Aug
07
2006

Which biofuel is better?

Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85.  Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Corn field: Corn is used to produce ethanol fuels, such as E85. Photo courtesy killermart, Flickr Creative Commons.
Biofuels are fuels that are derived from recently living organisms, such as corn or soybeans, or their byproducts, such as manure from cows. A recent study at the University of Minnesota examined the total life-cycle cost of all of the energy used for growing corn and soybeans and converting these crops into biofuels to determine what biofuel has the highest energy benefit and the least impact on the environment.
Corn grain ethanol vs. soybean biodisel
Two types of biofuels are becoming more visible as we look for alternatives to petroleum because of increasing gas prices: soybean biodisel and corn grain ethanol, such as E85. The study showed that both corn grain ethanol and soybean biodiesel produce more energy than is needed to grow the crops and convert them into biofuels. However, the amount of energy each fuel returns differs greatly. Soybean biodiesel returns 93 percent more energy than is used to produce it, while corn grain ethanol currently provides only 25 percent more energy than is used to produce it.
The study also compared the amount of greenhouse gases each biofuel released into the environment when used. Soybean biodiesel produces 41% less greenhouse gas emissions than diesel fuel while corn grain ethanol produces 12% less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline.
Not a silver bullet
The researchers conducting this study caution that neither biofuel is ready to replace petroleum. Even if all current U.S. corn and soybean production were dedicated to biofuels production, it would still only meet 12 percent of gasoline demand and 6 percent of diesel demand, and we still need to produce these crops for food. Biofuels are steps in the right direction, however, and can be a piece of the overall puzzle needed to be put together to solve our energy needs.

Your Comments, Thoughts, Questions, Ideas

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Soybean biodiesel is way better! We cant produce enough corn for our food demand, and for a biofuel!!! Idaho is a main producer of corn, and this season they are a main importer of it. The high demand for corn and low supply is also raising prices of eggs, milk, and many other farm based products. Farmers cant afford the high cost of chicken feed, and feed for other animals because it is either a corn mixture or all corn. Therefor they must raise the prices of their other products. Soybean biodiesel is sooooo much better!!! If you dont believe me just reread the paragraph.

posted on Fri, 04/06/2007 - 5:19pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Ethanol is causing the cost of milk to go up. Farmers feed corn to dairy cows. Refineries use corn to make ethanol. So, as demand goes up, the price of corn goes up, too. Farmers pay more to feed their cows, and thus have to charge more for milk to break even.

posted on Mon, 04/09/2007 - 12:33pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

And here's an article claiming that increased demand for corn from ethanol manufacturers is also driving up the cost of eggs -- just in time for Easter!

posted on Tue, 04/10/2007 - 1:01pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

And now meat, too.

posted on Thu, 04/12/2007 - 9:08am
Gene's picture
Gene says:

But here's some good news: a researcher who argues that we're better off making ethanol from non-food plants.

posted on Mon, 04/30/2007 - 3:31pm
Liza's picture
Liza says:

Yeah, that's a no-brainer.

Your researcher cites a bunch of work going on in Tennessee, but it's happening all over the country. Scientists are trying to figure out how to create energy using the plant material left over after harvesting food crops.

But here in Minnesota, researcher David Tilman has been looking at prairie ecosystems. He's found that:

"Diverse prairie grasslands are 240 percent more productive than grasslands with a single prairie species. That's a huge advantage. Biomass from diverse prairies can, for example, be used to make biofuels without the need for annual tilling, fertilizers, and pesticides, which require energy and pollute the environment. Because they are perennials, you can plant a prairie once and mow it for biomass every fall, essentially forever."

Even cooler, prairie grasses can grow on patches of land that are, for one reason or another, unsuitable for conventional food crops.

posted on Mon, 04/30/2007 - 4:07pm
Gene's picture
Gene says:

Now Popular Science chimes in, warning that over-reliance on corn-based ethanol could lead to food shortages.

posted on Mon, 06/11/2007 - 10:58am
Liza's picture
Liza says:

We just need that cellulosic ethanol breakthrough. Then we can make fuels from non-food crops, and do it on land that's not suitable for food production.

posted on Mon, 06/11/2007 - 11:25am
Peggy's picture
Peggy says:

I am researching information about E85 to demonstrate to students the various sources available to write papers. I have been having trouble finding a study that gives information about the poor fuel efficiency of E85. Most journals state 20% fewer mpg on E85 than regular gasoline. This study is helpful, but does anyone know of specific mpg data?

posted on Sat, 06/23/2007 - 8:59am
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous says:

Our high school, which is in Wisconsin, has began a purification system in which we use the artesian well outside our school, and bottle our water. We then use the money we get from selling the bottled water to pay for other things! You should try to do it! :)

posted on Sat, 03/28/2009 - 5:48pm

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