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Switchgrass Makes Better Ethanol Than Corn

ScuttleMonkey posted more than 6 years ago | from the seemingly-easy-choice dept.

Power 560

statemachine writes to mention that the USDA and farmers took part in a 5-year study of switchgrass, a grass native to North America. The study found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent. "But even a native prairie grass needs a helping hand from scientists and farmers to deliver the yields necessary to help ethanol become a viable alternative to petroleum-derived gasoline, Vogel argues. 'To really maximize their yield potential, you need to provide nitrogen fertilization,' he says, as well as improved breeding techniques and genetic strains. 'Low input systems are just not going to be able to get the energy per acre needed to provide feed, fuel and fiber.'"

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That's almost as cool (-1, Troll)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006506)

as this first post. NO NIGGERS

Re:That's almost as cool (1, Funny)

ChaoticLimbs (597275) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006622)

Do you mean to assert that you have no niggers, or do you insist that our society as a whole contains zero? I would be inclined to agree that such a word would hardly be a fair epithet to be hurled indiscriminately at members of our society. I would as well share your pride at owning no other human beings save yourself, for such a practice is both antiquated and horrible.

Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (2, Insightful)

Hatta (162192) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006524)

Switchgrass gets you more ethanol than corn sure, but that's all you get. Growing corn gets you fuel and food. Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (5, Insightful)

nonsequitor (893813) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006606)

However switch grass can be farmed on less desirable farmland than corn, which leads me to believe that it will become a cash crop. This is just a preliminary strain of the grass and this experiment was to establish a baseline for future comparison. Something this heavily modified genetically I would not want to eat anyway so its a moot point.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (4, Informative)

Radtastic (671622) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007360)

IANA Biochemist, but it seems to me like switchgrass should take a back seat to Jatropha [wikipedia.org] ? Jatropha would seem to ge the nod because not only does it grow in poor soil conditions, it already has a high oil content. Nor do we have to worry about any GE going on, as it isn't an edible crop. (Although its toxicity may pose other problems.)

You can grow all three you know. (1)

FatSean (18753) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006620)

You can even decide how much of each to grow, to maximize your farmland and fertilizer usage.

Also, how does one use hemp as food?

Re:You can grow all three you know. (1, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006684)

Hash brownies?

Re:You can grow all three you know. (2, Funny)

Copperhead (187748) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006702)

like this [medgadget.com] ?

Re:You can grow all three you know. (1)

zifferent (656342) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006840)

Gruel. Hemp seed has almost no appreciable THC content and is more nutrient dense than soybeans. A porridge made from which has been called gruel.

Re:You can grow all three you know. (5, Informative)

cromar (1103585) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006992)

Hemp seed is actually really healthy [nutiva.com] and contains good amounts of all essential amino acids (and so is high in protein). It provides some iron, good amounts of manganese and magnesium, and is also a good source of omega-3 and -6 fatty acids. Hemp seeds are good for salad toppings, baking, etc (think multi-grain bread). Hemp oil is also highly nutritious and can be used as other vegetable oils are.

It's a shame that prohibition drives the seed prices through the roof.

Re:You can grow all three you know. (2, Interesting)

Discordantus (654486) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007090)

At most alternative grocery stores (Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, etc) you can buy roasted hemp nuts, which are a similar food to shelled sunflower seeds. Hemp seeds have high protein and fat content, so you can use hemp oil in places you would use, say, olive oil; and with all the protein in them, they can be used to make many of the things that we currently use soybeans for.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (5, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006626)

Growing corn gets you fuel and food.

Growing corn gets you fuel, OR food. Farms aren't going to use the same crop to produce fuel and food-- they'll produce one or the other.

Also, should your fuel sources be competing with your food sources?

Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.

Hemp doesn't produce a sizable amount of food.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (2, Interesting)

X0563511 (793323) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007208)

The seeds do, when you are allowed to grow a decent amount of it.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (5, Informative)

sl0ppy (454532) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006726)

except that many hops farmers have switched from farming hops on their premium farm land, to farming inefficient corn, thus driving up the price of beer.

it's hard for something to be "free, as in beer" when a bottle of beer is very expensive to make due to a hops shortage.

it never makes sense to burn our food.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (1)

Mr.Ziggy (536666) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006738)

AFAIK it's a different type of corn they use for ethanol, and when you they use corn for ethanol, they use ALL of it.

There are methods in the works to use leftover fiber from corn or other plant based waste as fuel, but these are just methods of recycling waste products, not significant energy producers.

I'd love to see other plants used for fuel, because there may be less competition for food crop acreage.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (2, Informative)

Your Pal Dave (33229) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006884)

There is leftover grain after fermentation. It's called Distiller's Grain and it makes a good livestock feed (due to the vitamins in the yeast, perhaps?). Unfortunately, due to its moisture content, it cannot be stored for very long or transported very far, so a lot of it goes to waste.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (1)

Radon360 (951529) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006962)

AFAIK it's a different type of corn they use for ethanol, and when you they use corn for ethanol, they use ALL of it.

Generally speaking, it's the same corn used for feeding livestock and human consumption. There isn't anything special about it...right now anyway. You are correct that once the corn is used, it is mostly starch depleted. The used "brewer's grain" can be dried and fed to livestock, but its done to supplement the vitamin/mineral intake for the livestock, not so much as being the primary "energy" food (carbohydrates), which comes from other sources, such as hay/silage/green feed.

There are methods in the works to use leftover fiber from corn or other plant based waste as fuel, but these are just methods of recycling waste products, not significant energy producers.

Celluloistic ethanol production is the process of taking various plant fibers, converting them into starch and sugars for the production of ethanol. Using switchgrass would utilize this process, and the whole corn stalk (not just the kernels) can be used in this process as well (with an estimated 5-10 times increase in ethanol output per plant). Switchgrass still has the advantage that it can be grown more easily in many places that corn cannot.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (1)

slyn (1111419) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006786)

Switchgrass gets you more ethanol than corn sure, but that's all you get. Growing corn gets you fuel and food. Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.
Who cares, ethanol in general is not a good long term solutions to the energy crisis (emphasis on good, it could be a solution, but it has to many flaws). Renewable energy sources like water, sun, and wind power could be good long term solutions but the still need a lot of work and increases of effectiveness to reach that point. Nuclear could do the job but some people are afraid of it, and others fear monger about nuclear energy to keep up the myths. And lastly Hydrogen could work also but as of now it is far far far to expensive to be viable for anyone as of now (in addition to the distribution issue, which is another major problem). Ethanol could alleviate some of the oil/coal dependencies, but it does not have the potential of the other three options to become the solution (imo). That being said, I would be glad of someone proved me wrong and made it work.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (1)

ookabooka (731013) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006858)

Switchgrass just got pwned by a quick google. [worldwatch.org] Thats right, algae all the way. Just need to spend a bit of time developing the technologies to harvest it agriculturally because we've had little reason to do so earlier. Couple this to a CO2 producing coal plant and you've got a gold mine. Ofcourse, someone needs to make the initial investment. . .perhaps oil companies?

Gasoline is a one trick pony. (1)

mypalmike (454265) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006880)

But it's a pretty good trick.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006954)

Growing corn gets you food and fuel? No. Growing corn gets you food or fuel not both. And guess what, government subsidy making it more profitable to grow corn for fuel means corn prices are up since there is less suply available. This means feed for livestock goes up which means more expensive beef/etc. A one trick pony is what we need at this point. Something that is much more practical/efficient, and that won't have significant unintended economic impact.

Presidential Memo To Slashdotterz (0, Flamebait)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007034)


By the power invested in my dictatorship, I, George W. Bush, do hereby declare that CORN is THE ethanol source because of
political donor control of the U.S. Congress.

Ask Archer Daniel Midlands.

Criminally forever,
George W. Bush [whitehouse.org]

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (2, Insightful)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007188)

Kind of like a cell phone hey? You can get one that makes calls really well, or one that makes calls and takes pictures, both poorly.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (4, Informative)

nine-times (778537) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007238)

I don't know about hemp, but according to the summary:

The study found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent.

This means that corn gets you negative amounts of fuel (you'll use more farming it than you'll get out of farming it), while switchgrass gets you fuel.

The only reason corn has been chosen as the main crop for getting ethanol in the US is because of the strong cron lobby. It really isn't a feasible energy *source*, since it uses more energy than it produces.

Re:Switchgrass is a one trick pony. (2, Funny)

Defector!!! (49874) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007364)

Growing hemp gets you fuel, food, and fiber.

And munchies.

Very similar to wheatgrass (0, Offtopic)

Khyber (864651) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006528)

But only because an ounce of wheatgrass juice has more vitamins and minerals than a full pound of veggies. I'm sure there are other plants out there that could possibly be even more efficient in ethanol production, just as there are plants out there that are better in their nutritional value.

Would someone please explain to me... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006536)

...how switching one hydrocarbon for another (ethanol being two carbons, five hydrogens, and a hydroxyl group) will solve man-made global warming?

Follow the carbon (5, Insightful)

tepples (727027) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006624)

...how switching one hydrocarbon for another (ethanol being two carbons, five hydrogens, and a hydroxyl group) will solve man-made global warming?
The production of fuel from dead dinosaurs pulls carbon from the ground. The production of fuel from plants pulls carbon from the air.

Re:Follow the carbon (2, Insightful)

AeroIllini (726211) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007110)

The production of fuel from dead dinosaurs pulls carbon from the ground. The production of fuel from plants pulls carbon from the air.
...which is then put right back into the air when burned in cars.

Creation of ethanol also requires a great deal of heat and electricity. Most of that electricity is from coal-powered plants, and the heat comes from burning excess material, which continue to put carbon back in the air and pull carbon from the ground.

Check out this graphic [nationalgeographic.com] for a comparison of the various biofuels. Click the Energy Balance tab to see input vs. output of carbon.

Ethanol is better than straight-up gasoline, but it's not great yet.

Re:Follow the carbon (1)

Millenniumman (924859) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007328)

While ethanol does take energy to grow, process and ship, so does gasoline (though instead of taking energy to grow it is needed to extract it).

Re:Would someone please explain to me... (5, Informative)

Surt (22457) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006666)

When you replace oil with ethanol, you stop using carbon that was fixed a long time in the past (and thus did not contribute to present levels of co2), and instead use carbon that was fixed in the last growing cycle. The net co2 added to the atmosphere in a year is zero, because the corn/switchgrass has to fix the co2 before you can later release it in the burn cycle.

Balance (1)

maz2331 (1104901) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006696)

The plants remove exactly the same amount of CO2 during their growth as is liberated by burning the resulting ethanol, and actually the same as would be released if the plant died and decomposed naturally.

The theory behind the whole thing is simply to avoid adding more carbon from underground sources into the atmosphere/biosphere.

Personally, I believe the whole warming thing is a bunch of total bullshit based on an incomplete and possibly inaccurate data set, since temps haven't risen in over a decade.

Re:Balance (4, Insightful)

CorSci81 (1007499) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006968)

since temps haven't risen in over a decade.
This really depends on what temperature statistic you're talking about. Global annual mean? That's actually fairly variable on a year-to-year basis, but it is certainly hasn't been going down much in the long-term lately. And then you have things like the accelerating melting of the arctic sea ice that make it pretty clear something is going on. While the details of end result is still up in the air, it's pretty idiotic to think you can more than double the concentration of a significant greenhouse gas with zero effect on climate.

Re:Balance (1)

Da_Biz (267075) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006972)

Personally, I believe the whole warming thing is a bunch of total bullshit based on an incomplete and possibly inaccurate data set, since temps haven't risen in over a decade.

Yes, I will believe you over the thousands of scientists who have stated that global warming is not total bullshit, including a few folks who work for Federal agencies under the Bush administration.

I look forward to driving my Hummer around full of idling two-cycle lawnmowers with impunity. Thank you come again.

Re:Would someone please explain to me... (5, Insightful)

primalamn (716272) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006710)

Because you are no using hydrocarbon that are in carbon sinks [oil] that would almost never see the light of day had we not dug it up. By using something like cellulose or grains, you have a carbon cycle. You grow the plant, which takes carbon from the air to grow, becoming the carbon holder, then you use it, releasing the carbon. But when the next crop is grown, the plant uses the carbon you emitted using the fuel from the last crop.

Now, I am sure it is not a net-zero result, probably a net-gain in carbon, but you are at least using something that can take much of the carbon that is emitted for use back to make a new plant.

And IMHO, anything is better than using resource heavy and subsidy heavy corn for ethanol and bio-diesel.

Re:Would someone please explain to me... (1)

MenTaLguY (5483) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006718)

The idea is to stop injecting new fossil carbon into the carbon cycle; the carbon in biofuels comes from the atmosphere rather than underground deposits. Of course, ethanol is not the only biofuel hydrocarbon, just the most fashionable one at the moment.

Re:Would someone please explain to me... (1)

Amorymeltzer (1213818) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006866)

What it comes down to is overall "betterness." Different things produce different results - there's a reason NASCAR doesn't use the same stuff my car does. And you wouldn't want that same exhaust in your house. Using ethanol you get "more better" because 1. the carbon is (as stated) already around so there's no net gain, 2. it's renewable, to an extent - we can just grow more corn/switchgrass while we can't kill more dinosaurs and wait a few dozen million years, and 3. at the very least, ethanol has less carbon than, say, octane or all the aromatics they add to gasoline. Now, if we could just get a methan(e)(ol) engine... [youtube.com]

Almost anything is better than corn (5, Insightful)

gujo-odori (473191) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006542)

Almost anything is better than corn. Corn is only popular in the US because corn farming has a powerful lobby. Sugarcane and practically anything else commonly used to produce ethanol is better than corn.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (5, Insightful)

Surt (22457) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006720)

Please, please let it be sugar cane. Real candy is so much better than corn syrup candy.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (1)

Arthur B. (806360) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006804)

Would mod you up but I actually want to praise your message. Corn syrup sodas are not as fizzy as sugar cane. There's nothing like sugar cane for sugar.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (5, Interesting)

reverseengineer (580922) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007056)

Actually, a major reason why high fructose corn syrup is the sweetener of choice for many American food products is that the U.S. sugar lobby is so strong. Protectionist trade agreements and price floors ensure that Americans pay about double the average world price for sugar, so it's far less expensive to use HFCS than cane sugar.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (1)

jonwil (467024) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007290)

Even if the sugar lobby wasnt so powerful, the corn lobby and others would continue to ensure that domestically produced HFCS ended up in US sodas and not foriegn sugar. Same with ethanol.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (2, Informative)

ranton (36917) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006934)

because corn farming has a powerful lobby

That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades. I am not talking about being adjusted for inflation. If the corn farmers have a powerful lobby then that must mean that lobbiest truly have no power at all. (not the case)

If you take the price that corn sold for in the 1970s and adjusted for inflation, corn should be selling for above $10/bushel today. The prices of corn and other commodities have been kept low for years because there are more voters who eat food than there are who grow food.

Sure corn farmers have lobbiests, but I cannot even fathom the idea that they are powerful. The only reason corn is being used now is because it is plentiful and doesnt take any major changes to the current agricultural industry to start using for ethanol. Politicians love making changes that sound good but dont actually take any work.

--

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007140)

sup dumbass [209.85.173.104]

ten seconds to google that

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (4, Insightful)

Lost Engineer (459920) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007226)

If there's no corn lobby then why all the subsidies? Any economist will tell you we don't need them.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (3, Informative)

cappadocius (555740) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007306)

Sure corn farmers have lobbiests, but I cannot even fathom the idea that they are powerful.

I get a check every year that disagrees with you.

They may not be sugar-lobby powerful, but they still manage to farm the government well enough.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (5, Insightful)

Jeremi (14640) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007310)

That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades. I am not talking about being adjusted for inflation. If the corn farmers have a powerful lobby then that must mean that lobbiest truly have no power at all. (not the case)


Congratulations, you are a master of the non sequiter. The price of corn is not a good measurement of the power of the agribusiness lobby -- what you want to measure is how much influence they have over legislators. It's difficult to measure influence directly, of course, but what can be objectively measured is how much money agribusiness donates to politicians. And there we find that in the last 20 years or so, agribusiness has donated a total of 415 million dollars [opensecrets.org] . To put that in perspective, that is over three times the amount donated by defense lobbyists [opensecrets.org] in the same time period, and I don't think anyone would scoff at the influence of defense lobbyists on our government. So yes, I'd say the agribusiness sector (note I deliberately don't say "farmers" because what we are talking about here are massive farming corporations like Archer Daniels Midland [admworld.com] , not mom and pop and their 40 acres) has plenty of influence in Washington. Which is of course why so many government handouts are going to corn-based ethanol, even though corn is clearly one of the least efficient sources for that product.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (5, Informative)

Paradise Pete (33184) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007326)

That is so funny that I almost fell out of my seat. Corn prices have stayed fairly constant for the past three decades.

You must have a rather slippery seat.

The 2002 Farm Bill guarantees corn farmers a price of $2.60 per bushel in 2002-2003 and $2.63 per bushel in 2004-2007 for the corn that they produce. In order to realize this price, corn farmers are eligible to receive a combination of direct payments, loans, and counter-cyclical payments.

Fixed Direct Payments: Set at a fixed rate of $.28 per bushel for crop years 2002-2007. These payments are based on historic crop yields, so farmers are not obligated to grow any crop in order to receive benefits. Since these payments increase in direct proportion to the acreage and yield of eligible crops planted, they encourage larger tracts of land to be used for corn cultivation.

Loans: The marketing assistance loan program and the loan deficiency payment program work to bring the price of corn up above $1.98 per bushel in 2002-2003, and $1.95 per bushel in 2004- 2007. These non-recourse loans allow the producer to choose when and how much of the loan they are going to pay back. They skew market signals by acting as a price floor for current production and encourage overproduction. Counter-Cyclical Payments: If the price of corn is still below the $2.63 target, counter-cyclical payments are used. They work in the same way as direct payments, and are based upon historical crop acreage and yield instead of current production. Again, this means that producers do not have to produce in order to receive payments.

Conclusion:
Corn production is the most heavily subsidized commodity in the United States today. Payments are extremely concentrated and benefits flow overwhelmingly to corporate agribusiness. Current government policy is pumping up the bottom line of modern, profitable corporations and leaving the taxpayer to foot the bill.

pdf [taxpayer.net]

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (1)

mugnyte (203225) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007368)


  "The Omnivore's Dilemma"

Check it out from your library. Really good read about corn's history.

Re:Almost anything is better than corn (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007382)

There are also more people who consume oil than produce it, but that doesn't hold oil back. Corn prices remain low because there are other foods we can eat. If corn prices were to double, corn consumption would go down massively, and it wouldn't result in starvation. If there were a widespread agricultural strike, that could raise prices on food in general, but the government would imprison strikers and likely murder the leaders.

Wrong study. (5, Funny)

Tackhead (54550) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006544)

> The study found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent

"The polling firm found that switchgrass ethanol can deliver only 0.54% of the voter cast in the states capable of producing it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can yield around 24% of the votes cast in the states that produce it."

It's not about EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment), it's about PEOPI (Politicians Elected On Pork Invested).

Re:Wrong study. (1)

Whatsmynickname (557867) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006608)

Yes, between the corn producer lobby and the oil company lobby, we will never see a decent alternative energy policy in the US for the near future...

Pork? That shoots the Jewish conspiracy to pieces. (1)

tepples (727027) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006690)

It's not about EROEI (Energy Return On Energy Investment), it's about PEOPI (Politicians Elected On Pork Invested).
If politicians get elected on pork, and pork isn't acceptable for Jewish people to eat, then why do antisemites accuse Jews of running the world?

Re:Pork? That shoots the Jewish conspiracy to piec (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007066)

everyone is taking the pork cept the jewish who are giving it out duhh.

hmm (1)

pkadd (1203286) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006580)

Anything that can produce ethanol is good. Hopefully the increased energy output means more drunk. (fuel was never my primary use of ethanol anyways)

Switchfoot Makes Better Music Than Korn (5, Funny)

kernspaltung (975145) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006590)

Switchfoot makes better music than Korn, too, but such opinion is no more revolutionary than the one in the article. Ethanol IS NOT the cure for our energy disease.

Re:Switchfoot Makes Better Music Than Korn (1)

Kazrath (822492) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006636)

When has anything ever been about cures? Ethanol is a good way to extend our comfortable behavior with little downside. As technology advances other more efficient power sources will be developed.

Re:Switchfoot Makes Better Music Than Korn (5, Insightful)

Kadin2048 (468275) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006848)

Ethanol is a good way to extend our comfortable behavior with little downside.
Except it's not, really. If it was, I'd be a much bigger fan. But it's really just a red herring; a way of pulling the wool over the public's eyes, continuing to empower the oil companies, while also pumping some taxpayer dollars into the agribusiness and farm lobbies.

I've only looked at corn ethanol in much detail, but that stuff requires MORE oil to produce, per unit of burnable energy (that you can actually pump into your car), than gasoline does. It gets fertilized with oil, harvested with tractors that run on oil, transported with oil ... by the time it gets to your tank, it would have been better just to use the stupid oil to begin with. At least the oil companies have an incentive, when they crack petroleum to make gasoline directly, to do it efficiently. When you're going oil->fertilizer->corn->ethanol->gasohol, with tons of subsidies along the way, the efficiency motive gets lost. It's not even carbon neutral -- it just makes you think it's carbon-neutral (and might let you *call* it that, depending on who's doing the accounting).

Maybe switchgrass is a little better than corn, but I have some serious reservations, and this study doesn't dispel them (considered how deep in the pockets of ADM and the oil companies the government is). Show me a large-scale ethanol process, sunlight-to-tank, that doesn't take petroleum as an input and then I'll be much more impressed. So far I haven't seen one that seems practical.

I may be wrong, but... (1)

cromar (1103585) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007166)

I thought that producing ethanol from sugar cane is efficient enough to make it usable as a fuel. (I can't find any sources after a quick look though.) Brazil and Venezuela both are using tons of ethanol for their fuel. The US can't grow sugar cane (needs a tropical climate) so we are looking for alternative sources that are efficient to grow in North America. If a plant requires little energy that has to be put in by humans, it will be efficient to use it as a fuel source (i.e. sugar cane grows really easily and doesn't need a lot of irrigation, fertilizer, etc).

Re:Switchfoot Makes Better Music Than Korn (1)

FroBugg (24957) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007288)

Brazil gets about a third of their automobile fuel from sugar cane. And all the processing is done not with petroleum-based energy, but by burning the bagasse (waste scraps) from when the cane is harvested.

Sugar cane ethanol is definitely viable as a fuel source. Switchgrass would be viable, but it requires processing of cellulosic ethanol, which we just can't do cheaply yet. Once we master that, it will be extremely efficient and can easily be self-supporting. Switchgrass grows well even without fertilizers.

The whole point of this article is that switchgrass is not "a little better than corn," but vastly better than corn.

Re:Switchfoot Makes Better Music Than Korn (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007320)

According the the article, you're right, it takes about four times more invested energy (usually in the form of oil, not counting the sun) to make ethanol from corn than you get out.

On the other hand, according to the article, you're wrong, switchgrass isn't a little better, it's a lot better, producing more than five times the energy in usable fuel than you put in. See the difference? You'd quit using petroleum as soon as you got the thing going, of course, and use ethanol.

You don't actually think they buy extra oil in Brazil to support their sugarcane-derived ethanol habit, do you?

Realistically most transportation and a lot of other things are always going to need portable high density energy storage. Batteries don't cut it. Hydrogen is a big problem. Hydrocarbons are perfect for it.

Re:Switchfoot Makes Better Music Than Korn (1)

greg_barton (5551) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007378)

Show me a large-scale ethanol process, sunlight-to-tank, that doesn't take petroleum as an input and then I'll be much more impressed.

I'd be impressed as well, mainly because there is no energy generation process...period...that would not currently use petroleum as an input. Wind, Solar, Nuclear, Hydro, Geothermal - all require petroleum as an input to construct and maintain infrastructure. A huge portion of our physical infrastructure, not just fuel, is dependent on petroleum. One word: plastics.

So discounting the use of petroleum in energy production is a red herring. It's impossible.

Re:Switchfoot Makes Better Music Than Korn (1, Funny)

tepples (727027) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006746)

Switchfoot makes better music than Korn, too, but such opinion is no more revolutionary than the one in the article.
Of course it's not more revolutionary. Neither band has performed a song that has been used in a Dance Dance Revolution game or any game for the Wii (nee Revolution) game console, as far as I can tell.

The Ethanol debate is NOT about fuel! (4, Informative)

compumike (454538) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006648)

It's true that corn is a pretty poor feedstock for ethanol generation. But I think most people (farmer subsidy lovers) think that ethanol has come into focus because of its potential as a fuel *replacement* for gasoline.

Let me remind you why we have a demand for ethanol in the first place: a replacement for MTBE [wikipedia.org] , a gasoline anti-knock additive (letting the engine run at higher compression ratios, and thus more efficiently) which was found to be leeching into groundwater and concentrating. MTBE is being phased out, and ethanol is a replacement chemical. Whether or not ethanol will be used as an energy source is irrelevant. It's critical today as a fuel additive for gasoline. Beyond that, it's a pretty inefficient energy carrier. Switchgrass may do better, but we're not there yet.

--
Electronics kits for the digital generation! Free videos -- click here. [nerdkits.com]

Re:The Ethanol debate is NOT about fuel! (3, Insightful)

FroBugg (24957) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007106)

Nonsense.

E85 is available now. Not widely in the US, and the vehicles that can use it are uncommon, but it's definitely viable as a fuel source.

Brazil uses ethanol from sugar cane in various formulations hugely, though. About a third of their automobile fuel is sugar-based ethanol.

Regardless of what the article says, we're still a ways off from cellulosic ethanol. Once we master that, though, it's going to be a fantastic fuel source.

President George W. Bush Was Right? (4, Interesting)

SirBruce (679714) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006686)

So let me get this straight... when President Bush championed swithgrass in his State of the Union speech a couple of years ago, and the news folks sorta laughed at him, he was actually right?

Re:President George W. Bush Was Right? (3, Funny)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006776)

I know.

I'm scared too.

Re:President George W. Bush Was Right? (1)

OutSourcingIsTreason (734571) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007032)

Even a broken clock is right twice a day.

Re:President George W. Bush Was Right? (2, Funny)

dubbayu_d_40 (622643) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007104)

No I heard him, he said swishgrass, not switchgrass.

Re:President George W. Bush Was Right? (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007234)

Bah!!

Someone beat me to it!!

-john

Re:President George W. Bush Was Right? (4, Insightful)

thule (9041) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007266)

If I recall correctly, Bush mentioned a lot of good common sense things for energy back then, switchgrass was only one of the things mentioned. Didn't Bush also mention nuclear power plants? I wonder when people will also wake up to that idea again. I know here in California, Assemblyman Chuck DeVore has tried to put in bills for lifting the restrictions on nuclear power in California. So far, no luck.

Energy Used (1, Interesting)

Lord Byron II (671689) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006742)

Technically speaking, the poster/article should say 'human-provided' energy. After, if switchgrass took in X amount of energy and produced 540% of X in output, that would break the laws of thermodynamics.

Also of consideration is what is the energy yield per acre? Of course, corn at 24% would be a total loser ($1 of energy provides $.24 of energy), but even at 540%, switch grass might not be the most economical method based on land used. Consider if you supply an acre of switch grass with 1 watt of power and it produces 5.4 watts - that's definitely not worth it.

You are ignoring . . . (4, Funny)

StefanJ (88986) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006846)

. . . the giant glowing thing in the sky.

Re:You are ignoring . . . (1)

moderatorrater (1095745) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006964)

No he's not. The whole argument about efficiency in the first place is about the power it takes to convert the plant into ethanol, in this case it takes much less energy to convert switchgrass into the same amount of ethanol. However, if it takes one acre of switchgrass to get one quart of ethanol, it might not be worth the investment if there's another plant with a lower efficiency but 5x the yield per acre. The article even mentions that they still need to do some work on increasing the yield of switchgrass. The sun neither causes nor solves the problem.

Re:You are ignoring . . . (1)

BSAtHome (455370) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007048)

And the lack of corn-circles if this ever becomes mainstream.

Re:Energy Used (1)

RedHat Rocky (94208) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006950)

Actually, they did specify the energy calculation was for petroleum-supplied energy:

"13.1 megajoules of energy as ethanol for every megajoule of petroleum consumed"

I'm not so sure you should classify the switchgrass growing cycle as being a heat engine though. :)

Re:Energy Used (1)

ceoyoyo (59147) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007416)

Electricity is hard to put in a gas tank in your car. Ethanol isn't. Even if a field of switchgrass is technically less efficient than a field of solar panels it just means you might not want to burn the ethanol to heat your house or power your lights.

bad summary: 25% vs 125% (4, Insightful)

j1m+5n0w (749199) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006764)

This means that switchgrass ethanol delivers 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, compared with just roughly 25 percent more energy returned by corn-based ethanol according to the most optimistic studies.
If I'm interpreting this right, it means corn ethanol is returning 125%, not 24% as the summary implies. Also, switchgrass requires refineries that can deal with cellulose, which we don't have. (Not that I'm saying that switchgrass or miscanthus based ethanol is a bad idea, just that the summary is misleading.)

Re:bad summary: 25% vs 125% (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006894)

it means corn ethanol is returning 125%, not 24% as the summary implies.

It's the difference between of and more. And a study in how carefully selecting your English words lets you manipulate the numbers without being wrong.

"25% more" is the same as "125% of".

"of" vs "more": article gets it wrong, too (1)

j1m+5n0w (749199) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007120)

I just noticed that the original article is inconsistent: the caption under the image says "540% more" (640%), whereas the actual text says "540% of".

Re:bad summary: 25% vs 125% (1)

clsours (1089711) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007144)

From TFS:

switchgrass ethanol can deliver around 540 percent of the energy used to produce it, as opposed to corn ethanol which can only yield around 24 percent.

The summary is somewhat vague as it uses the preposition of for the first comparison, but the second part of the phrase uses no prepositional phrase, leaving the reader to assume that the first phrase is implied.

Why worry about it? (1)

webmaster404 (1148909) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006770)

Why are we even worrying about Ethanol? Sure we may need better fuels then oil however here in the US we have massive reserves of it in Alaska where we cannot drill for oil there. Also, if we take out government grants and the like, Ethanol based on Corn (and chances are switchgrass) will never be more then minor fixes that could end up being more expensive. We have lots of hydrogen and sunlight, they are free and can be used as power sources, we have lots of oil. Corn and switchgrass though we don't have much and will only lead us into over-farming to try to get those.

Re:Why worry about it? Global warming, that's why (1, Informative)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006998)

Biofuels from plants (any plants) recycle carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Fossil fuels all release more carbon that's been sequestered in the ground for millions of years and add to the CO2 burden.

Re:Why worry about it? (1)

Mikeytsi (186271) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007156)

A pipe dream of mine has been to build a house with solar panels to be ZEU, and then use the extra energy to power a home hydrogen generator, which I could then use to fuel-up a daily driver converted to run off of hydrogen.

I figured this would give me a nice little kick-back from the power company (I'd feed any excess after the above back in to the grid), and my only real bills would be for water/sewer/gas (just use the gas for cooking), as well as lower my personal dependency on oil.

Re:Why worry about it? (1)

FroBugg (24957) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007172)

We have lots of hydrogen...


No, we don't. Hydrogen is not a fuel source. Hydrogen is a fuel medium. In order to make hydrogen for fuel cells we have two options: We process natural gas for it, or we pump lots of electricity into water. Natural gas is slightly more efficient, but neither is fantastic.

Also, ethanol is carbon neutral. Everything we burn in our cars is sucked up again by growing plants. Much, much better than Alaskan oil.

Re:Why worry about it? (4, Insightful)

anagama (611277) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007366)

Sure we may need better fuels then oil however here in the US we have massive reserves of it in Alaska where we cannot drill for oil there.

ANWR is not the be all end all that drillers tout. There are between 6-16 billion recoverable barrels (from pro-drilling site [anwr.org] ). Right now, refineries use about 15 million barrels of oil per day (from the EIA -- scroll to bottom [doe.gov] ).

That means the US uses around 5.4 billion barrels of oil per year. If you buy the pro-driller propaganda, ANWR is AT BEST, 3 years worth of supply. If you took the highest estimate of oil in the ground and assumed the magically ability to extract all 30 billion barrels -- that's 6 years of supply.

ANWR is just another method to enrich Cheney -- like the logic of paying contractor truck drivers 120k per year to drive truck in Iraq when a regular soldier makes about 1/6th of that. But that's another tale.

In my view, the better plan is to consider ANWR to be "money in the bank". Oil price increases are just starting. We'd be better off sitting on it for 50 years because by then, we'll be lamenting the days oil only cost $90-100 per barrel.

You seem a bit confused (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007372)

Ethanol, biodiesel, and other fuels that are produced from organic matter are all essentially forms of Solar Energy. The energy from the sun makes the plant grow. The growing plant locks up this energy in the physical structure/chemicals that comprise it's 'body', which we then convert to some form of chemical fuel (alcohol or oil mainly).

If by 'Solar Power', you mean photovoltaics or other technology for converting solar energy to electricity (or to heat, then generate electricity from the heat), sure, that has some potential too. But you will probably never have a very practical solar powered car, simply because of the variability of how much solar energy makes it to the surface on any given day. . . and how do you drive at night? (Presumably on batteries which charged during the day if there was enough light available and you weren't driving all day).

Chemical fuels are just an incredibly convenient way to store and then use energy for certain applications, particularly cars, trucks, boats, planes, copters, or anything else that moves. On that note, you mentioned Hydrogen. I'd like to point out that Hydrogen isn't, strictly speaking, an energy source. It is a fuel that can be used to power cars and planes, etc, but free hydrogen (H2) doesn't really exist abundantly in nature - it's mostly locked up in other compounds (water mostly) which you must apply energy to in order to break the Hydrogen atoms away from the other atoms in the compounds and form H2.

So, Hydrogen is only practical if you have an abundant source of electricity (although, I have heard of work being done to use like, modified bacteria or algae, or something like that to produce H2 from organic material - that could be interesting, but again, that is bio-mass energy that you convert to hydrogen, not just 'hydrogen' by itself). So, hydrogen is a possibly useful intermediate way of storing energy, but it is not a primary source of energy.

Finally, about drilling for oil in Alaska, they are already producing quite a bit of oil in Alaska, but I'm of the camp that believes we really need to move away from petroleum and other fossil fuels. Even if you think Climate Change is bunk, it's not good for our economy to be based on a non-renewable resource. We need to find sources of energy that are continuously renewable forever (or at least until the Earth gets fried by the expansion of the Sun in 5 Billion years). The Sun is actually the only long-term continuously renewable source of energy we have (maybe, maybe, terrestrial nuclear fusion, if they can get it to work). So biomass energy, if it can be made practical, is very compelling, because it is basically Solar Energy.

Biomass Energy also has the desirable trait of being carbon-neutral. It will not, over the long term, increase the amount of CO2 in the air, because each successive generation of fuel re-fixates the CO2 released by the burning of the previous generation. It's a stable cycle of release, fixate, release, fixate.

40 acres and an SUV (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22006792)

So all I need to offset my SUV's gas consumption is about 40 acres of switchgrass? Well, good. That means I don't have to change my life much at all.

Hmm... (4, Insightful)

richardtallent (309050) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006862)

Unfortunately, I don't see any candidates supporting the "Big Switchgrass" lobby (lol) with federal grants and subsidies.

The government is *ALWAYS* ten years late on supporting technology, and usually picks the wrong one. Same situation with PV, hybrid cars, and nuclear power... about the time some lobbyist gets enough "representatives" to sign on to some legislation that makes their life easy, a new start-up or breakthrough makes them obsolete.

One more reason to vote for someone who believes that open markets will drive innovation a lot faster than corporate/agricultural welfare, and that states can be more responsive when government needs to have a role.

I know, I'm yet another rabid Ron Paul supporter. But at least if we elect him, hemp will have a chance to compete with switchgrass. Which will be great, except your car will have the munchies and will insist on calling you "dude" and "bro" when your door is ajar. ;)

When your application doesn't work, refactor the code.
When the government doesn't work, refactor the system.

Re:Hmm... (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007170)

I know, I'm yet another rabid Ron Paul supporter. But at least if we elect him, hemp will have a chance to compete with switchgrass.
Huh? Are you saying Ron Paul is going to dissolve Congress? Because last time I checked the president didn't get 100% personal control of all U.S. policies...

Aye, but it's more expensive at this point (4, Informative)

iamlucky13 (795185) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006892)

This has been circulating around the intarwebs for a few days now, so it spurred me to do some background reading already.

Corn has higher amounts of the simpler sugars that bacteria need to work on to produce the ethanol. Switchgrass and other cellulosic feedstocks, which are largely equivalent in feasbility in general terms, have those sugars bound up in...you guessed it...cellulose. Because of this it requires much more processing prior to fermentation. There are several ways to do this with varying costs and efficiencies, but at the very least is technically viable.

However, this pre-processing and the fact that large-scale cellulosic ethanol production is a new technology means the initial costs are higher. According to Wikipedia (with original sources referenced), corn ethanol plants cost about $1-3 per gallon of annual capacity to construct. The first round of large scale cellulosic ethanol plants now under construction are billed about $7 per gallon of annual capacity. Production costs are expected to run about $2.25 per gallon initially, or about $125 per barrel of oil energy equivalent.

However, as the method is proven, that cost is expected to come down. About $350 million of cost is also being funded by the federal government under the new energy plan. Also, the cost of the feedstock for cellulosic ethanol production is much lower, as it can use switchgrass as mentioned in the summary, corn stover, wood chips, or just about anything else containing plant matter, where as the corn method requires corn (duh), and thus competes with food production.

Of course, the article makes the energy-return benefit over corn ethanol obvious. Elsewhere it has been estimated that cellulosic ethanol production could account for 30% of our transportation energy needs in a couple decades. Obviously far short of weaning us off foreign oil, but a start nonetheless. However, an added benefit of using grasses like switchgrass is the fields don't have to be replanted every year, reducing soil depletion and erosion.

Re:Aye, but it's more expensive at this point (1)

tomhath (637240) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007352)

It seems to me that they're comparing apples to oranges, so to speak. They're comparing fermenting grain to an (as yet) scalable process of fermenting cellulose from grass. But if ethanol can be produced for switchgrass cellulose, couldn't it also be produced from the cellulose in corn stalks? How does that change the economics of corn, since you now have the grain to use as livestock feed and the fodder to use for ethanol?

Big corn subs and corp America (1, Flamebait)

hal2006 (957775) | more than 6 years ago | (#22006918)

This is not news... it has been for over 2 years that switchgrass was better but the sagging corn prices due to over production was hurting the big corporate corn farmers. The republican controlleed congress wanted to reward the farmers in an effort to keep control. All it did was drive up the cost of corn, meat, milk, cheese, and all those nice sweet breakfast foods that kids love to eat.

Re:Big corn subs and corp America (3, Insightful)

pigiron (104729) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007128)

Don't hold your breath waiting for the Democrat congress to cut back on farm subsidies.

Remember... (4, Funny)

Billy the Mountain (225541) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007022)

Ethanol is for drinking, not for driving.

It costs more than corn... for now (1)

Kagato (116051) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007168)

Understand the technology for switch grass is new. It costs 5-10 times are much to make it into ethanol vs corn. There also is no market or infrastructure for it. Meaning, once a farmer harvests it, then what? There is no elevator to sell it to. There is no futures market to sell it on. We have about 5-10 years worth of infrastructure to build up in order to move switch grass. We barely have corn ethanol going, let's not get the wagon ahead of the horse.

Corn based ethanol refineries can be upgraded to switch grass. Build them first. Get switch grass online and marketable and the rest will follow.

One of the pluses to switch grass is that it can be grown in places that corn and other crops cannot. At the same time, farmers are a greedy lot. They will grow what they think they have the best chance to sell for the most amount of profit. So at the same time we get switch grass online we need to have farm bill changed to reflect the countries actual needs both in fuel and food.

Hrrmm (1)

roadkill_cr (1155149) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007316)

To whoever tagged this "inthishouseweobeythelawsofthermodynamics"... If you RTFA (or knew about it beforehand, like I did) they're saying the amount of energy WE put in returns a 540% yield. That does not count the energy the sun power added to the plants, or other things that we aren't actively putting energy in.

Butanol is a much better alternative than ethanol (5, Interesting)

steve_thatguy (690298) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007318)

I got into a conversation about alternative energies over the holidays with a friend of mine who has her PhD in something Agricultural Science related from Purdue, and when the conversation went to ethanol she informed me that apparently there's a much better alternative in butanol. According to the first link I've provided, Butanol is both a "cleaner" fuel source than ethanol and has a higher energy content (110,000 Btu per gallon for butanol vs. 84,000 Btu per gallon for ethanol, for reference gasoline is 115,000 Btu per gallon). It requires little to no modification of existing engines and can be shipped through existing fuel pipelines. Historically it's been considered less viable than ethanol because of relatively higher production cost.

About Butanol Energy [renewablee...access.com]

However a researcher from the midwest (Ohio I think) has patented a process by which it can be produced more cheaply than ethanol *without having to change existing gasoline infrastructure.*

Here's the researcher's company.

More Butanol Information [butanol.com]

From what my friend told me, the only thing preventing this right now is a lack of funding and public awareness. So please read it for yourself and spread the word.

Environmentalists not rejoicing! (1)

lpangelrob (714473) | more than 6 years ago | (#22007330)

The fertilization requirements mean that it's not out of the question that at some point, genetically modified switchgrass will be growing all over the midwestern states.

Many GM crops are already being used to increase yields in actual food (corn, wheat, soybeans) for animals, so it shouldn't come as a total shock, either.

My business plan asplode! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 6 years ago | (#22007404)

1. Grow weeds.
2. Turn weeds into booze.
3. Burn booze.
4. Profit!
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