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Power Science

Switchgrass Makes Better Ethanol Than Corn 560

Posted by ScuttleMonkey
from the seemingly-easy-choice dept.
statemachine writes to mention that the USDA and farmers took part in a 5-year study of switchgrass, a grass native to North America. The study found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent. "But even a native prairie grass needs a helping hand from scientists and farmers to deliver the yields necessary to help ethanol become a viable alternative to petroleum-derived gasoline, Vogel argues. 'To really maximize their yield potential, you need to provide nitrogen fertilization,' he says, as well as improved breeding techniques and genetic strains. 'Low input systems are just not going to be able to get the energy per acre needed to provide feed, fuel and fiber.'"
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Switchgrass Makes Better Ethanol Than Corn

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  • Switchgrass gets you more ethanol than corn sure, but that's all you get. Growing corn gets you fuel and food. Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.
    • by nonsequitor (893813) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:34PM (#22006606)
      However switch grass can be farmed on less desirable farmland than corn, which leads me to believe that it will become a cash crop. This is just a preliminary strain of the grass and this experiment was to establish a baseline for future comparison. Something this heavily modified genetically I would not want to eat anyway so its a moot point.
      • by Radtastic (671622) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:18PM (#22007360)
        IANA Biochemist, but it seems to me like switchgrass should take a back seat to Jatropha [wikipedia.org]? Jatropha would seem to ge the nod because not only does it grow in poor soil conditions, it already has a high oil content. Nor do we have to worry about any GE going on, as it isn't an edible crop. (Although its toxicity may pose other problems.)
        • by zogger (617870) on Friday January 11, 2008 @08:05PM (#22007916) Homepage Journal
          Jatropha will not grow in the bulk of the US landmass, it is a subtropical plant and can only tolerate a few light frosts. I looked into it for a fuel crop here and even this being Georgia, we are too far north.

          I agree with the other poster, either switchgrass or industrial hemp are better targets for exploitation for biofuels using marginal land in most areas of the US.
          • by spineboy (22918) on Friday January 11, 2008 @09:06PM (#22008776) Journal
            Sugar beets have a high sugar content(therefore can make more EtOH), and can grow in fairly cold, adverse environments. Grows quite well in North America. Corn is being used because of the lobbying effort of Archer-Daniel Midland, a world leader in processing corn, wheat, soybeans. Corn is a lousy product to make ethanol.

            Ethanol yield/per acre for sugar beets is about 2x times that of corn, and about 25% higher than sugar cane.
            Sugar cane is more efficiently made into ethanol yielding 8 times as much energy as required to make it, sugar beets only about twice. Corn is nearly an even output.
            • by zogger (617870) on Friday January 11, 2008 @10:18PM (#22009436) Homepage Journal
              I agree with you on the sugar beets, but sort of disagree on the "why" of corn right now. The primary reason for the corn is because that is what we have the highest numbers of big farmers set up to grow with the equipment at hand, and that stuff just ain't cheap. Corn and soybeans, ethanol and biodiesel. We are in a transition stage now to all the various biofuels, so I wouldn't worry about it being corn forever, it just happens to be the handiest one we have right now. We are still at the 286 level with biofuels, it will get better, and in probably a roughly similar time frame.

                    There are two good positives here, energy demands are just always going to be going up,so this biofuels idea will be continued to be worked on, and farmers love to farm, because it is a hard job, and if they didn't love it, they wouldn't do it, there are any number of easier ways to make a buck. So it will work out.

                In fact, a ton of the good innovations and tweaking with biofuels are going on right now in real world deployments directly on farms for fuel use on-site, because they are so tied to energy availability and costs. They are the serious beta tester devs right now for all of this...so I say support them in general terms, let them sort this out better, don't throw the baby out with the bath water.

                  Society is right now asking a minuscule percentage of the population to double their output, in two critical areas, food and now they are going to be tasked with being the liquid energy producers as well. This is an incredibly HUGE undertaking, and I think it is more than fair that the rest of society, who will be the primary beneficiaries of the food and now energy production, be prepared to cut loose a few dollars for this effort, to offer a bit of understanding and acceptance of the size of these projects in total and realize there will be failures as well as successes along this new energy path, and to give them a chance to tweak it out better without a lot of condemnation and outright dissin'.

                  No other segment of our society has been tasked with a doubling or tripling of their projected work load en masse like the farmers have now accepted to attempt. The closest historical parallel we have would the durable goods manufacturers-with a much higher workforce total and much higher governmental support structure- who had to gear up and run triple time, plus alter product lines drastically, for the world war 2 effort. The coming transition to mostly biofuels as conventional petroleum sources become more iffy and more dear, is at least of such a scale the way it is being projected now.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by davidsyes (765062)
        Maybe this is restating what you've said, but the nice thing about switchgrass instead of corn is that the switchgrass frees up or releases from captivity the fields earmarked for use as corn-for -fuel use. This means that the recent uptick in crops-to-store-to-consumer pricing/cost should settle down. There was a big fear (in some quarters) that the cost of some foods related to/around corn/corn oils/etc would skyrocket.

        But, an aside: I think all I need to do is listen to NPR/TOTN/Science Friday, SciAm, et
      • by smaddox (928261) on Friday January 11, 2008 @10:28PM (#22009544)

        Something this heavily modified genetically I would not want to eat anyway so its a moot point.
        Do you eat corn? Do you eat beef? Do you eat chicken?

        All the major food sources have been "heavily modified genetically".

        It's called selective breeding/pollination.

        Direct gene manipulation is pretty much the same thing, but faster and more precise.
        • by Jah-Wren Ryel (80510) on Saturday January 12, 2008 @02:15AM (#22011450)

          All the major food sources have been "heavily modified genetically".
          It's called selective breeding/pollination.
          Direct gene manipulation is pretty much the same thing, but faster and more precise.
          Bullshit. Utterly and willfully ignorant bullshit.

          First off, we are seeing cross-species gene transplants, that does not ever happen naturally. But go ahead and forget about that issue since it is not so widespread yet.

          The other problem is exactly what you wrote -- faster changes. Faster change mean faster mistakes and less chance to catch non-obvious mistakes. With selective breeding you get multiple generations worth of time to discover problems with a new breed, long before it enters mainstream consumption. With gene-splicing a wholesale change can be made across thousands, even hundreds of thousands of animals/plants within the span of one generation.
    • You can even decide how much of each to grow, to maximize your farmland and fertilizer usage.

      Also, how does one use hemp as food?
      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by Copperhead (187748)
        like this [medgadget.com]?
      • by zifferent (656342)
        Gruel. Hemp seed has almost no appreciable THC content and is more nutrient dense than soybeans. A porridge made from which has been called gruel.
        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          by ArcherB (796902) *

          Hemp seed has almost no appreciable THC content and is more nutrient dense than soybeans.
          True, but the redeeming factor of soy is that it provides complete protein.
      • by cromar (1103585) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:55PM (#22006992)
        Hemp seed is actually really healthy [nutiva.com] and contains good amounts of all essential amino acids (and so is high in protein). It provides some iron, good amounts of manganese and magnesium, and is also a good source of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Hemp seeds are good for salad toppings, baking, etc (think multi-grain bread). Hemp oil is also highly nutritious and can be used as other vegetable oils are.

        It's a shame that prohibition drives the seed prices through the roof.
        • by Penguinisto (415985) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:23PM (#22007424) Journal

          Hemp oil is also highly nutritious and can be used as other vegetable oils are.

          ...and for some odd reason, an hour after dinner you get this uncontrollable urge to eat a LOT of Twinkies.

          (I know, I know... but I couldn't pass up the chance to say that).

          /P

          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by cromar (1103585)
            LOL. Good one. I was just thinking I should have mentioned it doesn't have any THC in it!
          • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

            by uvajed_ekil (914487)
            Hemp oil is also highly nutritious and can be used as other vegetable oils are. ...and for some odd reason, an hour after dinner you get this uncontrollable urge to eat a LOT of Twinkies. (I know, I know... but I couldn't pass up the chance to say that).

            Yeah, good one, that's hilarious. Perpetuating utterly false misinformation that keeps a highly useful and sustainable crop from being legal is SO funny. If that is clever, I've got another one for you:

            Hemp seed is imported into the US only by terrorists

      • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

        by Discordantus (654486)
        At most alternative grocery stores (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, etc) you can buy roasted hemp nuts, which are a similar food to shelled sunflower seeds. Hemp seeds have high protein and fat content, so you can use hemp oil in places you would use, say, olive oil; and with all the protein in them, they can be used to make many of the things that we currently use soybeans for.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:35PM (#22006626)
      Growing corn gets you fuel and food.

      Growing corn gets you fuel, OR food. Farms aren't going to use the same crop to produce fuel and food-- they'll produce one or the other.

      Also, should your fuel sources be competing with your food sources?

      Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.

      Hemp doesn't produce a sizable amount of food.
      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by merreborn (853723)

        Growing corn gets you fuel, OR food. Farms aren't going to use the same crop to produce fuel and food-- they'll produce one or the other.

        Also, should your fuel sources be competing with your food sources?


        To reinforce your point, animal feed prices have tripled due to increased demand for ethanol, which in turn has driven up the price of beef.
      • by theophilosophilus (606876) on Friday January 11, 2008 @09:01PM (#22008712) Homepage Journal

        Growing corn gets you fuel, OR food. Farms aren't going to use the same crop to produce fuel and food-- they'll produce one or the other. Also, should your fuel sources be competing with your food sources?
        Manufacture of corn ethanol yields fuel and distillers dried grain (DDGs). DDGs are heavily sought after for animal feed. So technically, you do get food and fuel. Is ethanol really competing with the food supply? The same UN officials complain that US subsidies make grain too cheap for the third world to compete against, and then turn around and complain that increased ethanol makes grain too expensive for the third world to purchase? It seems that the experts can't discern between whether too much or too little corn is being produced.

        There is good logic in the argument that tying food production to fuel production is a bad idea. However, the argument that food prices are rising because of ethanol production ignores the complexity of the equation. Corn production and price is tied to fuel production regardless of whether ethanol is added to the equation. Adding ethanol to the equation, corn production is actually stimulated. Also, one would expect some form of a fuel price decrease (on a macro level) with the replacement of gasoline with ethanol. Therefore, there are numerous variables to account for in analyzing the effects of ethanol on food and fuel price and production. It is simplistic to assume that ethanol production is the sole source of rising corn prices.

        Additionally, cellulosic ethanol is not a silver bullet. Encouraging the planting of high performing switch grass can have a few harmful impacts. Switch grass can be planted where other crops cannot. Some of this unplantable land is wetland which is important as habitat and a filter for our water supply. Also, if the economics work, switch grass may also displace food production.

        Finally, the headline "switchgrass makes better ethanol than corn" is misleading because it conveys the idea that this is some kind of revelation. The real news is the number the study has yielded. However, the article massacres the actual comparison. The article's quote is: "This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies." Without careful reading, it appears that the writer is saying that corn ethanol creates an energy deficit, this isn't true. The SA writer makes things confusing by comparing the actual energy produced by switchgrass ethanol with the amount of energy produced in excess of the input for corn ethanol. The writer of the SA article is comparing apples to oranges and I am skeptical of the motives of journalists that play with numbers. Also, don't forget that cellulosic ethanol can also come from corn. Plants in the Midwest have begun to to add stalks and husks to the ethanol process in the past two years. I really don't care where ethanol comes from, I think its a good idea. But the debate should not be a shadow game of massaged numbers.
      • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2008 @11:28PM (#22010142)
        >Growing corn gets you fuel, OR food. Farms aren't going to use the
        >same crop to produce fuel and food-- they'll produce one or the other.

        I am a farmer, and I'm right in the middle of this. I'm hoping to profit nicely from ethanol demand.

        The corn I grow is a commodity. I really don't care if the buyer uses it for food or ethanol production. I store it in my grain bins and sell it when the price is right.

        Corn is a nicely flexible commodity. I like it.

        >Also, should your fuel sources be competing
        >with your food sources?

        It doesn't really matter. We farmers can grow extreme amounts of corn without much effort. We're so good at it, we've had to hold ourselves back on production for decades.

        Switchgrass, on the other hand, doesn't have much use other than (potentially) as fuel. I sure don't want to eat it. I could grow it quite easily if the market demands it, but I'd need to tool up with different equipment and farming techniques. It's a real hassle to bale and store hay...I don't expect switchgrass would be much different. The root system created by switchgrass would make a field hell to get back to where I could plant corn again if it were needed for food.

        I can't think of any marginal land where growing switchgrass would make much sense, either. If it's not growing corn, I've got better uses for it, even if it is only grazing land for livestock.

        >Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.

        Don't get me started on that damn ditchweed. It's rough on equipment. My family tried it years ago when it was needed during the wars. We're still trying to reclaim land lost to it. You can't eat it, and you sure as hell can't smoke it. About the only decent thing I can say about it is it's good for erosion control. That's why it's called ditchweed.

        >Hemp doesn't produce a sizable amount of food.

        Damn straight.
    • by sl0ppy (454532) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:40PM (#22006726)
      except that many hops farmers have switched from farming hops on their premium farm land, to farming inefficient corn, thus driving up the price of beer.

      it's hard for something to be "free, as in beer" when a bottle of beer is very expensive to make due to a hops shortage.

      it never makes sense to burn our food.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by pclminion (145572)

        except that many hops farmers have switched from farming hops on their premium farm land, to farming inefficient corn, thus driving up the price of beer.

        Mass produced domestic beer IS going up in price, but this is not really because of the hop shortage. The hop shortage is severely affecting the homebrew and microbrew markets, but the big brewers don't use much hops, if any, in their brews. Instead they use isomerized alpha acid, a synthetic version of one of the major hop bittering compounds. Sam Adam

    • by slyn (1111419)

      Switchgrass gets you more ethanol than corn sure, but that's all you get. Growing corn gets you fuel and food. Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.

      Who cares, ethanol in general is not a good long term solutions to the energy crisis (emphasis on good, it could be a solution, but it has to many flaws). Renewable energy sources like water, sun, and wind power could be good long term solutions but the still need a lot of work and increases of effectiveness to reach that point. Nuclear could do the job

      • by Al Dimond (792444) on Friday January 11, 2008 @11:28PM (#22010140) Journal
        Hydrogen is not an energy source, it's a way to store energy. It is not and will never be a solution to any energy crisis, it just pushes that energy crisis up to the level of mass electricity generation. It may be useful for alleviating pollution problems in dense urban areas because, similar to a battery, it doesn't pollute where it's consumed. Hydrogen isn't competing against ethanol, solar, water, wind, coal and nuclear power plants for power generation, it's competing against electric batteries for use in cars (I think the advantage over batteries is that they're better suited to long-range driving, which people are accustomed to in gas cars, but I'm no expert).

        Ethanol, on the other hand, takes much of its energy input from the sun. It could thus contribute to solving the energy crisis. It can also do so on the quick and on the cheap, since we have lots of experience utilizing the energy stored in it. Its use creates pollution where it's consumed, which is unfortunate for people like me that live in major cities.

        What do you think are the flaws inherent in ethanol that make it a necessarily bad energy solution? The worst things I've heard is that (when made from corn) it struggles to yield net-positive energy, and that it pollutes at point of use. To me, if the problem of efficiency is solved ethanol seems that it could be a source of power for cars in a generation.

        The other power sources you mention, wind, solar and nuclear, are (along with coal and oil) currently sources for electricity generation. They're competing for something totally different. I am not really an expert on this, but I'd guess based on this that gasoline and ethanol aren't as efficient for mass electricity generation; if this is true, then yes, the true energy solution is to centralize generation in big, efficient power plants and use electricity and fuel cells at point of use.
    • by ookabooka (731013)
      Switchgrass just got pwned by a quick google. [worldwatch.org] Thats right, algae all the way. Just need to spend a bit of time developing the technologies to harvest it agriculturally because we've had little reason to do so earlier. Couple this to a CO2 producing coal plant and you've got a gold mine. Ofcourse, someone needs to make the initial investment. . .perhaps oil companies?
    • But it's a pretty good trick.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:53PM (#22006954)
      Growing corn gets you food and fuel? No. Growing corn gets you food or fuel not both. And guess what, government subsidy making it more profitable to grow corn for fuel means corn prices are up since there is less suply available. This means feed for livestock goes up which means more expensive beef/etc. A one trick pony is what we need at this point. Something that is much more practical/efficient, and that won't have significant unintended economic impact.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by ceoyoyo (59147)
      Kind of like a cell phone hey? You can get one that makes calls really well, or one that makes calls and takes pictures, both poorly.
    • by nine-times (778537) <nine.times@gmail.com> on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:11PM (#22007238) Homepage
      I don't know about hemp, but according to the summary:

      The study found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent.

      This means that corn gets you negative amounts of fuel (you'll use more farming it than you'll get out of farming it), while switchgrass gets you fuel.

      The only reason corn has been chosen as the main crop for getting ethanol in the US is because of the strong cron lobby. It really isn't a feasible energy *source*, since it uses more energy than it produces.

      • by jwiegley (520444) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:28PM (#22007466)

        I know the accurate scheduling and execution of many of my Linux system processes has benefited greatly from the strong United States cron lobby!

        This message brought to you by the United States cron lobby. Lobbying today for a better tomorrow.

        • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

          by Cecil (37810)
          This message brought to you by the United States cron lobby. Lobbying today for a better tomorrow.

          Lobbying today and tomorrow, but not Sunday, and then for the next six days, but always excluding the first of February.
    • by That's Unpossible! (722232) on Friday January 11, 2008 @08:15PM (#22008064)
      1. Growing corn gets you food OR fuel, not both.
      2. Corn is subsidized, thus its true costs are hidden from us.
      3. Corn must be re-planted every year from seeds. Switchgrass is a perennial whose 'produce' can be harvested from the same plant each year.
  • by gujo-odori (473191) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:31PM (#22006542)
    Almost anything is better than corn. Corn is only popular in the US because corn farming has a powerful lobby. Sugarcane and practically anything else commonly used to produce ethanol is better than corn.
    • by Surt (22457) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:40PM (#22006720) Homepage Journal
      Please, please let it be sugar cane. Real candy is so much better than corn syrup candy.
      • by Arthur B. (806360)
        Would mod you up but I actually want to praise your message. Corn syrup sodas are not as fizzy as sugar cane. There's nothing like sugar cane for sugar.
      • by reverseengineer (580922) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:59PM (#22007056)
        Actually, a major reason why high fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for many American food products is that the U.S. sugar lobby is so strong. Protectionist trade agreements and price floors ensure that Americans pay about double the average world price for sugar, so it's far less expensive to use HFCS than cane sugar.
    • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

      by ranton (36917)
      because corn farming has a powerful lobby

      That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades. I am not talking about being adjusted for inflation. If the corn farmers have a powerful lobby then that must mean that lobbiest truly have no power at all. (not the case)

      If you take the price that corn sold for in the 1970s and adjusted for inflation, corn should be selling for above $10/bushel today. The prices of corn and other commodities ha
      • by Lost Engineer (459920) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:10PM (#22007226)
        If there's no corn lobby then why all the subsidies? Any economist will tell you we don't need them.
        • by foqn1bo (519064) on Friday January 11, 2008 @09:01PM (#22008704)
          Because it's not the corn farmers doing the lobbying, it's the industrial food corporations. Corn subsidies remove the price floor for corn, so that overfarming drives prices down below the cost of production without causing the market to implode. Conagra, Cargill and Tyson buy up the cheap corn and use it to manufacture the ubiquitous processed foods we find in the supermarket, and feed it to cows and chickens (who are not evolutionarily adapted to it) in concentrated feedlots so that we can have the hyper-abundance of diseased meat we've grown accustomed to.
      • Sure corn farmers have lobbiests, but I cannot even fathom the idea that they are powerful.

        I get a check every year that disagrees with you.

        They may not be sugar-lobby powerful, but they still manage to farm the government well enough.

      • by Jeremi (14640) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:16PM (#22007310) Homepage
        That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades. I am not talking about being adjusted for inflation. If the corn farmers have a powerful lobby then that must mean that lobbiest truly have no power at all. (not the case)


        Congratulations, you are a master of the non sequiter. The price of corn is not a good measurement of the power of the agribusiness lobby -- what you want to measure is how much influence they have over legislators. It's difficult to measure influence directly, of course, but what can be objectively measured is how much money agribusiness donates to politicians. And there we find that in the last 20 years or so, agribusiness has donated a total of 415 million dollars [opensecrets.org]. To put that in perspective, that is over three times the amount donated by defense lobbyists [opensecrets.org] in the same time period, and I don't think anyone would scoff at the influence of defense lobbyists on our government. So yes, I'd say the agribusiness sector (note I deliberately don't say "farmers" because what we are talking about here are massive farming corporations like Archer Daniels Midland [admworld.com], not mom and pop and their 40 acres) has plenty of influence in Washington. Which is of course why so many government handouts are going to corn-based ethanol, even though corn is clearly one of the least efficient sources for that product.

      • by Paradise Pete (33184) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:17PM (#22007326) Journal
        That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades.

        You must have a rather slippery seat.

        The 2002 Farm Bill guarantees corn farmers a price of $2.60 per bushel in 2002-2003 and $2.63 per bushel in 2004-2007 for the corn that they produce. In order to realize this price, corn farmers are eligible to receive a combination of direct payments, loans, and counter-cyclical payments.

        Fixed Direct Payments: Set at a fixed rate of $.28 per bushel for crop years 2002-2007. These payments are based on historic crop yields, so farmers are not obligated to grow any crop in order to receive benefits. Since these payments increase in direct proportion to the acreage and yield of eligible crops planted, they encourage larger tracts of land to be used for corn cultivation.

        Loans: The marketing assistance loan program and the loan deficiency payment program work to bring the price of corn up above $1.98 per bushel in 2002-2003, and $1.95 per bushel in 2004- 2007. These non-recourse loans allow the producer to choose when and how much of the loan they are going to pay back. They skew market signals by acting as a price floor for current production and encourage overproduction. Counter-Cyclical Payments: If the price of corn is still below the $2.63 target, counter-cyclical payments are used. They work in the same way as direct payments, and are based upon historical crop acreage and yield instead of current production. Again, this means that producers do not have to produce in order to receive payments.

        Conclusion:
        Corn production is the most heavily subsidized commodity in the United States today. Payments are extremely concentrated and benefits flow overwhelmingly to corporate agribusiness. Current government policy is pumping up the bottom line of modern, profitable corporations and leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill.

        pdf [taxpayer.net]

      • by tfoss (203340) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:38PM (#22007590)

        That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades. If the corn farmers have a powerful lobby then that must mean that lobbiest truly have no power at all.
        Right, if only those lobbyists could figure out a way to get the government to pay farmers for growing corn, ignoring market forces & rewarding particularly big corporate farms. Maybe even figure out a way to have the gov't spend billions [grist.org] of dollars supporting a crop that is overgrown relative to demand. Like maybe some kind of farm subsidy. [ewg.org] If only those lobbyists were powerful enough to get that [freetrade.org] done [nytimes.com].

        The only reason corn is being used now is because it is plentiful and doesnt take any major changes to the current agricultural industry to start using for ethanol.
        And the only reason it is plentiful is because the federal gov't has been paying farmers to grow more corn than needed. Corn is energetically a horrible crop to use for ethanol production (as TFA points out).

        -Ted
  • by Tackhead (54550) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:31PM (#22006544)
    > The study found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent

    "The polling firm found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver only 0.54% of the voter cast in the states capable of producing it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can yield around 24% of the votes cast in the states that produce it."

    It's not about EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment), it's about PEOPI (Politicians Elected On Pork Invested).

    • Yes, between the corn producer lobby and the oil company lobby, we will never see a decent alternative energy policy in the US for the near future...
  • by kernspaltung (975145) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:33PM (#22006590)
    Switchfoot makes better music than Korn, too, but such opinion is no more revolutionary than the one in the article. Ethanol IS NOT the cure for our energy disease.
    • by Kazrath (822492)
      When has anything ever been about cures? Ethanol is a good way to extend our comfortable behavior with little downside. As technology advances other more efficient power sources will be developed.

      • Ethanol is a good way to extend our comfortable behavior with little downside.
        Except it's not, really. If it was, I'd be a much bigger fan. But it's really just a red herring; a way of pulling the wool over the public's eyes, continuing to empower the oil companies, while also pumping some taxpayer dollars into the agribusiness and farm lobbies.

        I've only looked at corn ethanol in much detail, but that stuff requires MORE oil to produce, per unit of burnable energy (that you can actually pump into your car), than gasoline does. It gets fertilized with oil, harvested with tractors that run on oil, transported with oil ... by the time it gets to your tank, it would have been better just to use the stupid oil to begin with. At least the oil companies have an incentive, when they crack petroleum to make gasoline directly, to do it efficiently. When you're going oil->fertilizer->corn->ethanol->gasohol, with tons of subsidies along the way, the efficiency motive gets lost. It's not even carbon neutral -- it just makes you think it's carbon-neutral (and might let you *call* it that, depending on who's doing the accounting).

        Maybe switchgrass is a little better than corn, but I have some serious reservations, and this study doesn't dispel them (considered how deep in the pockets of ADM and the oil companies the government is). Show me a large-scale ethanol process, sunlight-to-tank, that doesn't take petroleum as an input and then I'll be much more impressed. So far I haven't seen one that seems practical.
        • Energy != oil (Score:3, Informative)

          by Dire Bonobo (812883)

          I've only looked at corn ethanol in much detail, but that stuff requires MORE oil to produce, per unit of burnable energy (that you can actually pump into your car), than gasoline does. It gets fertilized with oil, harvested with tractors that run on oil, transported with oil ... by the time it gets to your tank, it would have been better just to use the stupid oil to begin with.

          That's total nonsense. Not all energy is oil!

          Take a look at the studies on ethanol - Pimental's, for example. About 90% of t

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by tepples (727027)

      Switchfoot makes better music than Korn, too, but such opinion is no more revolutionary than the one in the article.
      Of course it's not more revolutionary. Neither band has performed a song that has been used in a Dance Dance Revolution game or any game for the Wii (nee Revolution) game console, as far as I can tell.
  • by compumike (454538) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:36PM (#22006648) Homepage
    It's true that corn is a pretty poor feedstock for ethanol generation. But I think most people (farmer subsidy lovers) think that ethanol has come into focus because of its potential as a fuel *replacement* for gasoline.

    Let me remind you why we have a demand for ethanol in the first place: a replacement for MTBE [wikipedia.org], a gasoline anti-knock additive (letting the engine run at higher compression ratios, and thus more efficiently) which was found to be leeching into groundwater and concentrating. MTBE is being phased out, and ethanol is a replacement chemical. Whether or not ethanol will be used as an energy source is irrelevant. It's critical today as a fuel additive for gasoline. Beyond that, it's a pretty inefficient energy carrier. Switchgrass may do better, but we're not there yet.

    --
    Electronics kits for the digital generation! Free videos -- click here. [nerdkits.com]
    • by FroBugg (24957) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:01PM (#22007106) Homepage
      Nonsense.

      E85 is available now. Not widely in the US, and the vehicles that can use it are uncommon, but it's definitely viable as a fuel source.

      Brazil uses ethanol from sugar cane in various formulations hugely, though. About a third of their automobile fuel is sugar-based ethanol.

      Regardless of what the article says, we're still a ways off from cellulosic ethanol. Once we master that, though, it's going to be a fantastic fuel source.
  • by SirBruce (679714) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:38PM (#22006686) Homepage
    So let me get this straight... when President Bush championed swithgrass in his State of the Union speech a couple of years ago, and the news folks sorta laughed at him, he was actually right?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward
      I know.

      I'm scared too.
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by dubbayu_d_40 (622643)
      No I heard him, he said swishgrass, not switchgrass.
    • by thule (9041) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:13PM (#22007266) Homepage
      If I recall correctly, Bush mentioned a lot of good common sense things for energy back then, switchgrass was only one of the things mentioned. Didn't Bush also mention nuclear power plants? I wonder when people will also wake up to that idea again. I know here in California, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore has tried to put in bills for lifting the restrictions on nuclear power in California. So far, no luck.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Vellmont (569020)

      when President Bush championed swithgrass in his State of the Union speech a couple of years ago, and the news folks sorta laughed at him, he was actually right

      Well, the news folks were kind of right to laugh at him, as switchgrass isn't really a short term solution to the problem, and we don't really know if it's one of the long term solutions.

      The thing no one here is talking about is the fact that cellulosic ethanol just isn't really economically viable with current technology. It may be some day if we c
  • Energy Used (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Lord Byron II (671689)
    Technically speaking, the poster/article should say 'human-provided' energy. After, if switchgrass took in X amount of energy and produced 540% of X in output, that would break the laws of thermodynamics.

    Also of consideration is what is the energy yield per acre? Of course, corn at 24% would be a total loser ($1 of energy provides $.24 of energy), but even at 540%, switch grass might not be the most economical method based on land used. Consider if you supply an acre of switch grass with 1 watt of power and
    • by StefanJ (88986) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:46PM (#22006846) Homepage Journal
      . . . the giant glowing thing in the sky.
      • No he's not. The whole argument about efficiency in the first place is about the power it takes to convert the plant into ethanol, in this case it takes much less energy to convert switchgrass into the same amount of ethanol. However, if it takes one acre of switchgrass to get one quart of ethanol, it might not be worth the investment if there's another plant with a lower efficiency but 5x the yield per acre. The article even mentions that they still need to do some work on increasing the yield of switchgra
      • by BSAtHome (455370)
        And the lack of corn-circles if this ever becomes mainstream.
    • Actually, they did specify the energy calculation was for petroleum-supplied energy:

      "13.1 megajoules of energy as ethanol for every megajoule of petroleum consumed"

      I'm not so sure you should classify the switchgrass growing cycle as being a heat engine though. :)
  • by j1m+5n0w (749199) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:42PM (#22006764) Homepage Journal

    This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.
    If I'm interpreting this right, it means corn ethanol is returning 125%, not 24% as the summary implies. Also, switchgrass requires refineries that can deal with cellulose, which we don't have. (Not that I'm saying that switchgrass or miscanthus based ethanol is a bad idea, just that the summary is misleading.)
    • by statemachine (840641) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:23PM (#22007420)
      For all the people who are complaining about the summary/headline, please know that it is hard to fit all of the math in the headline. Please read the article for that. ScuttleMonkey redid my headline (although slightly more correct, he made it more vague).

      For those who say there aren't refineries, ScuttleMonkey took out my quotes and put different ones in. I said the DoE is partially funding new refineries, the first of which will come online in Georgia -- also in the fine article.

      Although I credit and thank ScuttleMonkey for greenlighting my submission whereas it was flatly ignored yesterday when I submitted it, please complain about his editing, and not my original content, if you feel the summary was vague or had omissions. You can compare both if you read the firehose submission (complain to me if you don't like that one).
  • Why are we even worrying about Ethanol? Sure we may need better fuels then oil however here in the US we have massive reserves of it in Alaska where we cannot drill for oil there. Also, if we take out government grants and the like, Ethanol based on Corn (and chances are switchgrass) will never be more then minor fixes that could end up being more expensive. We have lots of hydrogen and sunlight, they are free and can be used as power sources, we have lots of oil. Corn and switchgrass though we don't have m
    • by anagama (611277) <obamaisaneocon@nothingchanged.org> on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:19PM (#22007366) Homepage

      Sure we may need better fuels then oil however here in the US we have massive reserves of it in Alaska where we cannot drill for oil there.

      ANWR is not the be all end all that drillers tout. There are between 6-16 billion recoverable barrels (from pro-drilling site [anwr.org]). Right now, refineries use about 15 million barrels of oil per day (from the EIA -- scroll to bottom [doe.gov]).

      That means the US uses around 5.4 billion barrels of oil per year. If you buy the pro-driller propaganda, ANWR is AT BEST, 3 years worth of supply. If you took the highest estimate of oil in the ground and assumed the magically ability to extract all 30 billion barrels -- that's 6 years of supply.

      ANWR is just another method to enrich Cheney -- like the logic of paying contractor truck drivers 120k per year to drive truck in Iraq when a regular soldier makes about 1/6th of that. But that's another tale.

      In my view, the better plan is to consider ANWR to be "money in the bank". Oil price increases are just starting. We'd be better off sitting on it for 50 years because by then, we'll be lamenting the days oil only cost $90-100 per barrel.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by quanticle (843097)

      however here in the US we have massive reserves of it in Alaska where we cannot drill for oil there.

      The total proven reserves in ANWR are about 10 billion barrels [mediamatters.org]. Our daily consumption of petroleum is about 20,687,000 barrels/day [doe.gov]. Doing the math, that means the entire ANWR reserve discovered so far would give us about 10.4 billion / 20 687 000 = 502.731184 days of petroleum.

      <sarcasm>Yeah, real massive. </sarcasm>

  • Hmm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by richardtallent (309050) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:47PM (#22006862) Homepage
    Unfortunately, I don't see any candidates supporting the "Big Switchgrass" lobby (lol) with federal grants and subsidies.

    The government is *ALWAYS* ten years late on supporting technology, and usually picks the wrong one. Same situation with PV, hybrid cars, and nuclear power... about the time some lobbyist gets enough "representatives" to sign on to some legislation that makes their life easy, a new start-up or breakthrough makes them obsolete.

    One more reason to vote for someone who believes that open markets will drive innovation a lot faster than corporate/agricultural welfare, and that states can be more responsive when government needs to have a role.

    I know, I'm yet another rabid Ron Paul supporter. But at least if we elect him, hemp will have a chance to compete with switchgrass. Which will be great, except your car will have the munchies and will insist on calling you "dude" and "bro" when your door is ajar. ;)

    When your application doesn't work, refactor the code.
    When the government doesn't work, refactor the system.
  • by iamlucky13 (795185) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:49PM (#22006892)
    This has been circulating around the intarwebs for a few days now, so it spurred me to do some background reading already.

    Corn has higher amounts of the simpler sugars that bacteria need to work on to produce the ethanol. Switchgrass and other cellulosic feedstocks, which are largely equivalent in feasbility in general terms, have those sugars bound up in...you guessed it...cellulose. Because of this it requires much more processing prior to fermentation. There are several ways to do this with varying costs and efficiencies, but at the very least is technically viable.

    However, this pre-processing and the fact that large-scale cellulosic ethanol production is a new technology means the initial costs are higher. According to Wikipedia (with original sources referenced), corn ethanol plants cost about $1-3 per gallon of annual capacity to construct. The first round of large scale cellulosic ethanol plants now under construction are billed about $7 per gallon of annual capacity. Production costs are expected to run about $2.25 per gallon initially, or about $125 per barrel of oil energy equivalent.

    However, as the method is proven, that cost is expected to come down. About $350 million of cost is also being funded by the federal government under the new energy plan. Also, the cost of the feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production is much lower, as it can use switchgrass as mentioned in the summary, corn stover, wood chips, or just about anything else containing plant matter, where as the corn method requires corn (duh), and thus competes with food production.

    Of course, the article makes the energy-return benefit over corn ethanol obvious. Elsewhere it has been estimated that cellulosic ethanol production could account for 30% of our transportation energy needs in a couple decades. Obviously far short of weaning us off foreign oil, but a start nonetheless. However, an added benefit of using grasses like switchgrass is the fields don't have to be replanted every year, reducing soil depletion and erosion.
  • Remember... (Score:5, Funny)

    by Billy the Mountain (225541) on Friday January 11, 2008 @06:57PM (#22007022) Journal
    Ethanol is for drinking, not for driving.
  • by steve_thatguy (690298) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:17PM (#22007318)
    I got into a conversation about alternative energies over the holidays with a friend of mine who has her PhD in something Agricultural Science related from Purdue, and when the conversation went to ethanol she informed me that apparently there's a much better alternative in butanol. According to the first link I've provided, Butanol is both a "cleaner" fuel source than ethanol and has a higher energy content (110,000 Btu per gallon for butanol vs. 84,000 Btu per gallon for ethanol, for reference gasoline is 115,000 Btu per gallon). It requires little to no modification of existing engines and can be shipped through existing fuel pipelines. Historically it's been considered less viable than ethanol because of relatively higher production cost.

    About Butanol Energy [renewablee...access.com]

    However a researcher from the midwest (Ohio I think) has patented a process by which it can be produced more cheaply than ethanol *without having to change existing gasoline infrastructure.*

    Here's the researcher's company.

    More Butanol Information [butanol.com]

    From what my friend told me, the only thing preventing this right now is a lack of funding and public awareness. So please read it for yourself and spread the word.
  • Biofuel angst (Score:4, Insightful)

    by IronChef (164482) on Friday January 11, 2008 @07:58PM (#22007824) Homepage
    This anecdote pertains specifically to biodiesel, but among friends surely we can discuss all kinds of biofuels?

    The other day I saw a diesel Passat with this bumper sticker, and I just wanted to rant to a crowd that would understand:

    BIODIESEL
    The 100% solution
    Kyoto compliant, carbon neutral, OPEC free

    I wanted to run him off the road and give him a math lesson as he lay torn and bleeding in a ditch. If we covered every square centimeter of arable land in the US with the most magical crop available, it could not make enough fuel for us to be OPEC free. Not by a LONG shot. And we need to grow food, too!

    Biofuels can be a great part of a solution. They are not a solution by themselves. But some people are driving around believing that "they" are stopping us from deploying perfect solution. I'm sorry, Passat man... It isn't that simple. I beg of you, do the math and reduce the scope of your conspiracy theories. The truth is bad enough.

He keeps differentiating, flying off on a tangent.

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