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The Great Ethanol Scam 894

Posted by kdawson
from the don't-even-think-about-switch-grass dept.
theodp writes "Over at BusinessWeek, Ed Wallace is creating quite a stir, reporting that not only is ethanol proving to be a dud as a fuel substitute, but there is increasing evidence that it is destroying engines in large numbers. Before lobbyists convince the government to increase the allowable amount of ethanol in fuel to 15%, Wallace suggests it's time to look at ethanol's effect on smog, fuel efficiency, global warming emissions, and food prices. Wallace concedes there will be some winners if the government moves the ethanol mandate to 15% — auto mechanics, for whom he says it will be the dawn of a new golden age."
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The Great Ethanol Scam

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  • by Ethanol-fueled (1125189) * on Monday May 25, 2009 @07:56PM (#28089111) Homepage Journal

    I just like to drink boooze!

    • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday May 26, 2009 @02:17AM (#28091725)

      I am Brazilian, an engineer and was also an early adopter of the Ethanol technology, having Ethanol cars since 1982. I converted three of my family's cars from Ethanol to Gasoline in 1990 - due to a extreme short supply of Ethanol at that time - when I learn by practicing how different were the cars.

      Some information about the Brazilian experience:

      - Early on the Brazilian automotive industry realized the alcohol fuel (mostly Ethanol plus some water and other impurities) corroded standard fuel systems. Every part of the fuel system had to be re-engineered, in particular metallic alloys. Note that the players in Brazil at that time were GM, Ford, Volkswagen and Fiat. It strikes me the US automotive industry has not warned consumers about this fact.

      - Ethanol packs less energy per mass unit or per volume unit. Nevertheless engines can have higher compression ratios, compensating in part the gross energy deficit by converting more thermal energy into kinetic energy. In fact the addition of Ethanol to gasoline has the positive effect of "elevating its octane index". Pretty much as lead additives used in the past. Overall, similar models prepared to burn alcohol were quicker but they also spent more fuel per mile - other conditions being the same. Which was mostly perceived as a nice trade-off. So in the shot term you will have an engine with less pre-detonation.

      - Sugarcane is damn efficient in converting solar energy into sugar. Moreover most sugarcane crops are be located in tropical (by definition) ares. Compare the solar power received in Latitude 36 with Latitude 23. The US Ethanol energy output is double handicapped, both by a low quality crop (for the purpose of producing alcohol) and by a lot less solar power.

      - Ethanol fuel generates different pollutants. In particular it generates aldehydes. There is smog after all, although of a different quality.

      Besides, the fuel consumption in Brazil is a fraction of the US. There are less cars there and they tend to be a lot smaller - and more economical. The Brazilian Ethanol program success cannot not be remotely considered to be a model for the US. The US have other energy sources that make a lot more sense, such as coal and natural gas.

      I have believed the US Ethanol program is a lot wishful thinking fueled by quite questionable agendas. As the article says.

       

  • by cyberspittle (519754) on Monday May 25, 2009 @07:56PM (#28089115) Homepage
    Instead of using corn (worse than sugar cane), soy beans and bio diesel would be beter. I always thought that diesel engines get better mileage.
    • by gringofrijolero (1489395) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:02PM (#28089183) Journal

      Yes, it is stupid. But it's very well connected politically. Like always, it's about bringing home the bacon. The farmers thought they had a winner.

    • by WheelDweller (108946) <WheelDwellerNO@SPAMgmail.com> on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:03PM (#28089199)

      Engines with super-refined fuel always get worse gas mileage.

      See, the crude oil is heated in a stack; the tar-like parts stay at the bottom, the lighter fuels find their way up. The thicker stuff at the bottom is MUCH more densely packed with energy- that's where the diesel is. It's 'cruder' (notice it almost doesn't WANT to burn) but it actually carries nore BTU-power per drop. Refine it more, to where it almost wants to burn when ya touch it, and it won't have so much power anymore.

      Oil is neat stuff; you might find the Discovery Channel's "Modern Marvels: Oil" episode to be an eye-opener.

      And BTW: Rush Limbaugh has been noticing this same thing with ethanol. It's messing up the corn market and Mt Dew now has "Throwback" to make use of the now-cheaper cane sugar as an alternative.

      Isn't life wonderful when we just let the government do things? :

      • by blahplusplus (757119) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:46PM (#28089559)

        "Isn't life wonderful when we just let the government do things? :"

        Just because the government makes mistakes does not mean the free market doesn't, there's plenty of mistakes both of them make and I wish the anti-government types would realize just how many free market failurs there out out there.

        Nothing is perfect, the idea that there is some ideal perfect system or ideology is bullshit.

        • by prisoner-of-enigma (535770) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:16PM (#28089827) Homepage

          Just because the government makes mistakes does not mean the free market doesn't, there's plenty of mistakes both of them make and I wish the anti-government types would realize just how many free market failurs there out out there.

          The problem with your reasoning is that when a free-market entity produces an inferior product, service, or solution, it will eventually fail. This is actually a good thing, as it weeds out (most of) the idiots, making room for others with better ideas to flourish. There is no permanent winner, as even today's top of the heap must innovate and compete or risk being dethroned tomorrow. Even Microsoft, for all its seeming omnipotence and monopolistic behavior, would have failed long ago had it not finally gotten off its duff to address -- however imperfectly -- things like Linux, OS/2, WordPerfect, Lotus 1-2-3, and so forth. It's not perfect, and such "market evolutionary pressure" doesn't always happen quickly, but if left alone (i.e. free of government interference) it will always self-correct and product a superior situation.

          Government, on the other hand, has no such failsafe. Inefficient, ineffective, insufficient programs are the norm, not the exception. Why? Government is the only state-sanctioned monopoly that can have no real competition, short of a voter revolution. If government fails to make its budget, it does not go bankrupt, it merely raises taxes until the numbers meet up again. Or prints money and waits for hyperinflation to effectively shrink a multi-trillion dollar debt while utterly destroying the life savings of its citizens. Or both, as we're eagerly doing today under Obamanomics. But short of going belly up entirely and leaving people in anarchy, government never has to worry about going out of business. It just has to worry about getting 51% of the voters to force the other 49% to pay more taxes to support them. And unlike a free market, government can legally use force to make you participate in their shoddy products and Ponzi schemes like Social Security. Free markets must convince you to voluntarily consume their products instead of a competitor's.

          • by 10101001 10101001 (732688) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:46PM (#28090121) Journal

            The problem with your reasoning is that when a free-market entity produces an inferior product, service, or solution, it will eventually fail.

            People, good or bad, eventually die. Companies, good or bad, eventually bankrupt. Governments, good or bad, eventually collapse. In the mean time, murderers run free, inferior (potentially lethal) products reign, and corrupt governments loot the pulic. It is idealistic to believe that free markets are some magically solution to the ills of any field. People are not always rational, they lack perfect information, and even rationality (as part of game theory) isn't reasonable, at times, to one's own self-interest. Simply put, free markets can't exist with humans, and they don't really want them; they want a magical panacea that fulfills various contradictions. Such a thing obviously can't exist. But, mixed markets do at least approach the ideals of the vast majority of people. Not everyone truly understands the free market concept well enough to know that, though.

          • by Miseph (979059) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:53PM (#28090153) Journal

            Solution: move to Somalia. Government free since '92.

            Best of luck.

          • by HangingChad (677530) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:56PM (#28090193) Homepage

            The problem with your reasoning is that when a free-market entity produces an inferior product, service, or solution, it will eventually fail.

            Ironic you pick Microsoft as an example. The most non-competitive products in the IT world.

            The problem with that argument is that what we have is not a free market. It's series of cartels. That's why we spend more than twice as much on health care as other industrialized countries and get treatment closer to the bottom of the scale. Because there are so many entrenched cartels in the health care industry. It's why we have the worst cellular service outside of Nigeria and why banks and credit card companies still run Washington.

            New industries might start out competitive but once they get to a certain size, they start bending the rules in their own favor. Using unfair practices to freeze out competition, getting sweetheart legislation pushed through Congress, buying influence.

            You free market preachers are just naive. The only free markets are also fair markets. And if you think what we have today is a fair market, you need to pass the bong. Government is the only entity that has the ability to groom a competitive marketplace. What we have today is what happens when government stops doing that job for 10 years. The rich get richer and there's no accountability for cheating. Economic collapse follows right after.

            Inefficient government programs are the truism, not necessarily the reality. With some notable and widely publicized exceptions. But the fact you ignore is that without government, without a referee to control the game, our economic system has a very short lifespan. And yet you keep on with 30 year old economic theory in the face of economic meltdown while your 401K loses 65%. I don't think I want advice on government or managing markets from you.

          • by TarrVetus (597895) <[moc.liamg] [ta] [suteVrraT]> on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:00PM (#28090235)

            Free markets must convince you to voluntarily consume their products instead of a competitor's.

            To paraphrase: Free markets make business ventures. Governments make binding laws.

            One is voluntary, and is not legally required to continue. The other will hit you with a fine or send you to a prison if you try to violate it.



            The ugliest scenarios are when government starts mingling with, controlling, or becoming business. Then it's just an illusion of free choice in a wrapper with a smiley face. The corruption is not only rampant, but can be buried so deep in the system, itself, that you can't tell what is corruption, and what is the real government, anymore.

          • by dr2chase (653338) on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:08PM (#28090307) Homepage
            The free market does a piss-poor job of dealing with external costs (those not paid by the consumer), and the government is the appropriate mechanism for connecting the costs back to the people who create them. The problem, in this case, is that the government is imperfect and got more or less hijacked by the farm lobby (and this is hardly the only time this has happened).

            A better approach would simply be to impose a GHG tax -- taxes on the various gasses, for the various industries that produce them. According to the work I've read by Pimentel, that would probably kill corn ethanol, because fertilizer would get much more expensive. There's a chance they could thread the needle by using the sugar-depleted byproducts to feed cattle, which would in turn be less gassy, and which would reduce their GHG tax.

            For some discussion of food production (which gives some idea of the GHG production of farming corn), see Eschel and Martin, Diet, Energy, and Global Warming [uchicago.edu]
            • by falconwolf (725481) <falconsoaring_2000@@@yahoo...com> on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:39PM (#28090929)

              The free market does a piss-poor job of dealing with external costs (those not paid by the consumer), and the government is the appropriate mechanism for connecting the costs back to the people who create them.

              True enough but it's government who's given businesses the power they enjoy. For instance the city of New London [wikipedia.org], Connecticut used their power of eminent domain [wikipedia.org] to take away people's homes so a business could redevelop the land.

              A better approach would simply be to impose a GHG tax -- taxes on the various gasses, for the various industries that produce them.

              If you haven't heard of it perhaps you'd be interested in a proposed net zero gas tax [nationalreview.com]. The idea is to raise fuel tax but cut income tax. Then the better your mileage or the less you drive the more in your pocket. If you get a Prius and only drive 100 miles a week, you'll pay less tax. And those who drive their SUVs 200 miles a week will pay more. I was surprised to read this proposal by Charles Krauthammer [newstrust.net] in the conservative "Weekly Standard"

              Falcon

          • by bit01 (644603) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:07PM (#28090699)

            The problem with your reasoning is that when a free-market entity produces an inferior product, service, or solution, it will eventually fail.

            No it won't. If it has the means to compete negatively, by bringing the competition down, rather than positively, by bringing it's own product up, it can easily last indefinitely.

            You are implicitly pushing the myth of the "pure free market". That's simply warlordism, might makes right. All functioning, good markets need law, both written and unwritten, to stop all the negative ways that people can compete (e.g. deceptive advertising, monopoly rents, incomplete information, excessive transaction costs, externalities etc.), while still allowing the positive ways that people can compete (e.g. improving product, reducing prices etc.).

            Or to put it another way for some things one person, one vote, works better than one dollar, one vote. Both are accountable despite what you claim. And you think tyranny of the majority sucks? Perhaps so but it's better than the only alternative, tyranny of a minority.

            ---

            You communist! Breathing shared air!

        • by Afforess (1310263) <afforess@gmail.com> on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:17PM (#28089837) Journal

          I wish the anti-government types would realize just how many free market failurs there out out there.

          The free market's whole point is to kill failures, so no doubt there is many. The parent's point was when the government leads a "helping" hand to failures that it only hurts consumers in the end.

        • by Xonstantine (947614) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:40PM (#28090933)

          The difference is, when a government program fails, the solution is never terminating the program, but instead giving the program more money.

      • by digitalunity (19107) <digitalunity.yahoo@com> on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:52PM (#28089629) Homepage

        Refined corn sugars(LFCS, HFCS) were only ever cheaper because of tariffs on cane sugar, FYI.

      • by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:10PM (#28089775) Journal
        Isn't life wonderful when we just let the government do things? :

        Umm, the American Ethanol Debacle is not a product of government, as much as it is a product of government corrupted by private interests, in this case the mid-western corn lobby.

        Corn Ethanol in general is an OK fuel, if you use it within a short distance of where it was made. It's Energy Return On Energy Invested (EROEI) is so low that you end up burning up all your energy profit transporting it. IIRC, it has an EROEI of (at best) 1.5 to 2. Many studies show it has a negative EROEI. (Pimentel et al)

        Other forms of ethanol require technologies that don't exist yet (algae etc.) or massive amounts of land to be cleared for energy crops (viz sugar, soybeans) that would better be used FEEDING PEOPLE rather than schlepping fat suburbanites in their SUVs three blocks to go pick up a pack of smokes and some beer.

        Ethanol IS a scam.

        And not even a very smart one.

        RS

        • by Afforess (1310263) <afforess@gmail.com> on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:18PM (#28089857) Journal

          Umm, the American Ethanol Debacle is not a product of government

          Sure it is, the only reason the industry had a chance was because of big government subsidies. It was always a money loser, but the government saved them.

          • by Ralph Spoilsport (673134) on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:19PM (#28090399) Journal
            No no no. It was not a money loser, if you're making something of value. But if you're making fuel, it's not super profitable. The corn lobby saw the "good press" the Brazilians were getting with sugar ethanol, and saw an opportunity to buy off the government to fork over huge sums to their pockets.

            The U.S. govt is owned and operated by large corporations who are in the process of looting the treasury by insisting on subsidies: corporate welfare. The govt didn't "save" ethanol - the ethanol lobby simply got on the gravy train. Given the political importance of Iowa in presidential elections, and the over-representation of low population rural states in the Senate, (Wyoming gets the same as NY, CA, TX, etc.) and the importance of certain politicians from those states on key committees, the ethanol lobby had an easier time pulling money than a crackhead could stick up a 7-11 for twenty bucks and a bigGulp.

            You have it exactly backwards: Govt didn't save the ethanol industry. the ethanol industry simply muscled their way in and grabbed the cash. Government isn't the problem here - it's the LACK of government that's the problem. It's the spinelessness of the Democratic party that's always on its knees blowing their donors, and the corruption of the Republicans doling out billions to their frat brothers.

            RS

            • by DigiShaman (671371) on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:43PM (#28090529) Homepage

              You have it exactly backwards: Govt didn't save the ethanol industry. the ethanol industry simply muscled their way in and grabbed the cash. Government isn't the problem here - it's the LACK of government that's the problem. It's the spinelessness of the Democratic party that's always on its knees blowing their donors, and the corruption of the Republicans doling out billions to their frat brothers.

              Wha, hold on their cowboy!

              The government most certainly failed *because* both parties who run it are a bunch of money grubbing grab asses. But you want to know who's really at fault? The voter. Some how in some places, we collectively keep voting these bastards back in office.

      • Is it this? Discovery Channel's "Modern Marvels: Secrets of Oil" [google.com].

        I wonder if someone at Slashdot is taking money to post links to junk articles with hidden agendas. Alcohol is fine for cars. See, for example, Brazil's alcohol cars hit 2 million mark [bbc.co.uk]. Cars that use alcohol for fuel are completely reliable. Their exhaust is much better-smelling, too, because the unburnt hydrocarbons are sweet-smelling alcohol.

        The article linked by Slashdot discusses problems with the bad design of fuel systems, not problems with engines.

        I understand that the main problem with alcohol in the U.S. is that it is made from corn. In Brazil it is made from sugar cane, a more efficient method, and one that fits Brazil's climate.
      • by alchemist68 (550641) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:26PM (#28089949)
        I remember reading quite some time ago that some cars, specifically with turbochargers, and the right computer programming can reap some benefit of using alcohol. Saab, where most if not all of their cars are turbo charged, in the last few years has a smart computer that can tell what type of fuel being burned and adjusts the boost accordingly. Don't know if the extra boost required to reap the benefits of EtOH causes more wear and tear, but I would suspect so. Diesel and bio-diesel are better alternatives to gasoline, especially since diesel is made differently now. The Volkswagon Jetta with a 4-cylinder turbo diesel (2.0L) can accelerate as fast as a V6 and it doesn't produce all of the black exhaust that diesels of yesteryear did. Diesel engines are more expensive to build because of the high heat and torque they produce.

        I think the American auto industry needs to wake up and start engineering its vehicles for the highest mileage possible by using diesel and hybrid and stop reducing the amount of plastic and sound insulation in cars. It's easy to reduce weight by cutting plastic and sound insulation, which leads to interiors falling apart prematurely and driving the public to foreign vehicles.

        I own a 1999 Saab 93 and really like the car - low maintenance, but service is expensive. Also, it's not rusting anywhere. Recently Yahoo recommended Saab and Volvo as excellent cars to own long-term because, well, they last a long time and are built well. YouTube has a few videos of some suped-up Saabs in drag races. One, is a recent All-Wheel Drive 2000-year body style that fries all 4 tires most spectacularly - and it's done with a 4-cylinder turbocharged engine.
    • by reporter (666905) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:54PM (#28089655) Homepage
      The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently released a study [nytimes.com] indicating that "when the E.P.A.'s scientists counted these indirect effects, corn ethanol emitted more greenhouse gases than gasoline over a 30-year period."

      Other types of biofuel may be better than corn, but they have their problems too. According to a shocking report [time.com] by "Time Magazine", "if the world gets even 10% of its energy from these new kinds of crops, most tropical forests will probably disappear."

      Not surprisingly, lobbyists for American agribusiness are angry as hell about the conclusions of the EPA study.

      Really, the best way to partially fix this nonsense is to make Iowa (and its corn farmers) the last state to participate in both the Republican primary and the Democratic primary. Due to the importance of Iowa as the first state in the presidential primaries (including caucuses), Iowan agribusiness has a stranglehold on American politics, and its politicians do stupid things (like supporting corn-based ethanol) in order to cater to Iowa.

      Also, has anyone noticed that no one has mentioned the #1 reason for the growing energy problem and its associated pollution problem? The #1 reason is overpopulation. If we reduced greenhouse-gas emissions by 3% over 10 years but increased the population by 3% over the same period across all nations, then we effectively accomplished nothing.

      Can anyone guess why overpopulation is never mentioned by American politicians? Could the concept of overpopulation be too closely tied to illegal immigration?

      • by daemonburrito (1026186) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:33PM (#28090005) Journal

        Can anyone guess why overpopulation is never mentioned by American politicians? Could the concept of overpopulation be too closely tied to illegal immigration?

        Way, way off. And scary that you think that way... You should read about the waves of xenophobia throughout the United States' history. This one is not significantly different than the others (Irish, Asians, Germans, etc).

        Start here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mexico_City_Policy [wikipedia.org].

        It was Ronald Reagan and the Moral Majority people that decided that population policy was off the table ("A billion more consumers for American products"!). In addition, the nativist wing of the Republicans frequently encourages Anglos and other white-skinned people to "out-breed" the "aliens" to preserve America (QuiverFull [quiverfull.com], anyone?). Most of the evangelical movement subscribes to "dominion theology", which takes the Genesis 1 literally (especially the "be fruitful" bit). That worldview pretty much forbids thinking about environment conservation generally.

        Not that it's novel... Breeding wars are common in history, and there's several going on right now.

        The primary opposition to population control is religious/nativist, followed by Cold Warriors.

    • by Hadlock (143607) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:00PM (#28089709) Homepage Journal

      Ethanol is a politician's dream agenda item. Especially if you are running for, or plan to run for president. Why? What state has the first presidential caucus, potentially the most important point in the presidential race*? I'll give you a hint: they grow corn
       
      Ethanol is the great green hoax of politics. It's clearly not the best solution, but by god, it will help you hugely when it comes time to run for president. The price of corn has what? Almost doubled? Since we forced Americans to use 15% corn fuel (ethanol) in our gas for cars and trucks. Now that the flyover states are entitled to all this extra money coming their way, do you think any politician would ever dare take that away from them, effectively removing them forever from presidential candidacy. That's like admitting you're openly gay or like to club baby seals in political circles.
       
      *selecting insane, hunting moose from a helicopter female governors as VPs exempted

    • by sortius_nod (1080919) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:28PM (#28089973) Homepage

      Actually, no, using any food crop for fuel is a bad idea. This ensures that the 3rd world are always starving by removing food crops for consumption and replacing them with crops that go into rich 1st world nations' cars.

      Case in point, I recently visited south western Thailand, while flying into the area and driving around you notice that there are NO rice fields, vegetable patches, or even grazing land for animals. It has all been converted into palm plantations for bio fuels. The palms are unable to be used for food due to being bred purely for the oils - no fruit, nothing.

      On top of this, the amount of workers drops to almost 0 when running a palm oil farm - you only need workers at harvest and planting time which can be up to 5 years between. You do not need anyone to tend to the plantation at all during the growing cycle. So you end up with one person/family owning and profiting from the land while the rest of the village/region starve and/or live in poverty.

      I am an environmentalist myself, but I will never agree with ANY bio fuels being used. This doesn't solve the issue at hand, which isn't the supply of fossil fuels, but the effect of any combustion fuels. Driving the price of food up in under developed nations to satisfy your own desire to feel warm and gooey inside is inexcusable.

  • Living in Iowa... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by GilliamOS (1313019) on Monday May 25, 2009 @07:57PM (#28089121)
    It's next to impossible to find a gas station that does not have Ethanol in it's fuel. It doesn't help that two huge ADM plants are with in 90 minutes of where I live. Regardless, there is a single Shell station in the area that has 93 octane V-power that is without ethanol. The cost different of $0.30/gal is offset by the noticeable decrease in fuel consumption, increased power, and smoothing the idle. Yes, my car is tuned to require at least 91 octane.
  • Average (Score:4, Insightful)

    by olsmeister (1488789) on Monday May 25, 2009 @07:58PM (#28089139)
    "Does the average citizen understand what this means?" No. Does the average /.er?
  • by DavidHumus (725117) on Monday May 25, 2009 @07:58PM (#28089145)

    ..if this NY Times editorial is a sign of the times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/05/24/opinion/24sun2.htm [nytimes.com] .

    Basically, it says that the ethanol lobbyists are fighting back against the EPA attempting to do its job by actually measuring the effects of ethanol as fuel.

  • Fuel vs Food (Score:5, Insightful)

    by lobiusmoop (305328) on Monday May 25, 2009 @07:58PM (#28089147) Homepage

    More than anything, this cartoon [imageshack.us] puts me off the whole ethanol idea. It still creeps me out seeing it again now.

    • Re:Fuel vs Food (Score:4, Interesting)

      by spydabyte (1032538) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:32PM (#28089471)
      But it's not Fuel vs. Food. The corn companies are not taking Corn that can be used for food, and the price of corn is not going up because of the production of Ethanol. Sugar cane, for instance, is being turned much more effectively into Ethanol.

      The problem with Ethanol is that it doesn't work. It takes more Oil to produce and distribute Ethanol.

      This is a clear case of lobbying on both sides. The scientific facts need to be gathered, which a commenter said above. I would argue that not pushing Ethanol R&D is destroying our chances for alternative fuel sources. Clean coal and clean air is the real solution, but destroying any R&D, even for a temp-solution, is definitely not a solution.
      • Re:Fuel vs Food (Score:4, Insightful)

        by Xabraxas (654195) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:05PM (#28089743)

        No one thinks the corn they use for ethanol could be used for food instead but the land that it is being grown on could be growing food instead. Subsidies for ethanol brings in more money than growing food. This means there is less food being grown and sold. A lower supply with the same or growing demand is going to drive prices up.

    • Re:Fuel vs Food (Score:5, Insightful)

      by chimpo13 (471212) <slashdot@nokilli.com> on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:24PM (#28089931) Homepage Journal

      People don't starve to death because of lack of food in the world. Yes, that makes no sense. They starve because of lack of infrastructure to get them food.

      Local failure means no easy to access food, but warlords and other people out for a buck, hold up food in ports to distribute it at a profit. Without the profit they want, they let it rot at the dock.

      Still, the cartoon is good but misleading.

  • E85 (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ensjoeski (209876) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:00PM (#28089161)

    E85 is garbage. Why do you think the government has to subsidize it by about 40 cents per gallon? If it was that good of a fuel, it could stand on its own. Corn / Farm lobby + enviro wackos = total failure.

    • Re:E85 (Score:5, Informative)

      by DarrenBaker (322210) <darren@@@flim...net> on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:09PM (#28089265) Homepage

      E85 is actually a great fuel... For cars designed to run on it. The Koenigsegg CCX, for example, will run at 806 bhp in standard gasoline tune, but when you fill the tank with E85, you get 1018 bhp, no foolin'!

      Ethanol is a really high octane fuel, which makes engineers quiver with delight, because they can predict, with much higher certainty than low-octane fuel, when and how much of it will detonate. Perfect for those tight tolerances in highly-strung engines.

      • Re:E85 (Score:5, Interesting)

        by eln (21727) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:20PM (#28089353) Homepage

        I don't think the bone of contention with ethanol has anything to do with how good a fuel it is. The issue is what the trade-off is. Because we are using so much corn for ethanol, we have less corn to sell as food, which mean corn prices go up. Increases in food prices, and especially scarcity, tend to hurt the poorest among us first. As a result, we have food shortages where none existed before, and people that were just barely getting by are now starving.

        In this month's National Geographic there's a lengthy story on food shortages, particularly how our ever-increasing population already demands more food than we can produce, and the problem is only getting worse. Without a revolution in food producing technology, we could be facing regular and ever more severe famines. Given this, is it really in our best interest to use our food crops to power personal automobiles?

        There are better ways to produce energy in a sustainable and environmentally friendly way. Ethanol was an idea that sounded okay at first, but clearly doesn't scale, and we need to stop screwing around with it and put our focus into things that show more promise.

    • Re:E85 (Score:5, Informative)

      by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:11PM (#28089285)

      Honorary mention to the sugar lobby. By blocking sugar imports, a few jobs are saved, and many more are lost as virtually all candy is now manufactured in Canada or Mexico (where sugar is only half as expensive). Other food manufacturers switched to corn syrup, which is subsidized thanks to the farm lobby.

      Given the shenanigans that go on in washington DC, I don't know why anyone wants them more involved, in healthcare, banking, wallstreet, automobiles, or anywhere.

    • Re:E85 (Score:5, Insightful)

      by daemonburrito (1026186) on Monday May 25, 2009 @09:05PM (#28089739) Journal

      The ad hom aside, I've never met an "enviro wacko" who supported corn ethanol.

      In fact, anyone who's given any thought to it at all, and subscribes to the wacko idea that our civilization can't handle environmental upheaval of the scale predicted by real scientists... is against the idea of using our topsoil to power our craptacular personal transport. No "enviro wacko" supports an energy infrastructure that damages topsoil that is already in trouble (guess what black gooey stuff is the raw material for organics re-introduced to soil overworked to sterility?) and probably makes the GHG problem worse. And what functional human being wants to use food resources to power Cadillac Escalades?

      In other words, you can't blame those of us who think the biosphere of our planet is required for our continued survival (wacky, right?). However, feel free to blame jingoists who marketed this monstrosity as "energy security".

  • just tax carbon (Score:5, Insightful)

    by gravesb (967413) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:01PM (#28089173) Homepage
    Stop the subsidies, tax carbon to account for externalities, and then let the market decide. The negative effects of biofuels have been on display ever since the Dutch dropped palm oil. Instead of the government pushing this obviously failed product, they should make sure that consumers bear the entire cost of their decisions and let companies develop a way to reduce fossil fuel consumption. And less biofuels means the price of my beer goes down, dammit! Won't someone think of my beer?
  • by Knux (990961) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:01PM (#28089175)
    it's not ethanol itself, it's just the way US produce it... none of those arguments would apply to sugar cane. about the engines, brazil is using pure ethanol for quite sometime and it just doesn't destroy the engines the way tfa implies. if it's happening on US, maybe you should take another look at the auto industries.
    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:08PM (#28089239)

      My car runs on both gas with 15% ethanol and pure ethanol. Our ethanol is made from sugar cane.

      It used to decrease the life of some parts, engine and others, but now cars manufactured in Brazil simply have parts prepared to deal with the extra strain.

      Most extremist arguments are just wrong. This is the case.

    • by Anonymous Coward on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:10PM (#28089277)

      Uhmm the REASON it's destroying engines is because of design decisions that work for gasoline that DON'T work for E85. 85% ethanol as far as I've been lead to understand REQUIRES Stainless fuel system/valvetrain parts in order to avoid excessively wearing an engine (in addition to being conductive, something that may not be appreciated in fuel-cooled fuel pumps.) This, along with differing fuel maps is the reason ford/gm had seperate vehicle packages for 'flex fuel' vehicles for so many years, and why even nowadays not all cars can/should be run on it.

      It's not simply a matter of being 'inferior' fuel for automobiles, it's a matter of inferior engines being forced to use a fuel they can't handle (much like trying to retrofit a gas engine block for diesel instead of building a much more robust diesel oriented engine from the ground up...)

  • by ifdef (450739) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:01PM (#28089177)

    Everything I've been reading suggests that ethanol has no advantages, other than for the subsidized corn producers. It takes more energy to grow the corn to be converted to ethanol than what you get out. You get lower mileage from running on a gasoline-ethanol mix than on pure gasoline. You produce less quantity of pollutants per amount of fuel burned, but this is pretty close to offset by the larger amount of fuel that you have to burn to go the same distance.

    Maybe I'm wrong. I drive a diesel car that I run on biodiesel made from used restaurant oil, so I'm definitely not against biofuels in principle, but everything I've ever heard or read makes it seem like ethanol does not actually do anybody any good. Its only purpose is to make it SEEM like somebody is doing something, to make us feel good. But it raises the price of corn, and now, it appears, it destroys your car's engine as well.

    • by DG (989) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:09PM (#28089257) Homepage Journal

      Actually, the increased effective octane of E85 means that it is much more detonation resistant than pure pump gas. That means you can run a lot more turbo boost than you'd normally be able to get away with on a "street" fuel.

      You have to increase injector size quite a bit to offset the lower energy per volume, but with all the extra air crammed into the motor at high boost values, the net result is a metric assload of power from a freely available fuel.

      Making 500 HP out of a turbo 2 litre street motor is entirely doable running this fuel. I had to run 118 octane C16 race fuel (at $10 US / gal) to get similar performance.

      DG

  • Sugar cane not corn (Score:4, Informative)

    by Metapsyborg (754855) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:02PM (#28089187)
    The only thing wrong with ethanol is that big corporate farms are subsidized to make corn ethanol. If the U.S. just allowed the importation of sugar cane ethanol from countries like Brazil, then it would be a great thing.

    If you've spent any time in Brazil, you will see that ethanol is just fine for internal combustion engines. They've almost exclusively used ethanol for the last ten years. Now maybe there's an argument about "flex fuel" but that is just a transitional fuel type. Once we can import environmentally and economically friendly sugar cane ethanol it won't be a problem any more.
    • by vbraga (228124) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:20PM (#28089351) Journal

      I'm sorry, but your argument is bullshit.

      At first, ethanol in Brazilian fuel is nothing more than a subside for northeastern Brazilian farmers, just like it is a subside for US corn farmers. It's not economically friendly. It's a more like a farming sweat shop. Northeastern Brazil is, by far, the country more backwards place. Workers live in substandard conditions and slavery is not really uncommon in poorest places.

      At second, it's not environmentally friendly. Sugar cane is burned before being harvest. Particulates and smoke are really bad for neighbor population. Lack of crop rotation impoverishes the soil.

      I'm a Brazilian myself and, obviously, new exports are always welcome. But not sugar cane. Let it die. It's just a way for the the country semi feudal elite to keep exploiting poor people, like it's being doing since 1500. Let the soil grow food. It's not a solution. It never was.

  • by Lonewolf666 (259450) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:05PM (#28089205)

    According to TFA, in many cases fuel lines or fuel pumps have been destroyed by fuel with increased ethanol content.

    This seems credible because similar problems are known with biodiesel (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biodiesel#Material_compatibility [wikipedia.org]). But there are materials that can handle the ethanol, they just need to be used in new cars and eventually most cars in existence will have them.

    The real question is how large the net energy gain from using ethanol actually is. If TFA's assertion that it is a net energy loser are correct, that would be a far bigger problem.

  • Ethanol (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Neon Aardvark (967388) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:05PM (#28089211) Homepage

    It doesn't matter that bio-ethanol always was so utterly bone-headed from a thermo-dynamic and food-price point of view (and now this as well) - utterly wrong, right from the start, with back of the envelope calculations.

    Some people can make vast amounts of money out of it under cover of doing the "right thing" morally (much like the war on drugs), and hence it gets government support.

  • Not news. (Score:5, Informative)

    by rabiddeity (941737) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:07PM (#28089231) Homepage

    Oh, so using a fuel different from the fuel specified by the manufacturer can destroy your engine. I don't think that's news. Ethanol is corrosive to plastic and rubber. If the pumps are spitting out higher than 10% ethanol, the chain of responsibility is pretty damn clear. Sue the gas seller.

    Anyone who has done ethanol conversions for internal combustion engines (ICEs) can tell you that the conversion requires replacement of plastic and rubber hoses in the fuel system with stainless braided hose. Obviously if the system isn't originally designed for more than 10% ethanol there will be problems.

    But the problem isn't with ethanol per se. While it doesn't contain as much energy per liter as straight gasoline, that never stopped gasoline from taking off in favor of diesel's increased energy per liter. Ethanol makes fuel octane ratings go through the roof, which means you can tune the engine to run leaner under acceleration. Even running under boost you can often run leaner than 12 AFR with E85.

    I don't agree with the subsidies from the corn lobby, but attacking ethanol because "it destroys engines which weren't designed to run on ethanol" is frankly a stupid tack.

  • by Volanin (935080) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:18PM (#28089337)

    Here in Brazil we have been using alcohol as a fuel source for years. When you go to a gas station, it is guaranteed that you will find both a gasoline pump and an alcohol pump. Most cars developed here since 2003 accept both fuels, using an engine technology called FLEX. The only difference is that the alcohol we use is called "Anidro", and it is 99.3% pure, while Ethanol is 96% pure (the rest being mostly water).

    Based on this, to subsidize the price of the gasoline here, the government sets an alcohol mandate of 22%. So even if you have a gasoline-only car, you are really using 3/4 gasoline and 1/4 alcohol when you fill the tank. Since the alcohol does attack all parts of the engine that are in contact with it, engines produced for the brazilian market have a special protection layer. And indeed, owners of imported cars here usually fill their tanks with a special "premium" gasoline, that is basically pure and high-octane, to avoid damage. (Guess I don't have to say that gas stations rip you off for that)

  • by YesIAmAScript (886271) on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:20PM (#28089359)

    Not of ethanol, I'm really skeptical of it. It takes so much energy to make, I'm not sure what the point is.

    I'm more skeptical of the other things listed. An E85 vehicle typically will run on E100 with no damage. The only real issue is that if you let the engine cool down, it won't start since ethanol won't vaporize properly in a room temperature engine. But it won't cause any damage, and merely putting 100% gas in the tank (assuming there is room, pumping out ethanol if necessary) until the percentage gets high enough to start the engine is all that is needed.

    Also, ethanol doesn't reduce "gas mileage" (the words used in the article) 40-60%, it reduces FUEL mileage 40-60% by volume. This is because ethanol contains less energy per gallon. So consumption goes up, but what you really want to measure is energy efficiency, and burning ethanol isn't significantly less energy efficient (note, I'm not speaking of the energy required to make the ethanol, merely the combustion in the engine). So as long as the fuel is priced correctly and you have the space for the ethanol needed, it isn't an efficiency issue.

    I do have problems with E10 ("standard gas") more than E85. With E85 at least you know what you're getting into. With E10, we are made to pay regular rates (or even more!) per gallon for the fuel even though it contains 4% less energy than straight gas.

    For the record, I'm against a move to E15. We'll end up paying the same amount again (per gallon), while getting another 2% worse economy (per gallon). And it doesn't seem to decrease our dependence on foreign oil, since the corn used to make it is generally grown using nitrogen fertilizers made from petroleum.

    I still like the idea of flex-fuel, but we need to find better wats to make alternative fuels before they represent a real viable alternative.

  • by 77Punker (673758) <spencr04 AT highpoint DOT edu> on Monday May 25, 2009 @08:46PM (#28089561)

    People in California were driving electric cars every day ten years ago. They were fast, quiet, clean, and reliable. They were also accessible to the everyman, unlike the Tesla roadster.

    I don't give a fuck about corn or other combustibles. We could all be driving electric cars today if not for big oil colluding with government regulators.

    Give me my electric car!

    • by CodeBuster (516420) on Monday May 25, 2009 @11:27PM (#28090833)

      They were also accessible to the everyman, unlike the Tesla roadster.

      I wouldn't go that far. I seem to recall that in Who Killed The Electric Car [wikipedia.org] they mentioned that the EV1 [wikipedia.org] was leased , but NOT sold, for $500-$700 dollars per month which is substantially higher than what "everyman" can afford to pay. If you can afford to pay that much for a lease then you can afford to lease a luxury car such as the BMW, Mercedes-Benz, or Lexus. The "everyman" lease rate is more in the $200-$400 dollar range and generally in the lower part of the range or around $300 per month. Also, look at the owners they interviewed in the movie: Tom Hanks, Mel Gibson, Ed Begley, Jr. (i.e. big money Hollywood actors); hardly the "everyman" you say the car was accessible to.

  • by falconwolf (725481) <falconsoaring_2000@@@yahoo...com> on Monday May 25, 2009 @10:43PM (#28090523)

    After reading all the articles linked to, I noticed not one mentioned one part of the scam. Business Week and Chicago Tribune said the ethanol was corn based. However the same amount of land would produce more ethanol if sugarcane was used instead. With the world's largest biofuels program Brazil uses sugarcane. And switchgrass [wikipedia.org] produces even more. Another benefit of using switchgrass to make ethanol is that it will grow on marginal land [democratic...ground.com] other crops aren't grown on.

    Falcon

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