the brazilian model: will ethanol work for america?

The last episode of “60 Minutes” focused on the use of ethanol as a gasoline replacement. In the course of making the case as to why it’s probably something that we should more seriously consider here in the states, the producers drew heavily on the experience of Brazil, where ethanol now accounts for nearly half of all the fuel used in transportation. (And where 7 out of every 10 new vehicles produced is a “flex” vehicle, which can run on either gasoline or ethanol, or any mixture of the two.)

As luck would have it, I had occasion today to speak with a person from Brazil who pointed out a few key differences between our two countries. First, there’s the fact that Brazil, which is roughly the size of the continental U.S., creates its ethanol from sugarcane while we produce ours from corn, which is much less efficient. Then, there’s the matter of our current level of consumption being much, much greater than that of Brazil. Taken together, even putting aside for a moment the fact that we have an entrenched and very much unreceptive oil industry to contend with, it would appear as though ethanol could never be a complete solution in and of itself. (This is especially true if you factor in the liklihood that crop yields will decrease significantly in the absence of petrol-based fertilizers, and that, with a much larger population than Brazil, we require a great deal more land to be used for food production.)

(On the up side, perhaps we’ll be able to grow energy-dense sugarcane here in the U.S. in the not to distant future, thanks to global warming.)

Anyway, while ethanol doesn’t seem to be a panacea, it’s certainly worth pursuing on a much greater scale that what we are presently doing. (The 60 Minutes segment can be watched online at the CBS News site.)

Brazil, which set out to become energy independent in the mid-1970’s, you might be interested to know, will finally reach that goal this year… Who knows how long it will take us once we acknowledge that as our objective.

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  1. murph
    Posted May 9, 2006 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    I’m currently reading Pollan’s “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” (to wit, when one _can_ eat anything, what _should_ one eat?). The first third is about the industrial model of agriculture, which can be simplified as “oil -> corn -> everything”.

    I don’t have the numbers handy, but he definitely backs up JHK’s assertion on technology not replacing energy. Current methods of growing corn take, I think he said, a 55-gallon drum of gasoline per acre. Plus some for processing and refining, and you hit the recent numbers about how ethanol production is a net energy loss. (Also, the recent numbers about how hybrid cars require more energy per mile over their production and use lifespan than standard oil-driven cars.)

    The book is, in general, pretty good. The first third, on industrial ag, is definitely better put in “Fast Food Nation” and Manning’s “Against the Grain”, but the middle third, on pastoral agriculture – “clean food” – is pretty amazing.

  2. DM
    Posted May 9, 2006 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    I looked into purchasing pure ethanol recently to use as a thinner for shellac. The reasoning was to find a non toxic finish for a project I was working on.

    I discovered that the reason why the paint grade alcohol is mixed with a poisonous additives to denature it is so that it cannot be called food grade and therefore avoid the tax on liquor. The only option for pure ethanol was to buy it through a lab ( they use it as a disinfectant ) or buy everclear and pay the tax.

    It is similar to the system used for tax purposes on some fuels. Home heating oil is diesel that is dyed red so that it cannot be sold for vehicle use and some jet fuels are kerosene that is dyed blue. I’m assuming that this is also for tax purposes, but may be because of additives.

    It seems unlikely, due to the economic reasons that murph and others have pointed out, that we would run vehicles on pure ethanol, but if it were ever an option the tax laws would definitely be a stumbling block.

    Regarding hybrids, I have wondered about how long those batteries will last and what kind of an environmental impact they will have after their usefulness.

    There is a contest now to develop a 250mpg car with the requirement of producing and selling 10,000. The prize is $25 million.

  3. Anonymatt
    Posted May 9, 2006 at 6:38 pm | Permalink

    I don’t have any specific comments on any of your recent posts, but I thought I should mention somewhere that The Phil Silvers Show aka Sgt. Bilko is now available on DVD. Now excuse me while I go watch it.

  4. Ken
    Posted May 9, 2006 at 8:21 pm | Permalink

    I saw that 60 Minutes episode the other day. I thought it interesting that the scene that they show of the harvesting of the sugar cane is a handful of people with sickles. That certainly cuts down on the fuel needed to harvest the stuff. That made me think that there is no shortage of poor folks in Brazil to do this kind of harvesting.

    Perhaps slavery will be the way past the long emergency. If there are folks that are willing to harvest the fuel so they can be fed, I don’t think that the cars will ever stop rolling.

  5. DM
    Posted May 9, 2006 at 11:03 pm | Permalink

    I have an idea for a vehicle that runs on ethanol. It involves converting existing vehicles into rickshaws and running them with beefcakes and budweiser.

  6. Ken
    Posted May 9, 2006 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

    I’ll do it. And I’m not even a beefcake…

  7. mark
    Posted May 10, 2006 at 7:13 am | Permalink

    I prefer the idea of slaves giving piggyback rides.

  8. ol' e cross
    Posted May 10, 2006 at 8:16 am | Permalink

    EMU has a free technology lecture series every spring. This year it focuses on “Life After Hydrocarbons.” I’ve got no idea if it’ll be any good, but I thought I’d share the details in case any locals want to attend. Could be the perfect forum to promote budcake rickshaws…

    The Twenty Fifth Annual Spring Lecture Series
    College of Technology, Eastern Michigan University

  9. Tony Buttons Esq.
    Posted May 10, 2006 at 11:23 am | Permalink

    “Riding Piggyback on Slaves”

    Do I sense a front-runner in the race to replace Nascar once the oil runs out?

  10. leighton
    Posted May 10, 2006 at 6:08 pm | Permalink

    Two words Die sel.

    My semi (filled with certified non-dyed tax diesel) gets about the same mileage of a Hummer H1 pulling the weight of 12 H2’s.

    Europe is way ahead of us in diesel technology, so our environmental regulations are geared towards protecting Detroit’s jobs (and ostensibly our air, based on old knowledge of those “dirty” engines).

    There’s a rabid, growing diesel advocacy in the US pushing for greater adoption of clean, new engines that are newly available. Now, I’m one of them.

    A VW TDI lasts longer and gets better real-world mileage than any hybrid. It doesn’t have that short-lived battery (but we all get new cars after 4 years, so what do we care whwere the lithium goes? Psyche hospitals?).

    “Today, gasoline has evolved to be a really complex mix of loads of different chemicals with very tight tolerances on what works in modern engines / catalytic converters and what doesn’t, and it takes a huge amount of energy to refine compared to diesel. This extra energy is rarely mentioned when people talk about gasoline.”

    “Owners of previous VW diesels take great joy in reporting (and re-reporting) an engine life span that exceeds their upholstery

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