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By Robert Rapier on May 15, 2006 with no responses

Joseph Miglietta Response to Ethanol Debate Challenge


Joseph Miglietta, a chemical engineer and chemist, responded to my Ethanol Debate Challenge. I look forward to the exchange of ideas. His response is posted below, with nothing changed except for some formatting. Joseph, if you need me to modify this post in any way, e-mail me. My e-mail address is listed in my profile.

I agree with some, but not all of what he writes. My response will be posted within a few days. As always, comments are still open to all. Feel free to add your own comments in favor of or against Joseph’s argument. Let’s just keep it civil, regardless of which side you take in the debate.

If anyone wishes to build a comprehensive argument as Joseph has done, either place it in the comments, or e-mail it to me. I will add the entry and then respond as needed.

Without further ado, here is Joseph’s post.



Response by Joseph Miglietta

I would like to participate a little in this forum not so much for the challenge but for the opportunity of educating people who are concerned for the energy crisis and are badly hurt at the pump. Knowledge may avoid them to be misled by politicians and special interest groups. Especially here in the South where I now live, people’s knowledge on this subject is abysmal. So, if by means of these debates we can contribute a little to this effect, I would feel rewarded. My participation will be limited to debates conducted in a civilized manner (no insulting or taking it personally) and be characterized by objective criticism. I wish to add, I too am a chemical engineer and a chemist.

Conservation could be a solution to the oil crisis; it would also help traffic congestion, not to mention the lessening of environmental problems. But in my opinion, it is a step backward in our progress. Crises offer incentives for improvement; going back, instead, imply defeat. There is a natural conservation effect that takes place in times of crisis. People in this case tend to buy smaller and more efficient cars. In cities with large concentrations, such as New York or Chicago, public transportation is the best solution. But in spread cities as Los Angeles, suburbs and rural areas, our transportation relays on personal vehicles, not to mention for our leisure. It is our way of life. A drastic reduction in the use of personal vehicles would also affect our economy. A lot of people would be out of jobs. Overall, it would imply large sacrifices. In other words, the cure is worse than the disease.

During the first crisis of 1970’s, created by the oil cartel, there were long lines at the pump, particularly in California. I conceived then an idea to improve the fuel efficiency, but I did not have time to work on it. I was too busy trying to fill the vacuum created by the oil unavailability. I recovered spent or contaminated solvents and even made methyl acetate by a continuous process. The first crisis was of relatively short duration; it was the first showdown of the cartel countries against the Western World. Now the rule has changed: spiraling prices is the new rule, and the big oil companies have joined the game. From my student days, I was fascinated with oil for its many applications in many branches of industry, plastics, pharmaceuticals, solvents, etc., and considered a shame to burn it in fuels. But now I consider it even more shameful the fact that we depend on the oil found in rogue countries.

My interest in ethanol is only peripheral. Now that I am retired, I am working on developing my original idea: special additives that promote the shifting of the reaction equilibrium towards mechanical work at the expense of heat in engines using ethanol/gasoline blends.

Of course, producing ethanol from grain (corn) is not the best way. In general, producing ethanol from starch is by far less energy efficient than from sugars. If all the arable land in our country would be cultivated for corn for ethanol production, it would hardly make a significant dent in our fuel consumption. (I am exaggerating here a little to stress my point).

But I look at it in a different way. Farm lobbying is a powerful force that in this present crisis, with the mounting public rage, may counteract to some extent what I consider the most powerful force: the big oil companies. We have made some progress. A 10% incorporation of ethanol in gasoline, or E10, may sometime in the near future be nationwide. Sure, we can achieve this only by government subsidy, but it’s a start. Subsidies are supposed to be temporary measures. In the meantime, this will create an incentive to find more efficient ways to handle starch.

Research is being conducted to use cheaper starting materials. I found interesting the process under research called the Veridium bioreactor technology whereas a special strain of algae can produce a biomass containing 94% starch as opposed to 63% contained in corn, utilizing in the process the carbon dioxide given off by the ethanol-producing facilities. The interesting part is their claim: this biomass can be produced at a much faster rate than plants in less the surface area required for crops. In the present crisis, other alternatives are actively sought. Ethanol, however, offers the most practical approach.

The other alternatives, economically priced hybrid cars, hydrogen fuel cells, etc. are in the more distant future. All these, however, including the substitution of gasoline for ethanol take time. But we need a solution now, not years from now. We are pressed with time in view of the mounting competition for oil from China and India, its spiraling prices, global warming, not to mention that we are indirectly financing terrorism. For these very reasons, we need to import ethanol and reduce the import of oil.

One of the reasons I content is why we impose a tariff on a cleaner fuel imported from friendly countries and import tariff-free oil from rogue countries. The reason should be obvious: oil companies are the powerful force behind. Their tactics is simple: increase the price of gasoline at the pump, and then decrease it by a few cents to pacify the animosity of the public. But oil companies are not the only force against ethanol imports. The farmers are enjoying a windfall of profits. They too oppose competition. The way out, a little simplistic perhaps, is to keep these two forces at bay. As I said before, tax oil after a certain import level and give tax breaks on the amount of ethanol incorporated in the fuel.

As for the farmers, they are receiving a subsidy for the amount of corn used for ethanol. They should receive assurance that the amount of ethanol imported is only what they cannot produce—the more they produce the less we import. Once we develop other alternative crops cheaper than corn, they will need to switch. Grain ethanol is definitely not the most efficient process, except for moonshine. No other process is more energy efficient than sugar. Perhaps, we should grow sugar cane in Florida, Louisiana, some parts of Texas, and Hawaii. We cannot grow much but it may become a contributing factor. Another possibility is beet sugar.

We cannot compete with the cheap labor in Brazil, but better technology may give us a hedge. Still, we may not compete with the price of Brazilian ethanol, but it is better to contribute to sustain the labor force in a friendly country than sustain the finance of rogue states. Brazil has much less cars than us, and a vast territory with ideal climatic conditions for sugar cane. Consequently, they have a surplus of ethanol and they can easily meet an increased demand.

I know no other alternatives for ethanol; better perhaps, but not as commercially readily available as ethanol. Eventually, ethanol will be phased out but I don’t think this will happen for many years to come.

As for E85, my first reaction is: if we still cannot go national with E10, let alone E85. But that is not the question. E10 will not make us energy independent. But E85 would. E100 would be even better in this respect, but fuel efficiency is better with E85. I don’t consider a 15% gasoline consumption oil dependency. We can get this and more outside the oil cartel. The idea behind this is to create the necessary infrastructure for E85.

As I said before, we can import the necessary alcohol we still cannot produce. I use the word “alcohol” to include methanol, which could be produced from coal, and we have the world’s largest reserve of it. The technology has not yet been developed, however. The catalytic process from hydrogen and carbon monoxide may offer more economical possibility than that depending on natural gas hydrocarbons. Also, methanol is even less efficient than ethanol. But that is another matter of discussion, from which I prefer to stay out, since I would be biased. If I were involved in other energy projects that do not include alcohols, I would feel biased and stay completely out of this discussion.

Joseph Miglietta