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-June 26, 2007


Green Supply Chain News: Ethanol Derived From Corn May Not Be All Its Cracked Up to Be


MIT Report Questions Feasibility of Corn-Based Ethanol as Alternative to Fossil Fuel; 75% of U.S. Corn Production Devoted to Fuel?


By Connie Venema


A new report out of MIT’s Laboratory for Energy and the Environment is giving pause to those looking to corn-based ethanol to fill the widening gap between oil demand and peak production.  Written by Tiffany Groode and John Heywood, and entitled “Ethanol: A Look Ahead,” the report examines the petroleum consumption, greenhouse emissions, and land impacts of the ethanol industry.

The study looks at the entire process of ethanol production and all the additional variables that enter into the production equation.  It specifically focuses on the concept of net energy value, the difference between the energy cost of production and the energy value of the product.  For corn-based ethanol (corn being the only technically feasible high-volume feedstock currently being used for ethanol production), the energy costs of growing the corn depend on where the corn is grown.  Corn grown in poor soil requires additional fertilizer and irrigation, which decreases the net energy value of the ethanol.

According to Groode, using corn grown in Iowa as a feedstock for ethanol production gives the fuel approximately the same energy efficiency as gasoline, while growing the corn in Georgia, where the soil isn't as good, causes the net energy value of the ethanol to be less than gasoline.

The report also examines ethanol’s effect on greenhouse gasses, which are approximately equal to gasoline.  While ethanol burns more cleanly than gasoline when it is used, the natural gas and electricity used in the production processes offset these lower emissions during use.

Currently, the U.S. Government has set a goal of increasing ethanol production seven fold by 2017.   However, if corn is the sole source of production, Groode’s analysis of the land impact seems to render these goals unattainable.  To meet the government goals, 75% of all current corn production would need to be dedicated exclusively to fuel. 

In the final analysis, Groode concludes that while corn-based ethanol has significant shortcomings as a complete long-term solution, it does have some good points.  From an overall economic standpoint, corn-based ethanol could serve to reduce dependency on foreign oil, providing time for the development of better alternatives.  In addition, corn-based ethanol could function as a stepping stone to other forms of ethanol currently being researched.

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