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Earth Biotech Politics

Biofuels From Corn Can Create More Greenhouse Gases Than Gasoline 159

Posted by timothy
from the as-long-as-it-looks-good dept.
New submitter Chipmunk100 (3619141) writes "Using corn crop residue to make ethanol and other biofuels reduces soil carbon and can generate more greenhouse gases than gasoline, according to a study published today in the journal Nature Climate Change. The findings by a University of Nebraska-Lincoln team of researchers cast doubt on whether corn residue can be used to meet federal mandates to ramp up ethanol production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions."
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Biofuels From Corn Can Create More Greenhouse Gases Than Gasoline

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  • Surely it's still carbon neutral, given it's from already-present carbon grown from air in the first place (like all plants)?

    • by reve_etrange (2377702) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @07:34PM (#46802033)

      Surely it's still carbon neutral[?]

      We use tons of petrochemicals to grow corn.

    • by Charliemopps (1157495) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @07:34PM (#46802039)

      It's taking a lot of the carbon from the soil instead of the air... so no. Also, consider all the gasoline used to plant/harvest/transport it. Ethanol is a corn-state boondoggle. It drives up corn prices and brings in massive revenue to the midwest. Ethanol support is critical for any politician that wants to win in states like Iowa. When you hear a 60yr old farmer start talking about "green energy" you know he grows corn.

      • Ethanol support is critical for any politician that wants to win in states like Iowa.

        Now if we could just push back the date of the Iowa Caucuses . . .

      • The only thing that runs on gasoline now are the Gators [deere.com]; everything else is diesel, even the pickup trucks.

      • It's taking a lot of the carbon from the soil instead of the air... so no. Also, consider all the gasoline used to plant/harvest/transport it. Ethanol is a corn-state boondoggle. It drives up corn prices and brings in massive revenue to the midwest. Ethanol support is critical for any politician that wants to win in states like Iowa. When you hear a 60yr old farmer start talking about "green energy" you know he grows corn.

        But the vast majority of the carbon in corn comes from the air, not the soil! It might surprise you to learn that most of the bulk of a huge tree, for example, was produced from the air, not the ground. The ground supplies trace minerals and water, and little else.

        Another real problem with ethanol is that it is a low energy density fuel, compared to gasoline. So beyond a certain small percentage, it actually reduces the efficiency of your vehicle and causes it to burn MORE gasoline per mile, rather than

      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        It's taking a lot of the carbon from the soil instead of the air... so no.

        Virtually none of the carbon plants are made of comes from the soil. What most plants take from the soil is nitrogen and micronutrients. Some plants, however, actually put nitrogen into the soil. Sadly, instead of planting crops in guilds, we opted for gross machine cultivation which not only demands planting massive monocultures but which also requires using varieties bred for machine harvestability rather than optimal nutrition, flavor, or texture. It also attracts pests while failing to attract their nat

    • by caseih (160668) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @08:08PM (#46802189)

      No it's not that simple. Plants require nutrients from the soil, which have to be replenished each year[1] partly by natural in-soil processes that break down residue from previous crops, but mostly from the application of synthetic fertilizer, which is synthesized using a process that burn natural gas. See the wikipedia article on the Haber Process [wikipedia.org].

      Also there are fossil fuels used in the planting, cultivation, harvest, and irrigation of the crop.

      If corn could fix its own nitrogen like legumes do, it might be a lot closer to carbon neutral.

      [1] In many parts of the world, including the Brazillian rainforest, farmers are actively "mining" nutrients from the soil. The soil left from burning the rainforest is extremely rich in nutrients, allowing intensive farming for a few years. After a while, though, the soil is depleted of nutrients and organic matter and yields drop. Sadly many farms just burn down more forest. Some methods of farming, including zero-till, try to foster natural soil processes to produce more nitrogen in natural ways, reducing synthetic inputs.

    • Most of he carbon from corn normally gets recycled back into the soil via whatever eats it, burning it puts all the carbon into the atmosphere.
      • by s_p_oneil (795792)

        I don't think that's true unless its waste and/or corpse gets buried deeply enough that bacteria can't cause it to decompose. When bacteria eats plants/animals/organic waste, it releases a lot of CO2 back into the atmosphere.

  • It is brain-dead stupid!

    How much of the total plant bio-mass are you processing to start with when you are dealing with corn? 2%? 3%? (That is until you get to
    the actual fuel, which is much less than that.) When you do Biofuels from farming monoculture the proper way (if such a thing is possible at all), like from sugar-cane, where maybe 30-50% of the biomass is the part to be processed into biofuel, you may be getting some improvement over oil status-quo. With algae you maybe can achieve 100% of the biomass to start processing, sounds even nicer.

    But from Corn? It is so stupid, it does not even deserve a proper adjective. It is even stupid to waste time making "studies" on it.

    Trying to do it is only about corn super-production, hype, and abuse of government subsidies to plant corn, all mixed with a large, big
    dose of the reverse of common sense.

    • Re: (Score:2, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      Imagine a beofuels cluster of these

      • by Mashiki (184564)

        Sounds like a crate full of stupid my friend. Imagine how many people could be fed from that corn? Well as long as the environmentalists didn't throw a hissy fit over it and try claiming it was poisonous or something.

        • by Richy_T (111409)

          Corn is a shitty food. Better food could be grown in its place though.

          • by Mashiki (184564)

            Corn is a shitty food. Better food could be grown in its place though.

            That's nice to say when you have plenty to eat.

            • by Richy_T (111409)

              Corn is high in starch, low in nutrition. We can do better.

    • by MtHuurne (602934)

      How much of the total plant bio-mass are you processing to start with when you are dealing with corn? 2%? 3%?

      This research was about making biofuel from cellulose, which means that stems, leaves etc are used as well. But apparently even that is not sustainable because corn takes a lot of its carbon from the soil instead of from the air.

    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by frovingslosh (582462)
      They claim that ethanol has 3% less energy than gasoline. But I have measured that I get AT LEAST 10% less millage in my 2013 Mazda on gasoline diluted with alcohol than I do with pure gasoline. What that means for me is that I effectively get ZERO energy from the alcohol mixed with my gas. I would be better off just buying the 90% gas and letting them keep the 10% alcohol, at least that way I wouldn't have to haul around the useless alcohol and/or I would have more space for gas in the tank. When I can fin
      • I have had a 265mile per tank vs 300 mile per tank difference between 10% ethanol vs 0% ethanol on three occasions. I've never gotten 300 miles per tank on 10% ethanol.

        So -- for a 2010 Honda Element, my experience is the same as yours.

      • by pepty (1976012)

        But I have measured that I get AT LEAST 10% less millage in my 2013 Mazda on gasoline diluted with alcohol than I do with pure gasoline.

        Assuming that's true: is it likely to be due to the way the ECU and the emissions system treat the ethanol/fuel mix? Lots of cars are optimized for lowest production of NOx, carbon monoxide, etc, as opposed to highest efficiency. Just an example: the PZEV version of my Mazda gets 10% less HP and torque than the same car with the then standard (non California) emissions package.

      • But I have measured that I get AT LEAST 10% less millage in my 2013 Mazda on gasoline diluted with alcohol than I do with pure gasoline.

        So where did you get the "pure gasoline"?

        • by ganjadude (952775)
          there are stores you can get it at, usually near race tracks
        • duckduckgo for "real gasoline" or "pure gasoline" and you will find stations in your state that sell gasoline without ethanol.

          I recently started using ddg as well as google since google tailors the results and profiles me and sometimes I want to see a raw search result. (My other option would be to go to the library and use google there). The creepy bit is that their profile works whether I'm logged in or not.

        • Here you go..

          http://pure-gas.org/ [pure-gas.org]

          It's worth trying a tankful and seeing how your car performs.

      • by Ichijo (607641)

        Should we take ethanol out of gasoline and put MTBE back in? Discuss.

    • by ShakaUVM (157947) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @10:19PM (#46802619) Homepage Journal

      >It is brain-dead stupid!

      Only from a science perspective.

      Supporting corn ethanol is how candidates win primaries, so it makes perfect sense for our presidents to support it.

      >But from Corn? It is so stupid, it does not even deserve a proper adjective. It is even stupid to waste time making "studies" on it.

      If we're going to eliminate corn ethanol (which we should), it will require putting pressure on politicians from non-corn belt states. And to do so will require studies like these.

      Corn ethanol isn't good for the environment, and it drives food prices through the roof, both domestically and abroad.

      I highly recommend reading The Economics of Food for anyone interested in the subject.

  • by HangingChad (677530) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @07:37PM (#46802059) Homepage

    If they're counting the carbon to harvest the stalks, then the comparison for gasoline should include the carbon from oil extraction, transportation and refinement. The article also doesn't state if the carbon reduction from plant uptake is offsetting the carbon emissions of burning biofuels. Sounds like they're saying, look at the carbon you get from burning ethanol, add in the diesel to run the tractor, worse than gasoline!

    I remember a study by the airline industry trying to claim air transportation was more efficient than high speed trains. This study reminds me of that kind of science.

    • by manu0601 (2221348)

      I was asking myself the same question: do they really consider that gasoline comes for free from the oil wheel to the car?

      Someone will need to read the academic paper to tell us

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I found the article confusing as well, but here is what I've come up with. I don't think they are talking about any indirect carbon emissions due to say, running the tractors or fertilizer. So the study doesn't address total life cycle carbon costs of ethanol or gas. (It does address it, but just uses standard previously compiled models). It's main focus is to study how much CO2 the soil will give off after the corn plant leftovers are removed from the field. Literally, the soil has carbon trapped in it

  • So what? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kohath (38547) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @07:43PM (#46802083)

    Biofuels are about government subsidies and nothing more. All the talk about biofuels and the environment is just to trick the rubes.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Biofuels are about government subsidies and nothing more.

      That is bullshit. Biodiesel or green diesel from waste fats are pure benefit, as are biofuels from algae. Unfortunately, the best of them (Butanol) is being suppressed by BP and DuPont until such a time as they can control it completely. If that's never, so be it, to them.

      • by sjbe (173966)

        Biodiesel or green diesel from waste fats are pure benefit, as are biofuels from algae.

        Most biodiesel is essentially a by-product [wikipedia.org]. It's a nice way to reduce waste and arguably worth doing but let's not pretend that there is enough to go around to really make a big dent in oil consumption overall. And NOTHING is "pure benefit". There are drawbacks to everything. Diesel isn't the cleanest burning fuel available and it has all the problems you get from any form of fossil fuel when it comes to pollution. Good? Yes. "Pure benefit"? Not remotely.

        There is close to no industrial scale product

  • That study doesn't apply if the whole plant [wikipedia.org] is harvested rather than harvesting the Corn stover (leftovers) in a separate process. Seem to be yet another study that damns renewable fuels with faint praise, I wonder who financed such a study.
  • Switch Grass (Score:5, Insightful)

    by David_Hart (1184661) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @07:51PM (#46802133)

    Anyone who knows anything about Ethanol knows that the two best sources are sugar cane and switch grass. Switch grass should be the choice for North America as it can grow just about anywhere. Corn, on the other hand, takes up valuable farm land, requires more water, and has higher production costs. Ethanol from corn is a nothing but a scam perpetrated by the corn industry. Believe this study or not, but there are much better options than corn...

    http://www.scientificamerican.... [scientificamerican.com]

    • by Noishkel (3464121)
      Yeah Howard Bloom is a pretty serious mouth piece for ethanol. He suggests using any number of other materials to make the stuff. And I do actually agree with that part of his platform. Just think he's kind over stating what it can do. Well that it eats old seals.... I can't afford a new car.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Anyone who knows anything about Ethanol knows that the two best sources are sugar cane and switch grass.

      'Best' how? Both of those are still soil-based crops. Algae is better because you can grow it on dirty water in most weather conditions above freezing, and it takes less processing than basically any other bio feedstock but shit.

  • Why has the US pursued corn biofuels? I thought it was to reduce dependence on imports, not to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
    • Because corn farmers wanted higher corn prices. And everything else is window dressing to disguise the handout. It's well known that ethanol from sugar cane is the only "good" available source of ethanol.
      • by sjames (1099)

        That and the fact that the U.S. is a net exporter of fossil fuels leaked out.

  • This is what happens when you trust the Government to solve a problem. They make the problem worse, waste money, and to make matters even WORSE, they tell you to vote for them in the next election to fix the problems they caused in the first place. But sure, Government is the solution to all of our crisis in the future, and we should turn to our over-lords to solve that which ails us, because after all they are soooo darn good at it huh?
    • by currently_awake (1248758) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @10:13PM (#46802599)
      Governments are fully able to solve difficult problems, see universal medicare, roads, sewers, city water. However governments only do what they are told to do, and if the voters only care about pork (and not success) then that's what you get. P.S. people who complain about government incompetence seem blind to corporate evils. The telco's basically run the NSA spying program, but nobody is complaining about anything but the NSA.
      • by drinkypoo (153816)

        The telco's basically run the NSA spying program, but nobody is complaining about anything but the NSA.

        Telcos cannot function without the capability to run a telephone spying program, at least the listening-in part. And that's all they provide, besides basic records which they need for billing and for diagnostics. The federal government itself operates the facilities which actually centralize and process the data. You may (or may not) have seen some articles go by here on slashdot about massive federal data centers for use by certain three-letter agencies.

  • Stop using Corn. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward

    Given the vastly superior alternatives to corn for this.

    Using Corn for this crap is about as smart as grinding up phone books for ink. Using corn for this is just asking for it to look bad.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Using food crops as fuel is immoral. Our ethanol program has made the price of food go up just not here but in countries whose people can ill afford to pay more for food. It needs to go away now. There is plenty of oil in the ground for a long time.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    Slashdot is becoming a corporatists plaything. Filled with tech naives who would die in the dark without electricity after an EMP. And wouldn't be able to thing of anything else but the present paradigm. What a sorry read that was. Oh, by the way, I did try to be equitable, generous, patient, tolerant. After having it pester me so persistently, now I, too, *Curse Beta*!

    Most of the corn grown in the US is used to feed cows. Cows (via their symbionts) eat the wood and protein. They pass most of the starches.

  • by Sarusa (104047) on Sunday April 20, 2014 @10:53PM (#46802753)

    Corn (maize) is one of the worst possible plant masses you could grow to make biofuel. It's horribly inefficient compared to other crops.

    We've always known this. And it drives up the price of food. Globally.

    Why are we still using corn to make ethanol? Farm lobby.

  • Go ask any mechanic who deals with vehicles that run on Biofuels such as BioDiesel, Green diesel, Bioethanol or >10% blends and you will find that they often clog up the injectors so badly that they need to be replaced (injector) 45% more frequently (adjusted % based on time injector was installed and comparing same brand part durability on the same vehicle until breakage).

    That may not seem like much to some, but for those running public transportation and school buses, the political "go green" machine

    • by Noishkel (3464121)
      Yeah I've noticed that myself. Sure ethanol does 'clean' engines. But it also eats seals and gaskets. And sure, that's not that much of a problem in brand new cars... but if you're still banging around in something from the 80s or 90s you can expect more repairs. If not having to replace or rebuild the whole engine.
    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Go ask any mechanic who deals with vehicles that run on Biofuels such as BioDiesel, Green diesel, Bioethanol or >10% blends and you will find that they often clog up the injectors so badly that they need to be replaced (injector) 45% more frequently

      Uh what? Biodiesel and green diesel remove varnish left behind by petrodiesel. Ethanol sucks because it attracts water and because you get poor output when you run it through an engine which also expects to run on gasoline. Running veg oil will certainly clog things up, though, or waste motor oil.

      In any case, the cure for deposits from running one or the other kind of diesel (petro or bio) is to occasionally run a tank of the other. Problem solved.

      • by kolbe (320366)

        The viscosity caused by those fuels are not meant to be handled by most engines for any long duration, period. Anyone running >10% blend over long periods is asking for trouble. If you do not believe me, go run some 50/50 "WMO" mix for 10k miles and check how many of your injectors are clogged, gaskets ruined and seals leaking. Engines in todays vehicles are still not ready to handle it.

  • Since the energy required to produce corn ethanol is nearly equal or sometimes greater than the energy gained as fuel, corn sucks. It should be obvious that you are going to produce more emissions with corn. Even when the tarsands require large amounts of refining, that tarsand oil will be used to produce corn ethanol. Oil is used today in corn agriculture and production of ethanol. Corn as a biofuel is an odd stop-gap. If we have to use subsidies, why not encourage farmers to make some other crop that tran

  • If farmers were not forced to destroy their alcohol stills in the early days of Prohibition we would have known long ago about the viability of biofuels. Almost a century ago farmers would make ethanol for use as a fuel to run tractors. No doubt they'd also drink some of it, or sell some of it for others to drink. Prohibition destroyed the hobbyist experimentation of ethanol as a fuel. It made any use of ethanol a legal nightmare.

    When Prohibition was lifted it didn't improve things much. Ethanol produc

  • The only real winner from corn ethanol is giant agribusiness companies who produce the GM corn seeds, sell the massive amount of chemicals the corn requires and makes ethanol from the result. It does nothing to reduce green house gas emissions. It does nothing to reduce the dependance on foreign oil (especially given all the oil-derived products required to grown that corn including the diesel for the tractors and harvesters). And it probably doesn't put all that much extra money in the pockets of small cor

  • I remember reading this argument like 10 years ago. I don't know if it is true, but it seems reasonable... all things being equal, it would take a lot more work to get a diesel fuel out of corn than crude oil.

    But the true stupidity in using corn for fuel is using food as fuel. That just pushes food costs higher. Consider that there are a lot of other cleaner ways to make bio-diesel that don't compete with the food supply, it is hard to pin this study on the oil companies. Corn for bio-diesel is just mor

  • by jcr (53032) <jcr@nOspAm.mac.com> on Monday April 21, 2014 @05:02AM (#46803663) Journal

    The only purpose of the whole corn ethanol debacle is to transfer vast amounts of money from the taxpayers and the gasoline-buying public to Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland. Any other claimed purpose is, and always was, bullshit.

    -jcr

  • Corn's incredibly harsh on the soil. It annually needs a lot of fertilizer (that is, modern corn). Biofuels - pretty much everyone before the corn lobby got into it was talking lots of other, easy, fast-growing *weeds*, like switchgrass comes to mind. No fertilizer, etc... I mean, it's a *weed*.

    But agribusiness industry (petrochemicals into fertilzer, for example) aren't interested in *that*....

                    mark

The unfacts, did we have them, are too imprecisely few to warrant our certitude.

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