Sunday, June 25, 2006

Ethanolic Delirium

First Law of Thermodynamics: Energy is always conserved, it cannot be created or destroyed.

A couple of interesting stories about the ethanol industry in the mid-west led me to a rather bizarre statement issued by the Department of Agriculture regarding the energy "benefits" of ethanol. What apparently issued forth from the DoA was a statement so profoundly impossible, it was hard to believe and, I fear, may be further indicative of the listless state of the federal bureaucracy, removed as it now appears to be from any consideration of even the simplist of scientific understanding.

According the DoA, "analysts" there have concluded that ethanol use will exhibit a positive energy equation, claiming that energy output of ethanol will be 67% greater than the energy inputs. Yes, according the the Department of Agriculture, we have tapped into an amazing new energy source in the universe and it manifests itself to us in the form of corn-based ethanol, which appears to the DoA as a secret font of energy riches. I'm guessing the First Law of Thermodynamics will have to be reconsidered now that the geniuses at Archer Daniels Midland have stumbled upon the next big thing.

Actually, I am being a bit facetious in those remarks. Use of organic material as an energy source is dependent upon our exploiting the plant's ability to photosynthesize sunlight, nutrients and water. Our use of organic matter can be energy positive from our perspective if for one reason: we don't work too much in order to use it. In fact, this is only one way for an agricultural product to exhibit energy positive content. But we don't do that. Indeed, one of the reasons that modern agri-business realises such enormous crop yields is because of the huge amounts of energy that are dumped into production, from petroleum fertilizers, to modern tractors, to freighting and shipping. Unless agri-business is ready to move into an organic production mode, using nothing but sun, poop and water and horse to haul it to market, energy positive crop yields are, at best, a fanciful notion.

The only reason our prevailing energy source, petroleum, is energy positive (and hugely so) is because we didn't make it, the pressures and temperatures of the earth did. But that is not true for agri-business corn. Plants as a source of energy can be energy positive as long as human activity in growing the plant, whatever it is, is kept to a minimum and the plant itself is allowed to do the work of energy conversion. However, this is hardly true of modern agri-business farming, which dumps vast amounts of energy into production, ultimately rendering the final energy equation negative. The DoA even laughingly claimed that "efficiency improvements in the fertilizer and ethonol industries" would yield even greater energy benefits, as though dumping energy-expensive, petroleum-based fertilizers onto crops was somehow going to create more energy. What the DoA seems to want to ignore is that our efficiencies in using any source of energy are extremely poor (automobiles engines, for example, are on the order of 10% efficient in burning fuel).

Dr. Pimentel has rightly called the entire ethanol effort a boondoggle, which it is. Under the current paradigm of big business farming in the United States, it cannot possibly be the source "free" energy ethanol proponents would like everyone to believe.


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