Corn Ethanol Worse Than Gasoline, But Biomass OK

  by  |  February 6th, 2009  |  Published in All, Featured, Uncategorized

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It was known that producing biofuels from corn is no more efficient than producing gasoline. But now new research indicates that corn ethanol is also more harmful to human health and the environment. The silver lining: The researchers found that biofuels from non-food sources are significantly less harmful to people and the planet.

[If you cannot see the flash video below, you can click here for a high quality mp4 video.]

Interviewee: David Tillman, Ecologist
Produced by Joyce Gramza– Edited by Chris
Bergendorff Copyright © ScienCentral, Inc

Corn Ethanol Climate and Health Costs

Producing biofuels from corn is at least as costly as gasoline in terms of harm to human health and contributions to climate change. But biofuels from non-food sources of biomass have even more health and environmental advantages than previously thought.

Those are the conclusions of new research published by award-winning ecologist
David Tillman, economist Jason Hill and colleagues in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The researchers calculated and compared these costs for gasoline, ethanol from corn, and cellulosic ethanol from biomass like switchgrass over their entire life cycles, from oil extraction or crop cultivation to refining to transportation and combustion.

The main cost to human health that they looked at was fine particulates, a particularly deadly form of air pollution. Contributions to climate change were based on greenhouse gas emissions of each type of fuel.

They found that the total climate-change and health costs of corn-based ethanol range from $1.24 to $1.45 per gallon, compared to 71 cents per gallon for gasoline. But this cost burden for cellulosic ethonol only totaled from 19 cents to 25 cents per gallon.

Because of these cost differences, "A shift from gasoline to cellulosic ethanol has greater advantages than previously recognized," the authors write.

In 2006, the group showed that producing ethanol from food crops is not only less efficient than cellulosic ethanol, but also that there is not enough agricultural land to meet our needs for both food and fuel.

The main reasons that corn-based ethanol has so much higher environmental and human health impacts than cellulosic alternatives are its higher fertilizer requirements and lower biomass yields.

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  1. Joy Towles Ezell says:

    February 7th, 2009 at 12:09 pm (#)

    When it comes to making fuel from biomass, he told me, “I wish that it did work. But I’m a scientist first and an agriculturalist second.”
    “Total environmental and health costs of gasoline are about 71 cents per gallon, while an equivalent amount of corn-ethanol fuel costs from 72 cents to about $1.45, depending on the technology used to produce it,” said the university. Stephen Polasky, a professor in the university’s applied economics department, said that “These costs are not paid for by those who produce, sell and buy gasoline or ethanol. The public pays these costs.”
    David Pimentel said that “he continues to be amazed that Congress still supports the idea of corn ethanol. He is equally dismissive of the concept of cellulosic ethanol, a substance which, in theory, can profitably produce motor fuel from switchgrass, corn stubble, or other biomass. Although promoters have been pushing cellulosic ethanol for decades – and it is now being pushed hard by the Democrats on Capitol Hill — Pimentel’s latest report estimates that the energy return on energy invested in cellulosic ethanol is minus 68 percent. (Pimentel puts the EROEI on corn ethanol at a negative 46 percent. Some of the most-widely cited reports on corn ethanol, particularly those done by the US Department of Agriculture show that corn ethanol has a slightly positive EROEI.) “It’s absolutely ridiculous,” says Pimentel. Congress and others who are promoting the idea “haven’t even done the most basic calculations about what it would mean to make cellulosic ethanol.”

    Robert Bryce is the author of Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of “Energy Independence.”

  2. Brainjack says:

    February 8th, 2009 at 6:32 pm (#)

    Ecology, the last frontier.

  3. paco says:

    February 10th, 2009 at 8:20 pm (#)

    y is it that every one is still looking to converting items like oil and corn and other items into fuel. y cant we just use the solar technology we have to make things run and have power that we love so much. i may be wrong on this but every one is yelling and screaming and crying about the atmosphere and how we are killing the enviroment with pollution when we already have a great alternative to it. or maby it is the minerals it takes to make these solar converting products. and y are people not looking at the negative effects of deforestation in other parts of the world such as africa and other places this also changes the direct enviornment making / causing a big impact on the weather in other parts of the world does it not?

    well i appreciate your time and effort in reading this email i really hope i get a response because it is something that has been bothering me for a long time. and i would like to share the answers with other curious people

    sincerely.. a concerned dweller of this planet.


  4. Joy Towles Ezell says:

    March 19th, 2009 at 8:32 pm (#)

    you are on the right track. No more burning anything is the answer.
    We should be maximizing the use of solar, wind where we can, geothermal, ocean current, tidal action energy…and conservation and efficiencies.

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