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By Robert Rapier on May 30, 2006 with no responses

Joseph Miglietta On E85


Joseph sent me the following two pro-E85 essays after I published E85: Spinning Our Wheels. I have broken up his posts into Part I and Part II. I may make some comments later, but for now I will simply post them as written (with a bit of formatting).

I plan on finishing up an essay specifically comparing the U.S. ethanol situation to that of Brazil, and hopefully will have it posted by the end of the week. I believe my calculations on this will provide a dose of reality to those who think Brazil’s ethanol program is the model for the direction we should take.

Anyway, here is the pro-E85 position from Joseph Miglietta.

Part I by Joseph Miglietta

E85 is an interesting subject, and I’m glad you brought it up.

First, I wish to comment on a minor detail. You relate ethanol to gasoline. You calculate an energy balance to produce ethanol from corn in terms of gasoline required to produce a unit amount of ethanol; yet, you make no comments about the energy balance to produce gasoline. Don’t you think you should also mention the fact that there are also energy requirements in terms of taking the oil out of the ground, hauling it by pipeline and ships, processing it into gasoline, and finally transporting the gasoline to final destination? This may bring the processing yield a little higher for ethanol. I don’t want to go into specifics, because I don’t know what these energy values are for gasoline, but I’m sure the data is available.

Corn is the only practical feedstock material we have for ethanol right now. But we are actively working on corn and cellulose technology to increase this energy balance and to make accessible other feedstock that farmers could grow instead of corn.

In your E85 essay, your contention that ethanol is not a viable solution for our country was pointed out before by Pimentel et al. (He was proven wrong) In terms of your energy balance, we may be better off consuming gasoline. I may go a step further: if we can hardly meet the national requirements for E10, what is the purpose of setting up E85 fuel pumps in half our gas stations by 2015. How can E85 lead us to our national independence, just like Brazil? Actually, not even Brazil has 50% fuel stations dedicated to E85, but only 40%.

I think we should look at this in a different perspective. (1) Let’s make most of our internal fuel engine vehicles as FFVs. The cost of these vehicles is practically the same as conventional vehicles; so, it won’t hurt either the manufacturer or the customer. Most of these vehicles will continue to use regular gas and maybe never will have a chance to use any combination of ethanol/gasoline blends, but the feature is there. (2) Let’s have even one single pump, or two back-to-back, at least at every third gas station dedicated to E85.

Now, the cost of installing a tank is a little expensive, but it’s a one-time investment with government’s help. It may not even be necessary to install a special tank. Perhaps the tank could be used interchangeably with gasoline alone, I’m not too sure. There are anticorrosive agents incorporated in the ethanol/gasoline blend to protect the tank. Or better yet, have a separate tank filled with just ethanol and a metering pump to dispense the required amount of ethanol with gasoline during the customer’s filling operation. These are simple ways.

But where is the ethanol? The ethanol will come later. First, let’s built the infrastructure. The dedicated E85 pumps will not be installed overnight either; it’s a gradual process over a few years. At the same time, also the amount of available ethanol will gradually increase. But we must maintain the presence of E85 throughout the nation and gradually increase it, not concentrated to the Corn Belt states.

Again the question, why E85 and not just E10 or E15? Because with E85 we shall become fuel independent, E10 or E15 won’t get us there. This is the goal we must set to achieve. We must not look at the small picture, the corn availability, but at the big picture: cellulose feedstock and ever-improving technology.

You said it yourself with other words, even if ethanol does not possess the same heat capacity as gasoline, if we were to have it in sufficient quantity, it would serve the same purpose. But even this problem may have a solution, at least in part. The heating value of ethanol, you said, is 67% that of gasoline (the value I come up with is actually less because I take the average value for gasoline, since it’s a variable mixture of components; but for our argument I prefer to take your value). Therefore, the more ethanol is present in ethanol/gasoline blend, the less is its efficiency. My additive increases the engine efficiency at the expense of heat. So, if this were applied, we would have still an added contribution, same as having a little more ethanol available, not to mention the savings at the pump and the incentive it may create.

I hope I made my point that ethanol is not much ado about nothing. It’s a liquid fuel as gasoline. It’s renewable. With ever-increasing technological improvement, we can produce it with less amount of oil, or with other sources of energy (but always mindful of environmental problems). In addition to the depletion problem of oil, we must look at a more pressing problem. The depletion problem is a few decades away (we have not reached a peak yet), but we have a more pressing problem now with our national security. From one hand we are fighting terrorism, from the other we are indirectly financing it. So, why not importing ethanol from friendly countries and reducing oil imports from unstable countries, at least until we become energy independent.


Part II by Joseph Miglietta

Talking about the disadvantages of making ethanol from corn is like beating a dead horse. Neither ethanol from corn can be made efficiently enough compared to ethanol made from sugar cane, or it can be produced in significant quantities to replace our oil consumption. Understandably, many people feel it’s an affront to their intelligence when politicians speak as if corn ethanol were to be the solution to our energy problem. But that is not a sufficient reason for stopping us from producing ethanol, even from corn. The advantage of ethanol is that it can be produced from a variety of organic materials.

Grain stocks, such as corn, are not best suited for making ethanol from (wheat is even worse), but corn is what we have available for now, and we have always made alcohol from corn surplus. Until a couple of decades or so, most of the grain ethanol we produced was used for making beverages, in the pharmaceutical industry, and in many other industrial or domestic products. For those applications, the cost of producing ethanol is not as crucial as in its present application as a gasoline substitute.

Perhaps, Pimentel could have been right in saying that the cost of making corn ethanol by the conventional way (pre-1980) would be just as expensive as the starting material and the energy used (oil); therefore, we might as well use the oil to produce gasoline instead of bothering with making ethanol. But what Pimentel did not take into consideration were several factors, which somewhat offset his calculations: (1) we are constantly making progress in more efficient ways for making corn ethanol and reducing air pollution; (2) yields of corn/acre are increasing; (3) we employ domestic labor; (4) the cost for making gasoline from oil includes energy balance that is constantly increasing, such as: (A) transporting oil to terminals, (B) shipping oil to refinery, (C) refinery cost, including reformulated gasoline according to each state or regional requirements, (D) transporting gasoline to distribution centers, these among others. According to Michael Wang of Argonne National Laboratory, the energy used for each unit of ethanol has been reduced by about half.

One of the costs of ethanol in disadvantage over that of gasoline is transportation. Gasoline is transported by pipeline, ethanol by truck or by rail. The reason adduced is water by condensation in the pipelines. Water is insoluble in gasoline, in ethanol is most certainly soluble. I am no pipeline expert, therefore, I cannot argue this point properly with the oil companies, or their pipeline-companies affiliate. But maybe it is a valid point to look into it by some independent experts in this matter. My contention is, assuming that the amount of water incorporated in ethanol during pipeline transportation would be above the tolerance limit (1%), then why not run through the pipeline a certain amount of methanol prior to running ethanol. Water can easily be removed from methanol, which can then be used again. A better way, perhaps, is to run the ethanol through a dehydrating column at the other end of the pipeline. It is certainly worthwhile considering a feasible possibility to use pipeline for ethanol, due to the considerable difference in transportation cost.

But the most important factor is that corn gets us started in our quest for reducing our dependence on foreign oil. Undoubtedly, we need cheaper and more abundant renewable materials, and efficient methods for making ethanol therefrom, but we are actively working on them. Commercial application for cellulose-based ethanol from abundant feedstock, such as switchgrass and wood residue, may be available in a not-too-distant future.

I don’t think we’re placing the cart before the horse (again the proverbial horse). Waiting for developing a cellulose technology before establishing the necessary infrastructure is wasting precious time. The oil crisis is upon us. In the worse scenario, we would depend on ethanol imports to complement our own production. We would then still dependent on imports, but at least not from oil from unstable countries that support terrorism. The idea is to establish from the beginning the necessary infrastructure for the distribution of E85 nationwide. The presence of E85 pumps should be maintained nationwide, not just in the Corn Belt. As our technology progresses and we produce more ethanol, we increase the number of these pumps.

But E85 should be made available nationwide right from the beginning, so that people participate in our effort to become independent from foreign oil. Hence, we need to import as much ethanol as we can at the expense of the oil imported. We must reassure farmers that the amount of ethanol imported will not compete with what they produce. When ethanol from switchgrass or other cellulose material can be commercially made, farmers would then be encouraged to grow and harvest these products. More efficient processes are mushrooming everyday. There are already pilot plants in existence producing ethanol from these new materials. It’s just a matter of time before we reach a commercial stage. Ethanol may not be the answer for the long run, but it is the most practical solution at the present, and it’s going to stay with us for a while.