to ramp up biofuel production, the study found.

The research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the Center for Global Change at Duke University and by the Agencia Nacional de Promoción Científica y Tecnologíca of Argentina.

Resources

  • Gervasio Piñero et al. Set-asides can be better climate investment than corn ethanol. Ecological Applications, 19(2) pp. 277–282 doi: 10.1890/08-0645.1

Comments

arnold

SJC
I've heard the 8* on sugar cane but this is the upper end "special case", the inputs were very low as with almost no machinery fertilizer or other (chemical) applications. In this context sugar cane excelled.
E.P I believe SAAB turbo prop use ethanol for take off with such supplementary tanks giving a 'low stress' nitrous type effect.

The LPG, NG and hydrogen booster gas systems all have similar benefits at their respective blends and offer more return than single fuel blends.
Of course the cellulosic and municipal waste recycling offers all the above plus recycling and pollution remediation with the simple landfill gasifiers operating commercially for ~ half a century.

Foodcrops to biofuels have been scrutinised by most instruments of governance and found wanting. The future looks rather bleak for these producers. When land degradation and the high costs of fertiliser, it would seem that unsubsidised production for fuels could reduce product demand to a more sustainable level .

We should expect that the predicament with global food supply will ensure a steady demand.

ai_vin

"The LPG, NG and hydrogen booster gas systems all have similar benefits at their respective blends and offer more return than single fuel blends."

Just to clarify: NG and hydrogen booster gas systems save gasoline by allowing lean fuel mixtures because NG and hydrogen burn very quickly so they help the fuel to ignite.

EP is talking about ethanol and methanol boost systems. These save gas by allowing higher compression ratios by suppressing pre-detonation.

SJC

Methanol injection makes more sense in a smaller high compression turbo engine. Saab and Volvo have been doing this for quite a while. The latest direct injected turbo engines from Ford could do well, if they survive. Methanol from gasified biomass or even coal could be used for this. Gasified coal or biomass to methane can delivered by natural gas pipelines that already exist. Methane has more than 130 octane and could be used efficiently in a small displacement high compression engine.

Engineer-Poet

It's the downsized engines which save fuel, by cutting throttling and friction losses; boosting just brings the peak power back to what people expect.

Actually, NG allows high compression (and requires supercharging to maintain volumetric output because methane displaces much more air than even LPG).  However, the low flame speed of methane impairs efficiency; it is often supplemented with hydrogen (aka "Hythane") to improve the combustion characteristics.

I've sometimes wondered what direct-cylinder injection of LPG would do for an engine; the combination of high intrinsic octane rating and the cooling effect should allow high boost and a lot of power in a small package.  Perhaps not as extreme as methanol, but a small, light, powerful and clean engine would be attractive for a lot of uses.

Andrey Levin

EP:

You wrote: “…more element of proof that (corn) ethanol in the USA is just a farm price-support program in disguise.”

You get it right. But it is not a disguise. It is most beneficial way ever invented to provide domestic agriculture with price-support, especially to limit periodic agricultural commodities deflation with consequent bankruptcy of farmers (all countries subsidy their agriculture, one way or another).

The critical thing is to say “stop” when corn ethanol overgrows it subsidizing benefits. IMO, it is around E7 overall mix in gasoline. E85 is total bull.

Another thing: ICE requires max octane rating only at full throttle. For regular operation octane demand is much lower. Performance freaks for decades employ small tank of high-octane fuel, in most cases water-ethanol/methanol mix which kicks-in only at full throttle/high turbo boost. It is possible to have small displacement engine with high turbo pressure running in regular operation on regular gasoline, with 1 gallon tank of 2/3 mix of water and methanol (or 1:1 water/ethanol) which kicks-in only at max power event. Water (desalinated!) in such proportions assures that exhaust is not too hot to damage oxygen sensor, cat converter, and exhaust manifold, and also reduce flash point of secondary fuel to safe levels. Such max power events are rare in regular driving, so aluminum intake manifold is not really get corroded by methanol. In simplest form, one high-pressure injector/atomizer directing secondary fuel into intake air after air filter and air mass flow meter is enough, with additional benefit to feed engine with cooler and denser air/fuel charge.

Of course, direct combustion chamber injection is much better. In the past, there was danger to damage engine when 1 gallon tank of secondary fuel run dry. In modern cars with electronic boost control and extremely fast feedback from detonation sensor (to reduce spark advance and open wastegate) such danger is eliminated.

Bryan

They're saying that untouched land produces less polution than land you do something with? Really? What a f-ing waste of money that research was.

Engineer-Poet
You get it right. But it is not a disguise.
The CAFE credits for FFV's were certainly based on the dubious value of ethanol as a replacement for imported oil.  All it did was substitute imported ammonia, and cause huge amounts of nitrate pollution and aquifer depletion as side-effects.
It is most beneficial way ever invented to provide domestic agriculture with price-support, especially to limit periodic agricultural commodities deflation with consequent bankruptcy of farmers (all countries subsidy their agriculture, one way or another).
There are much better ways, such as grain stocks to buffer variations in supply.  That's how the USA used to do things, but someone decided that the "free market" would handle it better.  What we've had since then are heaps of ill-considered government interventions to make up for the failure of that one "free market" change.

If we're going to have government support of farm prices, we need government control of farm production to eliminate the inevitable overproduction.  Otherwise, we SHOULD just let farmers go bankrupt when they overproduce; that's how the rest of the economy does things in the free market.

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