Press 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 the net energy gains (i.e. how much energy is derived from the biofuel after substracting the energy that is needed to produce the biofuel) of using two different types of biofuels: bio-diesels vs ethanol. The results they report are very interesting – clearly there is a higher net energy gain if biodiesels are generated from the bio feedstocks instead of ethanol. However, at least for the time being, and until cellulosic bio conversions become possible and available, they will only be able to supply a small portion of the world fuel supply.

For the paper, please go to:

Environmental, economic, and energetic costs and benefits of biodiesel and ethanol biofuels

Jason Hill, Erik Nelson, David Tilman, Stephen Polasky, and Douglas Tiffany
Departments of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior and Applied Economics, University of Minnesota, St. Paul, MN 55108; and Department of Biology, St. Olaf College, Northfield, MN 55057

Negative environmental consequences of fossil fuels and concerns about petroleum supplies have spurred the search for renewable transportation biofuels. To be a viable alternative, a biofuel should provide a net energy gain, have environmental benefits, be economically competitive, and be producible in large quantities without reducing food supplies. We use these criteria to evaluate, through life-cycle accounting, ethanol from corn grain and biodiesel from soybeans. Ethanol yields 25% more energy than the energy invested in its production, whereas biodiesel yields 93% more. Compared with ethanol, biodiesel releases just 1.0%, 8.3%, and 13% of the agricultural nitrogen, phosphorus, and pesticide pollutants, respectively, per net energy gain. Relative to the fossil fuels they displace, greenhouse gas emissions are reduced 12% by the production and combustion of ethanol and 41% by biodiesel. Biodiesel also releases less air pollutants per net energy gain than ethanol. These advantages of biodiesel over ethanol come from lower agricultural inputs and more efficient conversion of feedstocks to fuel. Neither biofuel can replace much petroleum without impacting food supplies. Even dedicating all U.S. corn and soybean production to biofuels would meet only 12% of gasoline demand and 6% of diesel demand. Until recent increases in petroleum prices, high production costs made biofuels unprofitable without subsidies. Biodiesel provides sufficient environmental advantages to merit subsidy. Transportation biofuels such as synfuel hydrocarbons or cellulosic ethanol, if produced from low-input biomass grown on agriculturally marginal land or from waste biomass, could provide much greater supplies and environmental benefits than food-based biofuels.

Caption: Fig. 1. NEB of corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel production. Energy inputs and outputs are expressed per unit energy of the biofuel. All nine input categories are consistently ordered in each set of inputs, as in the legend, but some are so small as to be nearly imperceptible. Individual inputs and outputs of >0.05 are labeled; values <0.05 can be found in Tables 7 and 8. The NEB (energy output – energy input) and NEB ratio (energy output/energy input) of each biofuel are presented both for the entire production process (Left) and for the biofuel only (i.e., after excluding coproduct energy credits and energy allocated to coproduct production) (Right).

Contributed by David Tilman, June 2, 2006 Author contributions: J.H., D. Tilman, and S.P. designed research; J.H., E.N., D. Tilman, S.P., and D. Tiffany performed research; J.H., E.N., D. Tilman, S.P., and D. Tiffany analyzed data; and J.H., D. Tilman, and S.P. wrote the paper. Conflict of interest statement: No conflicts declared. To whom correspondence may be addressed at: Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior, University of Minnesota, 1987 Upper Buford Circle, St. Paul, MN 55108. E-mail:


3 Responses to Press Clipping(s): biodiesel vs ethanol

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