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In defense of Alcohol | Making Ethanol Fuel | Ethanol
In Defense of Alcohol
by Brian Lambert
Come on now, people, let's give alcohol a chance. Prohibition's over! Let's quit contriving arguments against alcohol fuel and turn the plucky liquid loose on those cursed Arabs!
Several years ago I bought an Opel station wagon. A nice little car. One of the last German-made Opels, it handles well and it's easy on gas and tires and all that. But it does have one embarrassing idiosyncrasy: The thing diesels like a White Freightliner. It coughs and shakes and spews humiliating little cloudettes of murky toxins every time it shuts off. Thoroughly embarrassing.
After enduring months of gasping and gagging, I went to Walter the Aryan technician, who works on the thing. Walter told me I ought to bum leaded "premium gaz." He guaranteed higher octane would stop the dieseling.
Well, in my search for the 91-or-higher octane leaded premium fuel my Opel needed, I came across a Texaco station that sold gasohol, the one-part-alcohol-to-nine-parts-gasoline blend, with a 91-octane rating, for about the cost of regular unleaded. I filled up. When I stopped three miles later to pick up a carton of milk, the Opel's motor, to my great surprise and satisfaction, simply went "ca-thunk" and remained silent. No petro-asthmatic wheezing, no volcanic eruptions of misty, oily waste. It just turned off.
By the time I'd driven 100 miles I was convinced the thing had more power as well as a more fluid hum, in keeping with German engineering perfection. As far as I was concerned gasohol worked. I kept buying it, until Texaco started pulling up stakes in my home state of Minnesota and closing its stations. Gasohol became an endangered commodity. At that time, a couple of years back, other oil firms were even less impressed with gasohol's future. Availability was uncertain at best and the public needed to be heavily sold on the idea. Whatever the reason, few besides Texaco distributed in Minnesota. In addition to supply problems, the industry in general believed gasohol to be artificially cheap, thanks to federal subsidies, and therefore something of a weak link in the energy supply chain. At any rate, for almost a year gasohol largely disappeared from the marketplace. The Opel resumed dieseling.
The debate over gasohol's effectiveness, or more precisely alcohol's effectiveness and future, seemed clouded more by questions of its net energy efficiency than whether it worked in a car engine. That is, does it really take more energy to manufacture alcohol than the fuel itself eventually returns? And then -- of particular concern in the agricultural Midwest -- what does the distillation of alcohol from feed grains, particularly corn, do to the food industry? Ostensibly knowledgeable people were staunchly opposed to alcohol fuel production on the more or less moral grounds that to power cars and motorboats we'd be taking grains that could be feeding starving people. This began to look confusing.
First, let me say that there is no consensus, no bottom line on alcohol fuels (or methanol, ethanol, and gasohol, in their most familiar forms). If there is any bottom line -- and there are unmistakable advantages alcohol fuel production affords both the farmer and the consumer -- it's that the debate will continue to rage until a full vertical production and distribution system is in place, which could conceivably develop in the very near future.
Alcohol for combustion, to begin at the beginning, comes in a variety of forms. Among them is ethanol, which is short for "ethyl alcohol." Ethanol is a by-product of grains such as corn, dairy whey, and some forestry products, and is used in the gasohol mixture. Another form is methanol (methyl alcohol), derived largely from wood products, petroleum products, and urban-industrial waste -- biomass.
Alcohol combustion isn't nearly as new as critics claim. The first internal combustion engine, the 1876 Otto Cycles, in fact, ran on pure alcohol. Modern race cars -- such as the Indy 500 models -- run on exotic mixtures of methanol. It's safe to conclude that the stuff works, but over the course of the controversy that just hasn't been the question.
In 1980, a drought year, the United States produced 6.6 billion bushels of corn, presently the primary source of ethanol. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, we exported 2.55 billion of those bushels. But 90 percent of the total is used for animal feed, and by far the greatest portion of the exported corn is shipped unrefined, that is, as shelled corn rather than as any of the myriad corn byproducts.
And what can we get from shelled corn? According to Archer Daniels Midland Corporation (ADM), America's alcohol production leader (current annual production of 50 million gallons at its new Decatur, Illinois plant, anticipating 360 million by the end of the year), a bushel of corn weighs 56 pounds. Ethanol distillation takes only the 31.5 pounds of starch. The rest -- germ, protein, feed, and gluten meal -- are suitable for many animal and human food requirements. Anything a cattle herd needs from a meal of corn -- the widest use of the stuff -- it will get after the ethanol has been distilled out. It's entirely possible that we'd be doing the world a favor by exporting corn protein as liquid by-products rather than as tons of high-starch dry corn kernels. The 31.5 pounds of starch, by the way, yields, in addition to two and a half gallons of 200-proof alcohol, 17 pounds of carbon dioxide, useful in the carbonation of soft drinks and in refrigeration systems.
Other corn by-products unaffected by the distillation process include corn oil, mayonnaise, margarine, shortening, and salad dressing. Much of the controversy over gasohol's net efficiency turns on whether one side or the other's calculations take account of by-products, assuming al- cohol production plants are equipped to retrieve them.
One study by Battelle Laboratories of Columbus, Ohio, commissioned by the American Petroleum Institute, concluded that it takes something on the order of 2.2 times the energy gained from alcohol to produce it. That pretty well jibes with figures from many earlier studies by the U.S. Agriculture Department, the University of Illinois, the University of South Dakota at Brookings, Louisiana State University, and Mobil Oil's Research and Development Corporation, to name but a few.
But these studies invariably compute every BTU of production costs and assign little if any energy value to all those corn by-products, all of which in the normal run of agricultural production could have been derived from the same crop with the same energy expenditure without producing a single drop of combustible fuel in the process. Says one Battelle biologist: "The A.P.I. study was not designed to put alcohol down, but to look at the energy base required to produce it. It is true, we did not assign any energy value to the corn byproducts."
But, according to Scott Sklar of the National Center for Appropriate Technology and an avid alcohol fuels proponent, it's spurious to calculate alcohol's energy trade-off strictly in relation to fossil fuels such as coal, natural gas, or oil, which were most frequently used in tests as the distillation fuel.
The negative energy efficiency argument, says Sklar, "is really irrelevant. Electricity has the same problem. It takes four units of coal to get out one unit of electricity. But the reason we do this is because electricity is a very viable energy source. You can distribute it easily. The same thing is true of liquid fuels. It's very difficult to use coal in your car, or wood in your car, or cheese whey in your car. From that point of view, if you can make a positive unit of energy out of feed stocks, one that's usable by a wide group of the public such as in automobiles, then you should.
"I agree," Sklar continues, "that we should not use more oil or kerosene or natural gas or propane to make fewer BTUs of alcohol. But there's no reason in my mind why we shouldn't use coal or this new solar gas still that uses a vacuum column. We can use solar energy to distill. What does it matter if you use 5,000 BTUs of sunlight to get out 1,000 BTUs of energy? Alcohol, incidentally, has a better conversion rate than if you tried to liquefy coal into one of the new synthetic gasolines that Gulf is making. You can take that lump of coal to fire up a still and you get more energy out of using the alcohol scenario for coal than you would using coal directly as a fuel for feed stock. So, again, energy balance is not an issue. It's made into an issue."
Alcohol production is one energy alternative that even the big industrialists are discussing in terms of small, decentralized operations, the ADM Decatur plant not withstanding, and ambitious producers are popping up all over the grain belt. One of them is farmer Gene Schroder (see side-bar), whose plant near Campo, Colorado produces at an annual rate of 400,000 gallons. He got into alcohol production when he saw what a beating he was taking selling his grain.
"It was quite evident to us," says Schroder, "that unless we did something, and I suppose I could say unless we all do something -- soon -- there won't be any family farms. We saw this a couple years back when we first got interested in alcohol. All it is is another way for us to make money off our land. At the same time it's something the country needs."
The patriotic importunings of alcohol proponents were at least echoed by the Carter administration. Under Carter the four cent per gallon gasoline tax exemption was implemented and extended to 1984 under the Energy Security Act. While the Reagan Administration has not announced plans to rescind this tax exemption, budget cuts are planned to cut loan guarantees for alcohol producers entirely.
Carter had called for ethanol production to reach 500 million gallons by the end of 1981 and 10 billion gallons by the end of the decade. When they're not objecting to alcohol production on grounds of energy efficiency, the fuel's opponents criticize the government for distorting the true marketability of alcohol with "extravagant" subsidies. The retort is that the government has long been engaged in far more expensive subsidizing of the oil industry and even now is proposing substantial increases in subsidies for nuclear power production.
Still, alcohol is getting a continued, if diminished, push from the government, though Reagan's Budget Director David Stockman wants subsidies to end in 1984. Carter wanted incentives for building 100 "small scale" alcohol plants, like Gene Schroder's, that produce less than a million gallons annually, but Reagan has ordered that number reduced to three -- one in Wisconsin, one in Vermont, and one in Alabama.
Even if Carter's 10 billion gallon annual production goal is met by 1990, it would only account for a tenth of the country's present yearly petroleum consumption. The percentage could well increase if the United States oil consumption rate continues to fall in the next eight and a half years as it has in the last three (1980's decline was 6.2 percent).
Also, proponents argue, the price of alcohol could become substantially more attractive if a new crisis develops in the Middle East, say if some villain overthrows the comparatively stable Saudi Arabians, which could have dramatic consequences for American consumers. But if fermentation processes are designed as Scott Sklar suggests -- with renewable resources like the sun or with American coal -- further rounds of crude oil price increases in the 1973 and 1979-80 mold would not, theoretically, seriously affect the price of alcohol. The net result, optimists say, would be an attractively priced, nationally produced, non-fossil fuel.
What would affect the price of alcohol fuels, and what concerns everyone involved in their production, particularly ethanol production, is the volatility of the grain market. Corn prices are highly unpredictable year to year. Putting aside for the moment grain embargoes and artificial surpluses that might deflate the market, a multi-billion dollar federal push for alcohol production could dramatically inflate the price of corn. While such a turn of events would be sweet justice for farmers, it could diminish or mute alcohol's cost appeal. Barring the overthrow of the Saudi's, the price of alcohol probably will keep pace with the ever-rising price of oil.
But corn may not be the solution. While it's the most abundant and therefore presently the most practical crop for alcohol distillation, it's not the most productive crop, and given the right circumstances its use could cause certain selective economic disturbances. For example, as the respected Oil and Gas Journal hypothesized in the spring of 1980, alcohol producers responding to a rapid inflation in the price of ethanol -- a reaction to some major calamity in oil supplies -- might very well abandon all interest in processing all those by-products.
If they chose instead to concentrate solely on the suddenly lucrative market for ethanol, a shortage in the supply of live- stock feed could develop, which would cause an increase in the price of meat. It's also possible to speculate under this scenario that grain exports might be reexamined for their profitability as well.
But alcohol, Sklar and others emphasize, still is a fledgling technology in spite of fermentation's ancient history. Many bushes, trees and such with no food value whatsoever are capable of producing more alcohol per acre with less fertilization and fuss than livestock grains. A prime example is the Jerusalem artichoke, which has received little attention until lately. It can be grown on "marginal land," -- rocky, arid hillsides and the like -- and now all of a sudden government subsidies have added a promise of immediate profit for such scruffy, tasteless plants. Other sources for conversion are industrial sludge-eating algae, which are quickly convertible into methanol, and, of all things, honey locust trees.
And various high tech breakthroughs loom on the near horizon, such as various techniques of acid and enzyme hydrolysis which can greatly increase the speed of fermentation, and, perhaps a decade away, energy-saving "membrane technology," involving sophisticated, practical organic distilling agents.
In the end, the truest words spoken on the alcohol controversy were probably those of a writer for the Washington Post who ran the gauntlet of graphs and experts in 1979, cons removed from spring-time 1981 in alcohol's fulminating history. She wrote, wearily, one assumes, "A lot of these numbers and forecasts are basically political. What you conclude depends on what you were inclined to think in the first place."
What we can, with some confidence, draw from wading through the literature and pros and cons of the alcohol fuel business are three basic conclusions:
First, the question of net energy ratio, all things considered, is moot. By using and rigorously maintaining the best possible technology and methodology, and by reaping all the potential feed stock by-products, alcohol production has probably achieved equivalency. Alcohol is a high-quality fuel. By distilling it with lower-quality fuels, even non-renewable ones such as coal, there is a net gain in efficiency, albeit not a strict BTU for BTU equivalency.
Ideally, every system would operate on solar power. But even without it tinkerers and researchers helped by government research grants are making the technological gains that will realize for alcohol a net energy gain.
Second, moralistic fears that large-scale alcohol production will deplete the world's food supply are unwarranted. Vital proteins in feed grains remain after distillation. It's even arguable that the protein in wet mash or dry pulp form is more easily transported and refined. Though large scale production could inflate the price of meat given the right circumstances, substitute crops with little or no food value, if exploited, could render that objection moot.
And third, subsidies in the form of tax exemptions, loan guarantees and research grants are important but not indispensable to continued alcohol production. While at the moment American taxpayers are subsidizing a new energy industry, as they've done for almost every other energy industry in this country, that industry already is stronger than most people realize. The alcohol industry has progressed and developed sufficiently under the fleeting largesse of the federal government that it's highly unlikely it will collapse under imminent, decimating budget cuts. Major corporations and investors of skill and sophistication have weighed alcohol's pros and cons and decided there is money to be made regardless of government's role.
And alcohol production -- with facilities properly designed and managed -- offers farmers a real option, a bargaining chip if nothing else, in their struggle to turn a profit.
I've purposely avoided here the whole area of automobile adaptability. Powering cars is unquestionably the most immediate application for alcohol, offering the most dramatic returns in economic and political security. I've avoided that discussion here because there is such an obvious bottom line. Automobiles run very well on alcohol, whether it's methanol or ethanol mixed with gasoline. No carburetor modifications are required for the present 1:9 gasohol mixture, and the mixture may be as great 1:4 and still be tolerable. A reasonably adept weekend mechanic can make all the modifications necessary for a normal carburetor to run on pure alcohol, which automobiles do quite nicely. (Several implement manufacturers, including John Deere and Massey-Ferguson, are now adapting test diesels for ethanol turbo-charging.) And with a bit more complicated conversion, cars can function remarkably well on methanol.
So while the debate continues over the affordability and availability of alcohol as a fuel, there should be no question but that the stuff works. If you still doubt it, give me a call. There's a convenience store just down the road from me with a gasohol pump. For $1.40 a gallon you can fuel my Opel and take it for a ride.
Home Energy Digest, Summer 1981, Pages 125-127, 137, 138
This material provided under "Fair Use" guidelines.