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Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Alcohol Is Not The Answer 

Hi Internets, it's Brother Atom Bomb of Warm Humanitarianism (I just like typing that).

I've called you all together to talk about alcohol. Specifically, the burning kind. I, like a good Running Dog Liberal, wish for our country to achieve Energy Independence, and most especially to wean ourselves from dependence on Foreign Oil. From time to time I read out there in Blogtopia® (Y!SCTP!) the wish that we used much more ethanol for our transport needs. Now, I haven't run the numbers, but I'm pretty sure this just won't work.

I spent a certain amount of time working on my Grandfather's farm back when the Earth was young and have a more than casual acquaintence with the process of growing Maize (or as we like to call it, Corn). Let's run through steps:

  1. Plow the field.
  2. Disc the field.
  3. Fertilize the field.
  4. Plant the seeds.
  5. Cultivate the field.
  6. Spray the field with herbicide.
  7. Cultivate the field again if necessary.
  8. Harvest the corn.

So now we have corn that's ready to be made into ethanol. Note that we drove forth and back on the field with a very low mileage tractor 8 times.

But how does corn become alcohol? It just so happens, internets, that I used to brew beer. Brewing beer is quite similar to the beginning steps of making fuel-grade alcohol. Not only that, but I took a lot of Organic Chemistry in college (Go Gauchos!) so I'm familiar with the post-brewing procedure as well. Lets list them all:

  1. Grind up the corn.
  2. Mash the corn (this is a brewing term that means convert the starch into simple sugars in a warm, aqueous solution using enzymes that come from malted barley.
  3. Boil the wort (the sugar solution from the previous step) to increase the sugar concentration.
  4. Ferment the wort (add yeast which eat the sugars and produce Carbon Dioxide and Ethanol).
  5. Use Fractional Distallation to get a solution of concentrated alcohol suitable for burning

That's 5 steps, 4 of which require heat or motion. I've left out the moving the corn from the field to the distillery since we have to move oil from it's starting point too.

Let's review. There are 13 steps from seed-corn to a tankful of useful ethanol. Of those 13 steps we have to expend serious amounts of energy in 12 of them. The yeast are happy as long as we maintain things around room temperature. They do through off heat as part of the fermentation, which can require cooling (ie, energy), but I'm disregarding it. Even with Super-Fabulous American Industrial Farming I have trouble believing that we end up with more energy available for burning than we used up producing it in the first place. If any of my loyal readers (all three of you ;^) know the numbers on this, please feel free to correct me.

In conclusion, internets, Alcohol Is Not The Answer.

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