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Scientists Battle Over Ethanol

posted on April 20, 2007

A study released this week by Stanford University claims if every vehicle in the U.S. switched from gasoline to a high-ethanol blend of fuel such as E-85, the number of respiratory-related illnesses and deaths likely would increase.

An atmospheric scientist at Stanford, used computer models to simulate air quality in the year 2020, when ethanol-fueled vehicles are expected to be widely available. While the study found E-85 vehicles reduced atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, the fuel significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog.

Debate over the pros and cons of ethanol are not new. While many politicians, like those seeking the Oval Office to the president himself, embrace the fuel alternative, David Miller reports the controversy continues in academic circles.


Scientists Battle Over Ethanol

President George W. Bush: "America is addicted to oil."

With that announcement in January of 2006, President Bush put into words what some Americans had been thinking for decades. The problem moved to the top of the list for most consumers when gasoline prices went over 3 dollars per gallon late in 2005. Though prices have declined since then, motorists and policymakers alike continue to ponder solutions to America's growing dependence on foreign oil.

Though other renewable fuels, including soy-based biodiesel, are gaining in popularity, the most and readily available alternative to gasoline at this point in time -- is ethanol. The predominantly corn-based product gained prominence during the Arab Oil Embargo of the early ‘70s. But more than three decades later, supporters and critics continue to debate the merits of the renewable fuel. The issues raised are typically related to production.

-Is it possible to grow enough corn to be used as food for humans, feed for livestock, and fuel for vehicles?

-Can enough ethanol be produced to displace a significant amount of gasoline and make it a viable alternative?

-And is corn-based ethanol even the best alternative liquid fuel?

Two scientists who have battled over ethanol's viability for years met in Washington, D.C., discuss whether ethanol is the right choice for America. Dr. Bruce Dale of Michigan State University is one of the alternative fuel's most vocal champions. Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, arguably, is ethanol's most outspoken critic.

David Pimentel, Cornell University: "...I wish ethanol were a real winner because I am an agriculturalist and it would help agriculture tremendously."

Over the past 25 years, Pimentel has produced three studies that consistently show ethanol is produced at a negative energy balance of 30 percent. In other words, Pimentel claims it takes 30 percent more energy to make a gallon of ethanol than the fuel yields when it is used.

David Pimentel, Cornell University: "Now, you do see other reports that are claiming that we get a net benefit from conversion of ethanol, on conversion of corn into ethanol and the way they achieve this benefit is by omitting all of the farm labor. They omit the farm machinery, they omit the repair of the farm machinery. They omit the processing machinery and the repair of the processing machinery. They frequently omit the energy to raise the hybrid corn."

The majority of researchers, including Bruce Dale, dispute Pimentel's claims.

Bruce Dale, Michigan State University: "The question is compared with what? Unless you think we're going to give up liquid fuels the question is compared with what? Ethanol is, corn ethanol is already superior to gasoline and cellulosic ethanol will be even better...Gasoline from petroleum has roughly a minus 45% net energy and electricity from coal is minus 240%."

For more than 15 years, government scientists have compared studies on ethanol production, including two of the three completed by Pimentel. According to USDA, Pimentel used outdated information and included factors not employed in other studies. Pimentel says the data used in his 2005 study conducted with Dr. Tad Patzek from the University of California, Berkeley, is credible.

David Pimentel, Cornell University: "Yeah, that's the common argument that is given against Professor Patzek and my data and we're using the most up-to-date data that are available. We get a lot of it from the USDA, their latest publication."

Pimentel also has been accused of being biased against bio-fuels, because of his association with Patzek. A former Shell Oil Company employee, Patzek is the founder of the UC Oil Consortium, which counts Chevron, BP and Phillips Petroleum among its funders.

David Pimentel, Cornell University: "I have absolutely no ties to the petroleum industry. However, if they would like to give me several hundred thousand dollars I'll take it. I'm not going to change my objectivity just because I'm associated, somebody is giving me money."

Ethical issues aside, Pimentel claims the answers to America's energy issues begin with reducing consumption and then developing other alternatives.

David Pimentel, Cornell University: "...the number one thing is conservation. But then the second step would be, I think, in the conversion of coal into liquid fuels."

While ethanol detractors often base their positions on production or energy balance issues, some critics claim there are other factors that should be considered in U.S. energy policy. Pimentel claims there is a moral reason why ethanol is the wrong choice.

David Pimentel, Cornell University: "We have large numbers of people who need food and other resources and relative to the food situation the World Health Organization reports that there are 3.7 billion people who are malnourished. In other words, nearly 60% of the world's population is short of food. And this raises an ethical question, of course, immediately related to ethanol."

Dale claims the impact on the food chain will not be as severe as Pimentel implies. According to USDA, the vast majority of the corn grown in the United States is fed to livestock. Exports to other countries for the 2006-2007 crop year are expected to reach 2.2 billion bushels, with most of that going to Japan. img src='' border='0' align='left'>

Bruce Dale, Michigan State University: "The reality is that corn ethanol as Dr. Pimentel has pointed out may cause affluent people, those of us that can afford to eat meat, to pay slightly more for animal products but poor people are not going to be affected one way or the other because they do not consume the corn that we use to make ethanol, they just don't."

According to the National Academy of the Sciences, even if the entire U.S. corn crop was converted to ethanol, it would only replace 12 percent of all the gasoline consumed in the United States. And those 16.8 billion gallons of ethanol would be a drop in the bucket compared to the 140 billion gallons of gasoline burned by U.S. drivers every year. Dale believes the focus should be on solving the growing problem of imported fuels and not arguing over how inefficient one kind of replacement fuel is over another.

Bruce Dale, Michigan State University: "We can get by, maybe, with other forms of fuel keeping us lighted or keeping us warm. Our society stops without liquid fuels."

For Market to Market I'm David Miller.


Tags: biofuels ethanol news renewable fuels science scientists