• Sep 18th 2006 at 8:06AM
  • 12
After a visit to Brazil, the world's only major ethanol exporter, Pulitzer Prize-winning foreign affairs columnist Thomas L. Friedman wrote a piece published in Friday's New York Times (Times Select subscription required) fully endorsing ethanol as a renewable alternative to gasoline.
I usually hold Mr. Friedman's work in the highest regard, however, his relentless support for increased ethanol production and the further development of flex-fuel cars in the States seems somewhat careless. He says he traveled to Brazil "to better grasp what is real and what is not in the ethanol story," yet he doesn't provide a single remark about the downside of ethanol except for the well-known fact that it contains less energy than gasoline and quickly dismisses it noting that with a calculator one can make sure he/she is still paying less for their fuel as ethanol's going rate in Sao Paulo is about $2 per gallon compared to $4 per gallon for gasoline.

Mr. Friedman goes on to say that "not only is ethanol for real, but we have not even begun to tap its full potential." He points to the words of Plinio Mario Nastari, one of Brazil's top ethanol consultants, who says that each stalk of sugar cane contains 3 energy sources:
  1. The ethanol extracted from the cane.
  2. The cane waste, bagasse, which is used to heat steam boilers that produce more than enough electricity to power the refining process. He adds that if refiners converted to new high-pressure boilers they could yield 3 times the amount of electricity.
  3. The potential cellulosic ethanol derived from leaves which are currently just left in the fields, though, he concedes that this is a technology about 5 years away.
It seems as though Mr. Friedman fails to notice that his primary source of information in this specific case is highly biased. What about the energy balance debate? Is ethanol energy positive? The DOE says yes, but there are still studies that dispute their findings. What of the harmful environmental impact of growing massive amounts of corn on U.S. farmlands and converting it to ethanol? Granted, Mr. Friedman's primary focus is to ween the U.S. off foreign oil, however, it's an issue that can't be dismissed when discussing the future of America's energy infrastructure. And finally, is the U.S. even capable of producing enough ethanol to significantly reduce our oil imports?

While it seems as though ethanol can provide a partial answer to America's energy problem, Mr. Friedman posits Brazil's successful ethanol industry as a model for the U.S. without revealing the flip-side of the argument and goes as far as implying America's hesitation to embark on a full-fledged ethanol effort as stupidity by saying, "If only we were as smart as Brazil ..."

[Source: New York Times]


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  • 12 Comments
      • 9 Years Ago
      Talk about a case of the pot calling the kettle black. Derrick needs to get all of the facts before dissing on Friedman for being naïve. Yes, it’s a well known fact that ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, but remember that ethanol also has a higher octane than gasoline (104 vs. 93 for premium). If you can take advantage of the higher octane, you can create a more efficient combustion process. So even if you’re filling up with a fuel that’s not as energy-dense, you can regain some of the lost power/efficiency by having a more efficient combustion process. Fuel energy density is only one piece of the pie.

      Take a look at the Saab Biopower 9-5 they’re selling in Sweden. It can run on either gasoline or E85. When you feed it E85, it’s gets a nice bump in both power and torque (+36 hp, +30 ft-lbs). And get this, the fuel consumption stays the same! The beauty of this engine is that it’s turbocharged. When the engine detects ethanol, it turns up the boost pressure from 5.8 psi to 13.8 psi. This makes for a more efficient combustion process, and hence more power and torque with no loss in fuel economy.

      Part of the reason E85 is getting a bad rap is b/c most of the flex fuel vehicles in the US are naturally aspirated. Since gasoline is still more prevalent in the US than ethanol, these engines were designed with gasoline efficiency in mind. They use lower compression ratios b/c of gasoline’s lower octane. So when you fill up your tank with E85, the engine can’t take advantage of the higher octane b/c it can’t change its compression ratio. That’s when ethanol’s energy density problem rears its head. If you were to turn the tables and design an engine around ethanol, you could use a higher compression ratio. This would lead to an engine that would burn E85 as efficiently as today’s engine burn gas. If you were to put gasoline in this ethanol-optimized engine, you’d see a similar reduction in performance and fuel economy b/c the engine would have to retard its ignition timing to prevent engine knock.

      Saab’s turbocharged engine gives you the best of both words. You can’t change an engines compression ratio on the fly, but you can change the amount of boost it receives, which leads to the same result.
      Gary Dikkers
      • 9 Years Ago
      Brazil has had great success in using sugar cane ethanol as a motor fuel, but Brazil has several advantages in making ethanol that simply don't exist here:

      * It is about eight times as efficient making alcohol from the sugar in cane as from the starch in corn.

      * Brazil has the climate and soils conducive to growing sugar cane. (We have the right combination of soils, climate, and latitude in only four states: Florida, Louisiana, Hawaii, and parts of Texas.)

      * Brazil has vast tracts of inexpensive, undeveloped land at the tropical latitudes conducive to growing cane. When they need more land, all they have to do is clear more of the Amazon basin, disregarding how that will affect the environment.

      * Brazil has a large supply of dirt-cheap, machete-swinging manual laborers. We don't have or want that in the U.S. Our farmers are understandably reluctant to wade into their cornfields swinging machetes.

      * But by far the biggest difference is that on a per capita basis, Brazil uses only 12% as much energy for transportation as we do. If they increased their transportation energy use eight-fold to match ours, they too would have to import oil.

      There are several reasons why Brazil's energy use is so much less:

      1. Much of Brazil is still a third-world country. If the standard of living in all of Brazil increased to our level, they could not be self-sufficient on cane ethanol.

      2. The percentage of Brazilians who own cars is much lower than in the U.S. In Brazil, most people get around using public transportation.

      3. Those who do own cars, own small cars, and as in Europe a greater percentage of their cars are diesel powered. (You won't see many 8 mpg SUVs in Brazil.)

      Like you Derrick, I generally respect Tom Friedman's work, but I suspect that in the Brazil ethanol column he didn't do enough research. We could use domestic ethanol as our primary liquid transportation fuel, but to do that, we would have to make a drastic lifestyle change, and reduce by a factor of eight our use of energy for transportation. (If we used the entire U.S. corn crop for ethanol production, we would get about 12% of our current fuel use.)

      Regards,

      Gary Dikkers
      • 9 Years Ago
      The best "debunking" of ethanol I've yet seen was provided by Elon Musk of Tesla Motors: http://www.teslamotors.com/blog1/?p=22

      He addresses the example of Brazil and explains why their program can't simply be duplicated in the USA.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Looks like Sweden do also a run for ethanol, according to these French websites
      http://www.journalauto.com/infos/article.asp?idarticle=3472
      http://automobile.nouvelobs.com/mag/Dossier/e85/default.asp
      I heard also then Sweden extract ethanol from forest waste as well but I'm not sure.
      • 9 Years Ago
      That's a good link Tony. People who incessantly tout the Brazil experiment don't seem to be aware that Brazil is probably the one most perfect place on earth to use Ethanol -- far more naturally suited than is the US.

      Compared to the US, Brazil has hugely productive arable land just ripe for ethanol-friendly sugar cane, and a comparatively microscopic population of car drivers. Its ratio of ethanol-producing land to automobiles is hugely different than in the US.

      And despite all that, its decades-long effort to go ethanol has created a lot of pain along the way.

      Friedman is not very smart guy. Sometimes he makes good points, sometimes not (flip a coin a few times to understand). But he lacks the intellectal ability to examine the limits of whatever cockamamy idea he's got in his head at the moment. This was an example.

      • 9 Years Ago
      Ethanol has a great potential. I live in India and as a company we are doing a number of field surveys. In India too various options for energy security are being worked out. Ethanol and bio-diesel (from jatropa, pongamia) are options.

      Ethanol in India is currently obtained from molasses (a liquid by-product of sugar companies). Besides sugarcane, sweet sorghum is another potential source of ethanol. It takes one fourth time to grow, consumes one tenth of water (compared with sugarcane) and yield are commensurate with sugar. The solid waste left over can be used as cattle feed or can be burnt.

      The other source is potato waste. We produce about 25 million tons of potatos. wastage is estimated at 6% at farm level. The conversion technology is available and the costs of production is economical.

      So, our view is Ethanol is a viable option and the sources of ethanol are many.

      I enjoyed your comments. Best wishes.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Stéphane,

      Sweden currently produces ethanol locally from wheat and imports ethanol from Brazil. However, they are actively researching ethanol from forest products. Also worth noting that flex-fuel turbo Saabs make 20% more horsepower when running on E85.

      -Jimmy
      • 9 Years Ago
      " usually hold Mr. Friedman's work in the highest regard, however, his relentless support for increased ethanol production and the further development of flex-fuel cars in the States seems somewhat careless."

      Translation: I like when he rips GM apart but when he starts saying that an alternative fuel that American companies are involved in and the Japanese aren't to the same extent, then I disagree with him.
      • 9 Years Ago
      Also, I’m not going to debate whether ethanol production is energy positive or negative. Currently, there are too many conflicting reports out there for me to make an informed decision. But there is one thing I am positive about, and that is that as a society, we will continue to become more efficient at producing ethanol. I know it kind of sounds like a ‘duh’ statement, but ethanol production is still in its infancy compared to its petroleum counterpart. So even if its energy balance is currently in question, it’ll only move farther to the positive side as research continues.

      Another benefit of ethanol is that it’s more carbon neutral than gasoline. When you burn gas, all of that carbon that was sitting in the ground is now released in the atmosphere. However, when you burn ethanol, you’re still producing carbon, but that carbon came from plants who throughout their life consumed carbon from the atmosphere. This may not make ethanol any cheaper for consumers, but since when did driving a Prius make economic sense? (I joke, I kid).

      Despite my previous post, I’m not advocating ethanol as the only true alternative fuel, I think that in the future we’ll see ethanol, diesel, and even electric vehicles carving out their own reasonable sized pieces of the market. I’m still scratching my head over fuel cells, but that’s another post all together.
      • 9 Years Ago
      "...however, his relentless support for increased ethanol production and the further development of flex-fuel cars in the States seems somewhat careless."

      Relentless support for increased ethanol production and flex-fuel development is careless? Do you work for W?

      We've had a lot of years to perfect gasoline as a fuel. It burns pretty efficiently, can produce a bunch of horsepower and is available on every 3rd street corner. Unfortunately, people putting around under gas power is also killing the planet. NOT supporting efforts to increase ethanol research, production and flex-fuel vehicle development, or any other clean fuel innitiative, would be careless.

      Is ethanol the answer to all the world's problems? Maybe not, but even a small dent in gasoline usage, a tiny step towards cleaner fuel technology and research funding and/or a modest increase in public awareness would be positive outcomes.

      Honestly, one reporter glossing over the downside of a relatively young technology seems the least of our worries...
      • 9 Years Ago
      He is not a scientist or and engineer. He is a journalist and an opinion columnist at that. And while he does have the power to influence many his opinions should be discounted as just that, opinion. If it were on anything but the opinion page then a debate on full fact would be in order.
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