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Monday, October 6, 2014

Eco-benefits of ethanol challenged by research

Environmental pros and cons of ethanol
Flat connectivity structure of ethanol
The effectiveness of all biofuels in preserving the environment has been challenged by the results of research released this year. More specifically, a study performed by researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln has found that the use of “crop residue” to create ethanol has the potential to leave a greater immediate carbon footprint on the environment than fossil fuels. This type of biofuel is called cellulosic per CBC News and is not the same ethanol that is made from edible plant parts.

A major claim of the study is that ethanol made from corn residue creates more carbon emissions than conventional fuel and thereby fails to meet national legal regulatory requirements pertaining to fuel. Some of the details about the controversial study are evident in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln press release on the matter. Moreover, the public document states the following:
“The team found that removing crop residue from cornfields generates an additional 50 to 70 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule of biofuel energy produced (a joule is a measure of energy and is roughly equivalent to 1 BTU). Total annual production emissions, averaged over five years, would equal about 100 grams of carbon dioxide per megajoule -- which is 7 percent greater than gasoline emissions and 62 grams above the 60 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions as required by the 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act.”
Several counter-arguments have already been made regarding the findings of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln study. For example, CBC News cites a global business director at DuPont as saying the study is not an accurate representation of what would really happen. More specifically, to reach the high levels of carbon emissions discussed in the study, farmers would have to harvest far more residue than is agriculturally sustainable. Officials from the federal government have also stated the study assumes unrealistic harvesting practices per The Hill.

One study does not necessarily change an industry over night. This is evident in the initial discovery of the effects of leaded gasoline on the environment. Moreover, according to the LEAD Group Inc., the implementation of federal policy decisions that promoted unleaded gasoline over leaded gasoline took multiple decades following release of supporting research.

A part of the reason for the delay is similar to what holds up legislation in today's political environment, namely corporate lobbying and intervention. What the University of Nebraska-Lincoln study does indicate is that ethanol made from corn residue has the capacity to produce greater carbon emissions in the short run. Moreover, even if less than 100 percent of a corn field is harvested for corn residue, the negative effects may still be substantial. This may become evident in additional research on the matter.

The best way to protect the Earth's environment is to not use fuel at all as it all increases carbon emissions that are believed to affect the global climate. This is not a practical solution as it would likely lead to economic havoc and massive geo-political issues. Governments, academic institutions and corporations around the world have attempted to produce alternative energy that is more environmentally-friendly, but the effectiveness of these alternatives is sometimes put to the test. The University of Nebraska-Lincoln study is one such example and may serve as in indicator of the fate of ethanol's use in conventional gasoline.

Image: US-PD