Ethanol vs gasoline (Hype or Real?)

Larger viewEthanol is all the rage these days. From major ad-campaigns from GM (Live Green, Go Yellow) to the almost ridiculous increase in investments and IPOs of ethanol producers, everybody seems to be discussing what to do with this new fuel. Is this really a renewable fuel (my answer: no!, it is certainly not sustainable), is this really going to solve our energy security problem (my answer: maybe), is it good for the environment (my answer: if at all, very slightly but will still contribute to global warming), or is this really a farmer/red state hype to get more subsidies and tax credits (my answer: there is definitely a lot of hype because of the midwest politics, tax subsidies and hedge fund investments).

I am not an energy expert by any stretch of imagination, but I do enjoy learning more about it, especially when it comes to new technologies and its potential business/environmental implications. I have spent some time looking into ethanol and if I was to make an elevator speech I would recommend proceeding cautiously on ethanol simply becaus eof the market forces that seem to have taken over (looking for short to medium term financial gains) and because the long term play would probably still require renewable energy sources. The only thing I can certainly say about ethanol is that if the complimentary bio-engineering technologies mature, it can certainly reduce dependence on fossil fuel without having a perverse impact on the greenhouse gas emissions (what happens to rainforests/farmland/food crops is still an open question, though).


The big debate about ethanol is if it takes more energy to produce ethanol than you get out of it. We all should know that for each gallon of ethanol, we will get about 20-30% less miles on the road when compared to a gallon of gasoline. However, the loss of miles traveled per fuel refill can be rectified by having bigger tanks on board (added weight may impact fuel economy a little more). But on the energy question, Vinod Khosla, a respected technology leader and venture capitalist, would argue that his analysis shows ethanol has a net positive of 15-50% more energy than ethanol per litre. In fact, he ssems to suggest that if sugarcane or technology for production of ethanol cellulosically is enabled, that net positive value can increase to 4x-8x the input energy. The attached plot from a study comparing 6 different assessments seems to suggest the same. Biggest critics of this claim, however, include serious researchers such as David Pimental of Cornell University, and Tad Patzek of Univ. of California Berkeley. They argue that based on total production costs (including enegy use dby refineries etc) it takes up to 70% more enegy to grow corn and produce ethanol than the amount of energy recovered from it. This serious claim deserves considerable attention since a net negative fuel source can hardly be considered an improvement – however it must be undestood that as technologies have improved, crop yields and ethanol per acre of crop have grown dramatically. and the energy to produce ethanol has gone down If cellulosic ethanol from crop varieties such as switchgrass become possible, these yields would only go up higher. For example, a paper published in Science by Berkeley team has calculated a Net Energy Value (Output energy – Input energy) for corn ethanol of 4.5 MJ/Liter and for cellulosic ethanol a Net Energy Value of 22.8 MJ/L.

So what do I like about ethanol: Well, at least its a recognition of the fact that people need to seriously start considering alternatives to fossil fuel. (a) ethanol has more bound oxygen and hence burns clean, (b) ethanol can be grown locally – and hence countries in the developing parts of the worls can have access to a fuel source. The growth of ethanol production in Brazil (upto 40% reduction in gasoline consumption) had much to do with regional politics of balancing power of Venezuela that had oil. (c) ethanol may be cheaper than gasoline, (d) ethanol is forcing the technology entrepreneurs to look into biofuels and efficient production processes. What do I not like: (a) ethanol is not a renewable and sustainable fuel source. (b) ethanol contibutes to global warming and criteria pollutants the same way as gasoline. (c) ethanol is heavily subsidized in the US, leading to a control over imports from developing countries. (d) Net energy content may be negative. (e) ethanol is driving attention away from cleaner technologies, such as hybrids, fuel-cells, solar, wind (e.g. Ford just pulled back from its committment to hybrids). (f) crop-farming for ethanol production using corn and sugarcane could be disastrous for the eco-systems if scaled unsustainably. Net: I would tend to be cautious in investing in large scale ethanol productions and would only encourage it to be used at smaller scales where it may be grown sustainably. Technology to further improve ethanol net energy content is much needed and shoul dbe funded. The Senate Energy Bill 2005 requires ethanol production to increase to 7.5 billion gallons per year within 10 years. If that is what Pres. Bush meant by getting rid of oil addiction, I don’t think he understands the non-neo-conservative angles of the issue at all.

A big proponent of E-85 ethanol fuel, and of converting 70% of all gasoline vehicles to ethanol-ready (also called Flex Fuel vehicles FFVs) is non other than the Silicon Valley giant Vinod Khosla. Vinod has given a lengthy presentation on this to major policy makers but here’s one of him giving it to the geek squad at Google.

1. Ethanol Can Contribute to Energy and Environmental Goals, Alexander E. Farrell, Richard J. Plevin, Brian T. Turner, Andrew D. Jones, Michael O’Hare, Daniel M. Kammen; Science (2006), 311, 506-508.
4. Kholsa Ventures and Biofuels presentation
5. Patzek, Tad W. “Thermodynamics of the Corn-Ethanol Biofuel Cycle.” Critical Reviews in Plant Sciences, 23(6):519-567. 2004. Updated, 24 February 2006. Accessed 11 May 2006.


34 Responses to Ethanol vs gasoline (Hype or Real?)

  1. […] See related posts here,  here, here, and here. […]

  2. […] I have written before on the ethanol craze (here, here, here, and here). I have acknowledged VC Vinod Khosla for his efforts to bring research dollars into alternative technologies, but I have also chided him for using inappropriate political tractics to armwrestle people into going along for a ride with him. The recent vote in Californiafor a tax on oil, called Proposition 87, is one example of such arm-wrestling goin gon. […]

  3. garyM says:

    this one post very good. i enjoy very much!

  4. lee cole says:

    The statement made that ethanol contributes to global warming is made as if global warming were a fact. Global warming is a lie created by the leftists to generate cash.
    But ethanol is not the answer to the fuel cost problem anyway. After all the thrashing around to find a new source of energy only one will emerge as a viable source and that is a hydrogen generator. Not bottled hydrogen but a true generator. Honda has one or two on the road in this country now evaluating it. But the automobile is not it’s only value. Hydrogen generators can also power your house. as usual U.S. makers will be twenty years behind the rest of the world in creating new technology but japan is about ready to make it happen. Let’s see if arabs can eat oil.

    • common sense says:

      lee cole: youre a dumb bitch. one united states political party does not have enough power to fake all of the scientific research and numbers done all over the world by an untold number of countries over the past 40 years or how ever long that they have been talking about this potential problem. how does that make sense to you?! did you ever get past the 4th grade? people like you are going to be the end of this world cause you cant tell your ass from a hole in the ground you stupid toothless drooling retard.

    • common sense says:

      and fuck you for saying the Arabs can eat oil. what kind of person is so ignorant?! what next? do you want the Australians to eat some boomerangs?! well gooday mate and fuck you very much. do you have any thing else to say about out fellow Arabic friends to the east? do you wish to call them towel heads? well fuck you for thinking about it! i hope they see this so they can give Alah a call and let him know that there is a slander spitting hill billy amongst us and he needs to send a few lightning bolts right into that hole in the ground that you forgot was your ass.

  5. […] readers here may start thinking that I have something against ethanol (for my other posts, see: here, here, here, here, and here). That is not true. While I do have questions on the net energy balance […]

  6. […] Clipping(s): biodiesel vs ethanol I have written in the past about the hype regarding ethanol (vs gasoline). A new study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (US) that studies […]

  7. TestName says:

    Test myfunction comment

  8. Ethanol Study says:

    ”However, we found that nationwide, E85 is likely to increase the annual number of asthma-related emergency room visits by 770 and the number of respiratory-related hospitalizations by 990,”
    Gasoline vs. Ethanol

  9. Nice blog you have here. On the topic of ethanol vs gasoline – there is no competition. Gasoline has more energy content and is more usable.

  10. I think the ethanol debate is over everywhere except Washington DC where they will continue the ethanol subsidy until we’re all paying $20 for a loaf of bread at the store. It’s maddening! I only use gasoline to power my cars and backup generator and I plan to keep it that way!

  11. Mr X says:

    Lee Cole… You’re an ID10T. In “youre” words, get an “educaition”!

  12. lonny kinser says:

    typical posts of hearsay and repeated sentences read “somewhere” actually do some research, get a workshop. I built a 11 to 1 high performance engine running 10 lbs of supercharger boost and 20 degrees extra advance and achieved an engine that gets better economy , better response , less nvh, better cooling, and a huge increase in horsepower. Oh and ots clean without any catalyst. This has been known for decades that alcohol is by far asuperior fuel in EVERY way. Dive into history and read. Bunch of sheep!

  13. Thank you for article, but I think we haven’t perspective with ethanol, until we have Gasoline.

  14. savannah says:

    umm im doing a science fair project on this if anyonne has any ideas helpppppp meeeeeeeeee

  15. nate sanders says:

    1 gallon gas-125,000 BTU’s
    1 gallon ethanol-77,000 BTU’s
    You do the math here.

    This ones for Lonny Kinser: The only reason to run Alky in high compression supercharged engines is to quell detonation, not for lower emissions.. Were talking everyday commuters, not cars that see 1000miles of road time a year. I have had 1/2 tank E85 in my 05 Explorer and my mileage cut in half..

  16. Lately, I can not eat unhealthy. When my heart hurts and my lower right abdomen. So I can only eat healthy so I have the problem of eating in restaurants or food joints quickly removed, and Im happy for him.

  17. lonny kinser says:

    it depends on what you value. I like ethanol because gasoline is incredibly toxic. I run alcohol in a daily driver which is built for high performance. The reason the explorer gets worse mileage as a flex fuel isbecause the low compression motor is not engineered to make advantage of ethanol benefits. It isengineered to also run gasoline not a dedicated alcohol engine. It is still running much cleaner however.

  18. lonny kinser says:

    it depends on what you value. I like ethanol because gasoline is incredibly toxic. I run alcohol in a daily driver which is built for high performance. The reason the explorer gets worse mileage as a flex fuel isbecause the low compression motor is not engineered to make advantage of ethanol benefits. It isengineered to also run gasoline not a dedicated alcohol engine. It is still running much cleaner however.

  19. Maroon says:

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  20. kontor says:

    thank you bro. ..

  21. soccer says:

    Umm, it was kind of unnecessary to bash Bush in your article. It took away from the professionalism. . .

    • futbol says:

      umm, soccer you are so fucking stupid. no one gives a fucking shit about bush or any other kinds of presidential shrubbery for that matter. we are talking about ethanol and you bring up the authors choice of words when he talks about the big eared monkey boy!? WTF!? are you high? or are you so fucking dense that you have blood in your mouth because your tounge is bleeding because every time you get hungry you try to eat your tounge cause you forget that you have to fucking feed yourself!? PROFESSIONALISM!? it took away your professionalism when i shoved it up your ass. bitch. and by the way, its called futbol dumbass, not fucking soccer, thats not even a word.

  22. Jaime says:

    The following time I learn a weblog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I imply, I know it was my choice to read, however I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you might fix for those who werent too busy on the lookout for attention.

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  26. the more ethanol we use the higher gas gets .

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  28. Jesse Grillo says:

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