Alcohol Can Be a Gas, Part 1

pm78_150.jpgThe first automobile fuel was alcohol, which could be produced by most farms. Permaculturist David Blume discusses the history, production and properties of alcohol. He notes that plants are more efficient in producing sugars (used for alcohol) than oils (biodiesel). If corn were first fermented, its starch could be used for alcohol and the remainder fed to cattle — far more efficient for food, fuel and land use. []


  1. I truly believe that engines that use alternative fuels like E85 are here to stay and for hot rod guys such as myself, it is nice to be able to get 105 octane fuel at the pump.

  2. Great article, but I like alcohol to much to try your ideas out,hick!

  3. Stuart M. says:

    I just found this critique by Robert Zubrin of the book “Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of Energy Independence.” The book was recently widely quoted in editorial pages around the world, saying basically there is no way we can become energy independent.

    The book’s author Robert Bryce (turns out he is a big fan of Saudi Arabia) has unkind words for ethanol, repeats the usual lies that ethanol production requires great quantities of water and cites (again) the discredited Pimintel study that claims more energy is required to produce ethanol than ends up in ethanol.

    But the most interesting paragraph in Zubrin’s critique is this one:

    “Having thus argued that no one should want to be free of oil-cartel domination, Bryce launches an extended attack on corn ethanol. This is understandable. The 8 billion gallons of ethanol the U.S. produced in 2007 (at a cost to taxpayers of $4 billion in blender subsidies) cost OPEC $20 billion in revenues from reduced American oil-sales volume. Worse yet, in combination with Brazilian and other foreign biofuel efforts, the ethanol program has been responsible for cutting global oil prices by $13 per barrel compared to what they would otherwise be, according to Merrill Lynch analysis published in the Wall Street Journal in March. Now that’s a serious matter. As a result of this $13 per barrel price erosion, biofuels cost the cartel $170 billion in global revenues this year, with $65 billion in potential collections lost in the U.S. alone. No wonder that Bryce (along with other OPEC spokesmen such as Hugo Chavez and the Saudi oil minister) is upset. And if you don’t like the fact that $85 billion of your money is not going to OPEC, then you should be upset about the ethanol program, too.”

    The latest June 2008 Merrill Lynch report, while repeating the mantra that biofuels are causing higher world food prices, says biofuels are THE ONLY new fuels coming on line right now as oil production declines and are responsible for reducing the price of a barrel of oil by $21!

    See the whole book review here:

    See the June 2008 Merrill Lynch Report:

  4. Stuart M. says:

    Dear Dave,

    Sorry I got your name wrong! Thank you for your response. You are very reassuring and I hope biodiesel and ethanol can live up to our hopes. Maybe someone should talk the Cubans into going back into sugar cane production! Oh, you mentioned in the interview that car engines specifically designed for ethanol would use it far more efficiently than “flex-fuel” engines. Is there any progress on this front?

  5. Good questions.

    First of all domestic oil only produces less than 30% of our fuel now and is expected to decline at 8% per year so in just a few years it will be producing only 15% of our fuel. On the other hand biofuels are expected to replace far more than the 25% represented by corn and biodiesel as we shift to coventional crops like sugar beets, sweet sorghum and some more exotic crops than can yield up to 5 times the yield of corn.

    You are perceptive that the energy balance question makes it obvious that you could use alcohol to replace all the process energy in making corn even in Piementel’s severely flawed study. But alcohol is too valuable for that and other less valuable energy sources should be used. Today they use coal and natural gas but other countries and soon our country will use methane (real natural gas) produced from distillery by products or biomass boilers running on crop waste like they do in Brazil. So the energy return on FOSSIL FUEL energy invested is actually 8.3:1 in Brazil and India since they don’t waste fossil fuels in making alcohol.

    Pimentel’s study is flawed in numerous ways which I detail in my book and corn’s energy return should be calculated in the range of 5:1 when properly attributing the energy to various byproducts not just putting everything against alcohol and correcting the energy inputs used by Pimentel which in several cases turns out to be 1000 times too high.


  6. Stuart M. says:

    I found this research abstract at:

    The researchers attack the original study from 2005 by Prof. Pimentel which said 1.7 units of petroleum must be used to produce 1 unit of ethanol. This study maintains the ratio is .13 units of petroleum per 1 unit of ethanol.

    Beside the question of whom do we believe, I have another: why can’t that .13 unit of petroleum be replaced by ethanol? The above study’s authors make no comment on the extent to which ethanol can replace petroleum consumption in America. Another study I found by some Purdue professors said biodiesel plus ethanol together can only replace 25% of projected gasoline consumption.

    I think 25% is pretty good. I would hope that would be enough to run farm machinery and public transportation on, but private cars would have to be electric.

  7. Stuart M. says:

    Okay, now I’m confused! I listened to the Conversation (#70) on biodiesel with Russ Teall who said we can maybe replace 5% of the petroleum-derived diesel with biodiesel. I found some relief in this, because I thought, well, at least we might be able to power agricultural machinery with such a small amount.

    Now David Bloom is telling us that ethanol is the miracle cure for all our gasoline needs! We can keep our cars and run them on ethanol! I enjoyed his many explanations and he sounds like a reasonable man. But I am left scratching my head. Who is right, the chorus of naysayers who say ethanol is a waste of food and petroleum energy or David Bloom and the corngrower’s lobby who say ethanol is the miracle cure for Peak Oil?

    Should I panic or should I buy stock in Archer Daniels Midland?

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