The fuel of the future in context


By Bill Kovarik

The grain ethanol industry has always been controversial.

In the early 21st century, critics point out that the ethanol industry won’t avert climate disaster since it has only a moderately positive net energy balance (or carbon footprint).

Fair enough. This may be true for now, although second generation biofuels actually do hold that promise.

But it’s important to understand the historical context:   The corn ethanol industry was  not originally created as a way to shift to low-carbon fuels two centuries ago.

The original ethanol industry provided the main ingredient for the lamp fuel industry in the decades before  kerosene.  This fuel – camphene – was taxed out of existence in the US during the 1860s, but returned with the backing of Henry Ford and Teddy Roosevelt in 1906.

When geologists said oil was  running out just after World War I, ethanol was seen as one important answer.  When engines needed better fuels in the 1920s, ethanol was seen as superior to tetra-ethyl-lead (“leaded gasoline”) octante boosters.  When farmers needed new markets in the 1930s, ethanol was billed as a way to avoid farm relief. And when the Arabs cut off oil supplies to the US in the 1970s, an ethanol industry was built to provide emergency fuel supplies.

But the most important factor in the development of the large modern ethanol industry was the need for an octane boosting additive for gasoline. It is   far cleaner and safer than what we had before — leaded gasoline and benzene.

This need for a non-toxic octane booster was clear from the early days of the automobile, and people once hoped that high octane alcohol fuel would mean engines that were so much more efficient they would hardly need fillups (as this 1926 cartoon demonstrates).

Ethanol blends vs leaded gasoline

Although ethanol has been seen as a petroleum alternative for 150 years, there was a time (between 1926 and 1976) when nearly all gasoline was sold with three to four grams of lead per gallon.  “Leaded gasoline” is still being phased out in different parts of the world.

When TEL was introduced, the oil, chemical and automotive industries were repeatedly warned by scientists at the world’s leading universities (Yale, Harvard, and others) that this historically well known poison was extremely hazardous to public health, but they undermined independent research and adamantly refused to admit the damage they were causing. They even claimed there were no alternatives.

Secret US government tests conducted in 1933 showed that 3 grams of tetra ethyl lead were almost as good at boosting octane, given the same engines and same base gasoline, as 15 percent ethanol.  But these tests were never made public, and leaded gasoline dominated the market — with catastrophic effect on public health.

The technical excuse for phasing out leaded gasoline came in the 1970s, when cars with catalytic converters came on the market and leaded gasoline had to be phased out. The public health reasons for phasing out leaded gasoline had long been forgotten, but had re-emerged. The oil industry chose benzene (and benzene-related compounds) to replace lead, but benzene is highly carcinogenic.

Then in 1990, Congress and the Bush administration got together on the Clean Air Act. Two new fuel additives would be encouraged — MTBE, which the oil industry said was perfectly safe, and ethanol, which the oil industry didnt like but admitted was perfect safe.

As it turned out, MTBE was a very serious contaminant in water systems, and today many billions of dollars are being spent cleaning up after the MTBE mistake.

Which left ethanol, the last non-toxic, non-carcinogenic octane booster. Yes, it is somewhat more volatile, which means that the other toxic components of gasoline can be released at higher levels. But on balance, this is a minor problem in comparison to the toxic nature of other octane boosters.

Food or fuel?

One other issue that comes up constantly is that we should not be taking food from the starving children of the world and feeding it to the Cadillacs.

Who could disagree ?  Starvation in the world is a great evil, and it should be fought. Doesnt ethanol from grain make the problem worse? The answer is complicated, and the ethanol industry has never wanted to admit that its critics have a point.

Ethanol is made from the starch in grain, not the protein. The leftover distillers dried grains (DDGs) are used for human and livestock feed, just as the corn would have been if the starch had not been extracted. There is more protein in DDGs per pound than in corn. And most US grain is fed to livestock in a system that has plenty of environmental problems that have nothing to do with ethanol. So on one level, ethanol gets a pass.

In a larger sense, the critics are right — It is not a good idea for energy to compete with food in the marketplace, and there is a case to be made for some legal restraints to be built into the system.

But right now, ethanol is being made from the same grain that is eventually fed to livestock, its just that when the cows and chickens and pigs get the DDGs, there is a little less starch in the mix.

No children are actually starving today because of ethanol. Its something that might happen if the corn ethanol industry continues to grow or goes badly off track.

Replacing petroleum ?

Ethanol from grain was never intended to be a complete substitute for petroleum, a goal that everyone knew from the beginning (the 1920s and earlier) would have required more sustainable systems. It was only intended to be a blending component for gasoline.

It also had some national security benefits, in that it could be produced quickly from local resources in an emergency.

American farmers developed ethanol for their communities and their country at a time of crisis, and they deserve to be understood rather than undermined.

Most critics of the ethanol industry are very well intentioned; they have the right yardsticks. They are concerned about the poor, and about energy independence, and about the climate.

But they are measuring the wrong thing. They want to know why the grain ethanol industry doesnt measure up to high standards of sustainability. But that’s not why the grain ethanol industry was created.

Low-carbon energy sources that preserve biodiversity and enhance long term food security for the poor — these are the goals to keep in mind.   They were not the original goals for the ethanol industry, and they need to be seen as relatively new requirements that will take time. We have only recently elevated our vision — It takes time to elevate an industry.

So the question is this: If we do away with the modern grain ethanol industry, will we have to go back to lead and benzene in our gasoline? Will we allow the oil industry to use MTBE or MMT other toxic additives? What is the alternative to ethanol as an octane booster?

Critics can say the ethanol industry has rested on its laurels too long, has been too profitable at taxpayer expense and has not delivered on second generation biofuels as it should have.  That’s reasonable. But if we want to talk about environmental catastrophe, think about returning to benzene or leaded gasoline octane boosters.

We tend to think of modern problems as stemming from older technologies, but often forget that the older technologies were sometimes developed to address problems that were even older.

Yes,  need to keep looking down the road into the future; but once in a while, we need to glance in the rear view mirror.

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