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Posted on  

January 21, 2004

Studies refute misconceptions about ethanol

It always amazes Mark Lambert what people think of corn-based ethanol fuel, especially a decades-old misconception the Illinois Corn Growers Association communications director says just won't go away.

A recent letter to the editor pointed to the very subject. It goes something like this: "Ethanol takes more energy to produce than it provides as fuel. So, we're still using more petroleum in the end."

No way, says Lambert. He points to a 1997 Argonne National Laboratory study that traced energy costs involved in corn planting all the way to a car's gas tank. Ethanol, the scientists said, provides 35 percent more energy than it takes to produce the fuel.

Two more studies completed in 2002 take into account continued advances in energy-efficient technology used to make corn into ethanol. They also document reduced applications of nitrogen fertilizer, pesticides and fuel that have resulted from improved farming practices, such as no-till methods.

A Colorado School of Mines study completed in August 2002 provided detailed energy use figures. It showed total fossil fuel input needed to grow corn as one-third of the total energy needed to produce ethanol, or about 19,625 British thermal units per gallon.

Researchers put corn transportation energy use at 1,757 Btu. Production requires the biggest energy output at 47,937 Btu, with distribution costs at about 1,233 Btu. Figure in an ethanol co-product credit for corn oil, corn gluten feed and distiller's dried grains at 12,880 Btu for a total energy use of 57,671 Btu per gallon. Every bushel of corn generates 2.8 gallons of ethanol fuel.

Energy produced per gallon of ethanol amounts to 76,000 Btu, according to the Colorado study. That means a net energy benefit of 18,329 Btu per gallon for ethanol. It translates into an energy output/input ratio of 1.32.

The study further noted that each barrel of ethanol replaces more than half a barrel of crude oil. Put another way, the ethanol produced adds 214,000 barrels of gasoline per day to the U.S. supply.

U.S. Department of Agriculture economists also completed a study in August 2002 that said nitrogen fertilizer use on farms has dropped from 140 pounds per acre in 1985 to 132 pounds per acre in 2000. The study cited a reduction in processing energy needed to produce a gallon of ethanol -- 120,000 Btu in 1981 to 43,000 Btu 10 years later.

After subtracting credits for ethanol co-products, ethanol comes out ahead in terms of energy use by 21,105 Btu per gallon, according to the USDA study. In other words, it said corn ethanol is energy efficient based on an energy output/input ratio of 1.34.

Given all the latest scientific facts, why does the idea persist that ethanol gobbles energy? Lambert said he's never really fully understood the phenomenon. But he thinks it's because some people rely on outdated information. He also believes it's easy to sell negative information.

"The national energy bill would mandate that we use 5 billion gallons of ethanol by 2012," said Lambert of pending federal legislation. "We can reach that goal without the bill. We're already producing 3.2 billion gallons."

The nation's top ethanol producers are all located in Central Illinois -- Archer Daniel Midland in Decatur and Peoria and Aventine Energy and Midwest Grain Processors in Pekin.

Pantagraph Farm Editor Chris Anderson writes about agriculture every Wednesday. Contact Anderson at canderson@pantagraph.com.


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