The View From 1776

Reconsidering Ethanol

Even some environmentalists are beginning to acknowledge that, with respect to “green” fuels, there is no free lunch.  Damaging collateral effects of ethanol production, it’s now clear, outweigh the touted benefits.  Other “green” fuels remain uneconomic.

It’s Final—Corn Ethanol Is Of No Use

Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address) on 04/20 at 04:20 PM
  1. As Forbes points out, corn in not the only way to make biofuels. There are costs to all fuel production, but in contrast to petroleum, the beauty of biofuels is that the fuel is from a renewable source. Once you burn a gallon of oil, that took 100,000,000 years to form, it is gone. Biofuels can be reproduced endlessly because the feedstock is the sun.

    Much of the world is turning toward renewables for the future. It would be unfortunate if in the USA the current level of "first cost" became the sole determining factor of our long term energy policy.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/20  at  07:22 PM
  2. It will be even more unfortunate if governmental bureaucrats are the ones who make the decisions and squander taxpayers' money.

    Germany, with its soaring energy costs that impoverish its citizens and drive business out of the country, is a foretaste of where Obama's "judgement" leads us.

    Successful investing in new technology is inescapably dependent upon entrepreneurial guts and skill. Government has no role in that. Privately financed forays into new technology will mostly come a cropper; but the money lost won't come out of the taxpayers' pockets. Venture investments that succeed will have done so because they make economic sense, not because they appeal to the economically-ignorant, "feel good" instincts of liberal-progressives.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/21  at  10:23 PM
  3. J. Jay,

    While it is true Forbes mentions alternative methods of biofuel manufacture, he is not endorsing any of them the way you imply, and that was not the import of his message. As usual, you make a big deal of ‘renewables’ as though the label alone makes them more meritorious of our consideration. Regardless the stock used for its production is corn, sugar or switch-grass, the resulting fuel still costs us more in energy and resources than is saved, is less economic, its aggregate pollution greater than simply burning fossil fuels, and its source materials are lost to other uses. You argue for algae and switch-grasses as though consuming those has no other economic impact, but that simply isn’t true as those are indirect food sources and require energy and other materials (which also consume energy to produce) in their conversion to fuel. So, the only real benefit gained from producing bio-fuels is what – the pat on the back you get from being politically-correct? If you are thinking you are preserving fossil-fuels for future generations, are you really? And, are future generations really more worthy of exploiting fossil fuels than are present generations? Must my grandchildren be made to suffer without so that your great-great-great grandchildren won’t (which they may anyway)? By your estimation renewables are superior to fossil-fuels regardless of economic considerations, so by your own logic future generations are better off given we consume all the nasty fossil stuff now, thereby alleviating them of any temptation to burn anything but bio-fuels (and wind and sunshine) down the road. Do you not see how silly, twisted, and circular this argument of your becomes?

    Forget for a moment so-called bio-fuels are synthesized from recently grown stuff. Other than that and their inferior fuel characteristics, they are remarkably un-differentiable from oil and gas. They still consist of complex hydrocarbons, they still burn to produce CO2, water, nitrous oxides, and the other pollutants for which fossil fuels are condemned. Which do you prefer we burn, the un-differentiable stuff that pollutes more or the un-PC stuff that pollutes less. The former choice sure sounds like a great leap backwards to me. Even the method of production is a partial but accelerated mimicry of nature in which fossil fuels are produced by heat and compression. Fossil fuels too are the product of organic decomposition, so are every bit as deserving of the ‘renewable’ label. Bio-fuels, then, are simply a subset of the products we get from oil every day, but in far larger quantities and at a lower overall expense in energy and labor because most of the work of converting is done for us.

    Forbes point was not to condemn bio-fuels (they have their place, eventually if not now) but simply to show how your obsession with renewables and the way we are going about this is economically and materially wasteful, and does nothing useful or lasting for future generations. Rethink your plan going forward, he is saying.
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    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/22  at  06:34 AM
  4. Bob,

    In this case your science is faulty. The difference between burning a bio fuel and a fossil fuel is significant. A biofuel does not add any CO2 to the atmosphere because the carbon used in the process is already above ground and in the cycle. So, whether the switchgrass decays naturally or is oxidized in a combustion cycle, the amount of CO2 released to the atmosphere is the same. Burning fossil fuels is an entirely different matter. Each gallon of oil or coal burned releases "new" CO2 into the atmosphere and thereby increases the concentration of greenhouse gasses present.

    You are also incorrect that there is a net negative energy balance in the production of bio fuels.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/22  at  04:05 PM
  5. J. Jay,

    Your presumptuousness in lecturing to a scientifically-trained engineer on proper science is quite a hoot!

    First, I was not defending Forbes as being in the right, I was merely demonstrating how you, once again, twisted what others say to make points of your own, points you invariably fail to support with fact or reason.

    That said, the fault is not in ‘my science’, but in your inability to reason to a full and proper conclusion. It does not matter to the atmosphere its CO2 comes from a bio-fuel or a fossil fuel if the net effect is more total CO2 in it. Both fossil fuels convert previously sequestered carbon to atmospheric carbon-dioxide. Plant matter that isn’t burned may have only recently sequestered is portion of carbon, its energy diffuse where fossil-fuels are energy dense, and represents but a first step toward the eventual concentration we designate ‘fossilized’, but there the differences pretty much end. Assume for a moment that, instead of burning these feed-stocks as fuel, your switch-grass, sugar and corn are consumed by people and animals (else composts back into the earth). In that case, how much CO2 is added to the atmosphere? As it turns out, quite a bit (see http://gaia.pge.utexas.edu/papers/NRRPaper2.pdf ) due to enriched soil (aka, fertilizer) out-gassing, though still much less than from burning (but certainly not negligible). Regardless, those are the terms you set us for substitution, so we must include, not only atmospheric increases from burning, but also those from production and growing. Instead of their carbon going into the air, plants normally gather carbon out of the atmosphere and put that into the ground and water, which, on net, removes it from the atmosphere (aka, sequestration). Now, in addition to the other items mentioned, you have interrupted this normal cycle of sequestration by burning the material, and that can only result in an increase in atmospheric CO2 also (note, not here speculating whether or by how much this is more than from fossil fuels). Consider too, that to get a gallon of bio-fuel requires many bushels of plant matter so that you are greatly accelerating the process of de-sequestration over what occurs in nature. That and, you are burning a significant amount of fossil fuel in the growing, transporting and production of your bio-fuels (I have read this can be as much as 29%). By changing its use from food or fertilizer, you changed its carbon-cycle function from a net remover of CO2 to a net adder. You have also intensively changed land-usage, and I have read where that also tends to reduce CO2 sequestration (bio-fuel crops not as effective at sequestration as forests, also changes planet albedo). I must assume the pseudo-scientific sources misinforming you CO2 is less from bio- than from fossil-fuel burning neglected some of these items from their balance sheets also.

    In summary, you are not making bio-fuels because you are out of fossil-fuels but because you are averse to using them, which makes this a pure substitution, and that means you must subtract from your atmospheric CO2 balance sheet all of the fossil-CO2 you would otherwise have put into the atmosphere before adding your ‘green’ CO2. Now, before you mistake this for an even trade-off, recall that, to get the same energy from bio-fuels, you had to burn between 17% and 42% more of them to get the same work output; and on a Btu for Btu basis that means more rather than less atmospheric CO2. Therefore, at least as far as our rough balance sheet is concerned, it is more probable you have increased total atmospheric CO2 over what would have been the case had you simply burned fossil fuels.

    Assuming you do want to scale this up to the point it gives fossil fuels a run for their money, you will need more reliable and higher Btu energy sources than bio-fuels, wind and solar can provide. This is because, for you to scale bio-fuels up, you must also scale up ‘non-renewable’ sources of energy (e.g., nuclear), at least if you expect to make this a ‘sustainable’ production But, of course that means starving every human on the planet because that is what it takes to replace even 20% of projected fuel demand. So, you are faced with something of a quandary. There are other negatives to massive ethanol production, and you can learn about those too (if seriously interested in learning something new and useful) from the links I provide.

    You claim the CO2 adding difference between burning fossil and bio-fuels is significant, but fail to a) say that favors bio-fuels or fossils (I can read it either way) and b) by how much. What you consider ‘significant’ may very well be insignificant because you don’t give us any idea of the assumptions, statistical confidence, or error-bands associated with this ‘scientific finding’ of yours (there are always some). I did a bit of searching and I found as much ‘current’ evidence against as for bio-fuels (from reputable sources) as well as a substantial level of uncertainty. That tells me I am far from alone in my reluctance to accept your bio-fuel argument among actual scientists, engineers and energy specialists. As I have not recently updated my knowledge of this particular dispute and that will take some time, I will not debate you now that your claim is bogus, only that it is unfounded and, given your track record, you almost certainly have it wrong. I will, however, come back to this as time allows.

    I endeavored to present, here, a balanced argument (i.e., one without bias), so don’t feel confused by any appearance of inconsistency. It was not my object to prove definitively bio-fuels are the greater CO2 polluters (though there is much to suggest it); only to demonstrate how false are your objections to Forbes and your portrayal of me. Had I argued bio-fuels are at least as life-cycle toxic (i.e., real pollutants like nitrous-oxides, ammoniates, sulfur compounds, &c), I could easily have made that case against them, especially ethanol. Ignoring CO2 (which really isn’t a pollutant), bio-fuels have all the worst of it. Thus, it only because of the phony ‘climate-change’ GHG designation it is lumped with real pollutants at all.

    Some better links regarding this subject for you to consider:
    http://netenergy.theoildrum.com/node/6760
    http://bioscience.oxfordjournals.org/content/55/7/593.full.pdf
    http://gaia.pge.utexas.edu/papers/SustainabilityTWP0929Published.pdf
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    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/24  at  07:35 AM
  6. J Jay,

    I may have found what I believe is a clue to both your confusion and what you believe to be wrong in Forbes’ assessment. No doubt you heard somewhere that bio-fuels ‘on-balance’ add no CO2 to the atmosphere (which may or may not be true), and interpreted that to mean “biofuel does not add any CO2 to the atmosphere”. You gave as a qualifier that is because its’ CO2 “is already above ground and in the cycle”, which doesn’t really prove your point without also showing how changing its end-use does not change its relevance (which I addressed in my previous post).

    As this article indicates (see http://www.cbc.ca/news/technology/ethanol-made-from-corn-stalks-spews-more-co2-than-gasoline-1.2616571 ), the official position is: ‘done correctly’ bio-diesel emits about half as much CO2 (number varies from half to 70%) used as a substitute for coal in electrical power production. You can find this same qualified-revelation at a number of government and bio-fuel advocacy sites, hence the ‘official position’. An awful lot hangs on that ‘done correctly’ caveat, though proponents do make a somewhat reasonable case for it using market-based arguments. It also depends, however, on the specific application. Not shown (nor implied) by these spokesmen is whether the same holds true of other applications (e.g., highway fuel) for which the ‘done correctly’ part is far harder to control. Other applications will, therefore, vary widely between these two ‘extreme’ cases, with most tending toward the latter. Hopefully, you see this is a much narrow definition than claiming bio-fuels ‘in the aggregate’ emit less than fossil fuels ‘in the aggregate’. Also, note neither the article nor those interviewed tell us whether the ‘half as much emitted’ refers to an ‘as-burned’ or ‘life-cycle’ comparison. If the former, then all bets are off for your claim even in this limited case. Your argument fails to differentiate into specific cases for which it happens to be true versus those that don’t. The jury is still out on whether it is also true in the aggregate; which is what you (without realizing) claimed.

    The other interesting thing in the article is its reference to a recent government sponsored study alleging “Biofuels such as ethanol made from the leftovers of harvested corn plants are worse than gasoline for global warming in the short term” which the writer then claims will be “better in the long run”, by which I assume he means net CO2 emissions. Here again, much is left hanging for us to interpret. “Better in the long run” may be the opinion of the article’s writer the problem will be addressed by process improvements (unrealistic). In an effort to resolve this, I attempted a search for his source document, but was only able to find secondary sources discussing the study’s findings. The first was written by the actual researchers in the journal ‘Nature Climate Change’, but I could only access its citation page (see http://www.nature.com/nclimate/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nclimate2187.html ). The other is from a natural gas journal (i.e., fossil guys; see http://www.naturalgasintel.com/articles/98140-use-of-corn-residue-for-biofuels-increases-co2-emissions-study-finds ). Neither of these sources suggests what the CBC writer alleged, which is that crop-residue somehow improve over time and that this somehow decreases the associated bio-fuel emissions. Moreover, it is clear from both articles that only corn-based fuel (aka, ethanol) is even mentioned. So, once again, we see how quickly a finding becomes garbled in the hands of amateurs, ideologues and advocacy groups.

    Some things this ‘science’ writer gets completely backwards, such as where he argues “ethanol is considered more sustainable than traditional biofuels, which are made from edible parts of food crops, including corn”, which suggests ethanol isn’t made from corn or similar edibles, which is clearly false. Another thing he gets wrong is in suggesting the greater CO2 emission level pertains only to crop residues (aka, stover); whereas, both the citation and other reporter make clear the increase is given as a life-cycle ratio of bio-fuel produced versus gasoline (expressed as a percent); and that inclusion of stover in the harvest and conversion makes a difference in this ratio being greater or less than one. Read almost any newspaper in the world, and you will find pretty much the same error laden reportage; in many cases verbatim as most of them parasitically and freely reprint copy from one another. Given the sad state of science reportage, of propaganda, and your blind dependence on both of those, it is almost excusable you would think you’d caught me in a similar error.

    Assuming the government study is right about inclusion of residue in the harvest, assuming the study agrees in other respects with similar advocate-sponsored studies, and given that residue cannot represent a large portion of the bio-mass processed, it cannot be that the 50% to 70% of gasoline’s CO2 emissions estimate applies to ethanol, and that, at least for ethanol, it must be that even proponents rate it close to gasoline as a polluter. Independent researchers, for their part and doing their own calculus, invariably rate particular bio-fuels as polluters while avoiding such blanket assessments as ‘all this’ or ‘all that’ and weasel-qualifiers as fool the uninitiated.

    As no one has succeeded in measuring CO2 emissions from all the life-cycle inputs to any bio-fuel, anything you may have heard is no better than an ‘educated best guess’. The more honest among us admit to this limitation, whereas the less scrupulous (those convinced ends justify means) pretend to greater certainty than the evidence warrants. Yes, we can and have measured emissions from burning this stuff, and we have measured the emissions of some (though not all) of the primary conversion processes, but not every emission from tilling, fertilizing, soil out-gassing, planting, watering, harvesting, transportation, pre-processing, waste disposal, blending, dispensing, &c has been measured with the same accuracy and/or confidence expected of this type assessment. That means there’s still a lot of uncertainty, and it could just as easily be argued aggregate bio-fuels, on net, add as subtract from total CO2.

    As an engineer, I do a lot of cost estimates; and one thing I have learned over the years is that the more detail I include in any given estimate, the closer I come to predicting the final cost of construction (i.e., ‘the truth’ of it). The same applies to estimates of net energy yield (EROEI) and net emissions. Looking at estimates compiled by bio-fuel’s advocates and its critics, I invariably find more detail in those supplied by critics. I have no way to tell if advocates have that extra data and are withholding it or simply ignore it as irrelevant. I do know, they are perfectly aware of the problem and of the demands on them to give a fuller accounting, and that has not been satisfied for a very long time now. The same, of course, can be claimed of critics (that they hide parts or the story as may only confuse you), but more and better information is always to be preferred for informing our decisions.
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    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/24  at  06:16 PM
  7. Bob,

    You have a point that in the very short run, if you burn a log (or a biofuel), you are releasing the carbon in that wood into the atmosphere. But that is true only instantaneously, and not in any kind of steady state analysis.

    The carbon in that log was formed out of the air in a process called photosynthesis. The carbon in that wood does not come out of the ground! If the log is not burned, but falls to the earth and rots, the very same amount of co2 is released back into the atmosphere as if it had been burned. So, in the process of growing and dying, all plant materials are constantly recycling a fixed amount of CO2 available in the atmosphere.

    The situation is grossly different if you dig down several miles below surface of the earth and bring up oil (or coal) that has been sequestered for 100,000,000 years. This is "new" carbon that has not been in play for millennia. When that oil is oxidized (burned), its CO2 is "new" in any meaningful sense of the word. That CO2 therefore raises the net concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere, whereas burning a log does not - assuming a replacement tree is growing somewhere else to roughly consume the same CO2 released by the burned log.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/26  at  09:17 PM
  8. J. Jay,

    If atmospheric CO2 was a plant’s sole source of carbon, you might have a valid point. However, it isn’t because plants get most of their carbon from soil and water. Carbon from soil and ground water is about nine times that of atmospheric. Much of soil carbon is already in forms a plant can directly use, whereas atmospheric CO2 must be broken down to be absorbed requiring the plant expend greater energy. Given this difference in availability, which do you suppose is any plant’s primary source for carbon? Atmospheric carbon is important to plant growth well above the ground, especially tall trees because it is far more efficient getting its carbon that way than siphoning it from the ground, but that is all.

    Here is something for you to consider. Let’s say we never discovered fossil fuels could be burned to tap their energy (at least not on a significant scale). How much would that really alter the carbon cycle or, for that matter, variations in atmospheric CO2 that we already know can be quite large even without us? We have previously mentioned man-made CO2 represents less than 3% of global CO2 emissions, and less than a third of that has found its way into our atmosphere. The rest goes into soil and water where it is stored or released in response to plant growth or warming (yep, it’s that CO2 lags temperature, not leads, thing again). One Mount St. Helen’s eruption emits in one year more CO2, CO, methane, carbon ash, and other GHGs than does all human contributions in a century. It can also eject a good deal of oil, tar and coal which get deposited on the surface. We also know fossil fuels don’t simply stay in the ground, but slowly percolate up and evaporate back into our soil, water and air, thereby reentering the ecosphere, and decaying plant matter just as steadily replaces them in the crust. Therefore, so-called fossil carbon is just as necessary to your cyclic analysis as is the biotic form, and there is no differentiating between them on that basis alone.

    Three centuries ago it wasn’t uncommon to find puddles of oil seeping out of the ground and whole lakes were often contaminated with the black stuff. Gas too seeped up from swamps and bogs, and were considered poisonous and explosively hazardous to human health. They still do except as we’ve drained and drilled them for their fuels. As it turns out, however, they are also sources of plant food. Except for its usefulness in tarring ship-bottoms and a few other applications, most people then considered oil and gas a nuisance to be avoided. Volatiles in the oil and gas that seeped out of the ground (and even before reaching the surface) would steadily evaporate into the air much the same as we now burn the stuff. Certainly, we have significantly increased the rate at which this carbon enters the air from fossil fuels, yet not as much as you imagine; and, as my 3%/1% rates show, this is still fairly small as compared to natural CO2 rates.

    Given water’s high affinity for CO2, any excess goes mainly to it (with the oceans acting as primary sink and emitter). It is surface water then that regulates how much gets into the air, based on the water’s temperature. Thus, it is water temperature more than any other single factor that decides how much or how little CO2 enters the atmosphere (and leaves it), and how much the atmosphere contains at any given point in time. Localized observations of CO2 support this by showing rapid and large swings in atmospheric CO2 with seasons. During summer months in the northern hemisphere, the biosphere acts to absorb CO2 over land creating a local effect. When the biosphere shuts down (winter), hemispheric CO2 rises significantly but not dramatically. The reason it isn’t dramatic as we’d expect is that water absorbs CO2 much faster than we are emitting it, and that dominates the steady state balance based not on our emission rates but on water temperature. If we were to stop all human emissions today at a point in time when the global ocean temperature has dropped, it probably wouldn’t take more than a few days to weeks for the oceans to reabsorb all the excess. If we can concede oceans dominate in the near-term, why would we suppose it wouldn’t in the slightly longer-term? If it is true in the near (as well as ancient) observation that temperature leads CO2 concentrations, and that observed CO2 variations are a nearly perfectly if somewhat lagging response to water temperature, and we fully understand how and why that works, why would we believe a century or two will represent some kind of “tipping point” or that a slightly greater total emission from a new source somehow changes all that? It is ocean temperature more than any other single factor, therefore, which determines long-term or steady-state concentration of atmospheric CO2.

    The problem in your analysis is that it does not encompass enough of the dynamic and does not admit of observed contributions of all its constituents. In essence, you are cherry-picking which you will admit are significant and which to ignore as too upsetting of your foregone conclusions.


    Further readings:
    https://docs.google.com/document/d/1nuCCny0pP-x2i0BwZ29o0k5yJ4RW11Z0XkL10jfXmVw/edit?pli=1
    http://www.co2science.org/subject/c/summaries/carbondioxide.php
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/27  at  09:11 AM
  9. J. Jay,

    If you read my post #8, you will see I have also addressed your "...situation is grossly different if you dig down several miles below surface of the earth and bring up oil (or coal) that has been sequestered for 100,000,000 years. This is "new" carbon that has not been in play for millennia" comment there. Just because it is a couple of miles down, does not mean it is out of play. It just takes longer for it to interact with the surface. As a matter of fact, most gas and oil makes its way back up without our assistance and, geologically speaking, quite rapidly. What is left behind is mostly coal. But, even coal breaks down over time (just takes far longer) before making its own way to the surface. Only oil and gas that is trapped in some manner (usually under a shelf of dense, impermeable rock)and forms large discoverable pockets is recoverable by drilling. So, you see, it is not "grossly different' at all. It is marginally different and mainly a difference of timing and rate.

    We have burned oil and gas since ancient times (both vegetable and fossil), so it cannot be climate-change's contention those are entirely new. Their argument is a precedence of scale. Burning a log (especially as we are now talking about historically huge quantities of logs) also greatly increases the rate at which carbon reenters the atmosphere over what occurs naturally. Therefore, your argument fails on that count also.
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    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/27  at  09:31 AM
  10. J. Jay,

    BTW, oil, gas and coal are a lot closer to the surface than you give it credit. It is only because we have already mined all the large seams close to the surface that we now dig down so deep. Coal mines run the gamut from surface to just under a mile, but average around 0.6-mile. Oil is recovered anywhere from surface pits to 6.6-miles with an average well depth of 1-mile. The average gas well is also a little over a mile, with the deepest well being coincidental with oil (i.e., same well). That still leaves one heck of a lot of oil, gas and coal we've drilled right past because it was considered too thin to bother. But if you add up all the thin stuff we bypassed, it amounts to a lot more than we've taken out and still in the ground as so-called 'recoverable reserves'. And, that stuff still percolates up and outgasses all the time. I don't know where you get this notion fossil carbon is so deep it has no effect on our biosphere, but that is pure hogwash.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/27  at  01:13 PM
  11. Bob,

    I admire your spirited responses, but I suggest you review the notes you took in Botany 101 when your were in college. Plants do not take any carbon "from water" or "from the soil." All of the carbon in, say, a tree originates from CO2 in the atmosphere.

    The basic photosynthesis equation for creating cellulose from CO2 in the air is:

    CO2 + H20 + sunlight -> CH20 + O2

    You can see that as the CO2 is transformed into the plant's structure, oxygen is liberated into the atmosphere (for us to breathe).

    You are correct that CO2 does dissolve into the oceans but this is not good news either because in that reaction, the CO2 is transformed into carbonic acid lowering the pH of the oceans and dissolving the coral reefs and causing other damage. The concentration of dissolved CO2 in the oceans is described by Henry's Law and as the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere increases, the oceans get more acidic. Fortunately for us, the rate of this reaction is slow.

    That interaction is:

    CO2 + H20 <---> H2CO3 (carbonic acid)



    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/27  at  09:21 PM
  12. J. Jay,

    If all you remember from biology class was photosynthesis, you must have been asleep through much of it (which I quite understand). however, it is also clear you didn't recheck your facts on this before commenting (no surprise there) other than to look up photosynthesis. Soil-carbon is just as important as the atmospheric variety to plants. The importance of photosynthesis comes into play mainly so that plants can grow more than a few inches off the ground, and without it plant life would have remained ground-bound. Never mind biology 101, any farmer can tell you the importance of soil carbon, without which plants could not thrive or even get started (see http://www.organicgardening.com/learn-and-grow/carbon-nation & http://www.nature.com/scitable/knowledge/library/plant-soil-interactions-nutrient-uptake-105289112 ), and water plays an important role in transporting carbon from the soil into plants. Tell me, where do you think cave lichens and plants growing deep in a dense forest get their carbon when sun-blocked? Or, how about sea grasses well below the ocean's surface where the sun is weak? There is no argument over this from biology or the climate-change cabal. Really, J Jay, you are being awfully pigheaded about something not in dispute by anyone even on your side of this debate. Yes, photosynthesis is important to plants, it is just not a plants primary source of carbon unless it is one of those spindly 'air ferns'. But, if plants depended on photosynthesis for all or even most of their carbon, they would have a very hard time of it.

    I know you think you've been quite clever, and have, for once, outfoxed me, but you are still just a 'hare' shy of it.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/27  at  10:37 PM
  13. Bob,

    Your insistence that plants extract carbon out of the soil to grow is really quite astounding and baffling. (Your reference to a fluff web site on composting kitchen scraps is equally puzzling.)

    I suspect you would be equally surprised with me if I suddenly tried to convince you that the maximum bending moment in a simply support beam is not WL*L/8.

    This is not a sophisticated concept. Plants grow by photosynthesis and not because they have their roots in dirt!
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/29  at  09:46 AM
  14. J. Jay,

    You are right the last article I presented you with was a bit fluffy. But, as you ignored the earlier ones making essentially the same point, I assumed those were too difficult for you and so, sought and found something more at your comprehension level. You are a great one for lecturing others we don’t cite sources sufficiently rigorous or ‘peer-reviewed’. Yet, when we do you won’t read them, and persistently cite from “fluffy” and garbled derivative sources on the rare occasions you cite from anything at all. Since you obviously need more in the way of ‘authoritative sources’ to convince you of your fallacy, try this one (see http://www.dpi.nsw.gov.au/agriculture/resources/soils/soil-carbon/biochar-in-horticulture ). Plus, you will find more further down as will answer your “fluffy” source charge.

    I have been learning something too from this debate in regard to how plants operate and admit biology is not my forte, but, whereas, I do at least look up information with which I am less familiar before venturing an opinion, it is your habit to venture first, then spend inordinate energy defending what you should have checked out first. And, if I am guilty here of bringing less than full knowledge to the table, it is still well above that you brought to it.

    Here are a couple of things I have learned in the course of this debate. First is the importance of PS is three-fold: as a source of plant energy, carbon (nutrient) intake, and as its primary mechanism of storing energy in the form of sugars. Second is that, it is this food-energy conversion that differentiates PS from soil carbon intake. Sugars are an efficient form in which to store food, which is why it is so important. Without this conversion and storage, plants would be utterly dependent on soil carbon, and could not ride out short periods of soil depletion. Photosynthesis also allows a plant to ‘recharge’ soils in contact with it with carbon (and nitrogen, and other stuff) which the plant, itself, depletes. Thus, PS is a huge survival advantage. However, the opposite is also true. During prolonged periods of occlusion (sun blocked), plants that are utterly dependent on photosynthesis will be at a disadvantage. Thus, there is nothing either in PS operation or in all the literature on it as excludes soil-carbon as an alternate food source, nor arguing plants exclude soil-carbon from its production and storage of sugars.


    I will agree with you to this extent that not all soil-sourced carbon is in a form plants can use as efficiently for food as CO2; and, for that reason, must revise my estimate of CO2’s importance upward relative to soil-carbon. However, it is not by accident that plants grow up from the ground and not suspended from mid-air. They grow up from the ground because that is where most the stuff they need to survive resides and is available to them. Strip the ground of food carbon, and your plants will wither and die. If you don’t believe this, here is an experiment you can try at home using carbon deficient soil. Start with soil that is utterly deficient in nutrients. Then, add all those other nutrients listed in the above linked paper except carbon. Next, add seed and water; and, then sit back and watch while nothing grows. This is something any farmer or gardener can tell you will happen (which is why I included ‘fluff’ the article to which you so strenuously objected). In fact, it happens to an awful lot of novice gardeners until they learn to add stuff like compost, charcoal and/or animal fats to their gardens. And, and as my links show, this business of carbon is quite a bit more sophisticated than either of us gave it credit.

    Next we’ll examine plant evolution (you do believe in evolution, right?). Plants have existed on Earth (according to one source) between 2.5-billion and 3.5-billion years, yet PS-dependent plants are less than half a billion years old. Plants started out in our oceans billions of years ago at a time our atmosphere was so CO2 rich as to be hostile to life. Not only was it un-breathable, but it was also highly acidic (CO2 +H2O => H2CO3) and lacked ozone protection. Ocean surface water was also fairly hostile, and the planet was shrouded by a heavy cloud layer. Therefore, plant life can only have gotten its start in our oceans where photosynthesis would not have played a dominant role in plant survival. Even today, ocean plant life (including non-PS dependent) is as thriving as the land variety, and can be found at surprising depths (such as those in the vicinity of sub-surface volcanoes). And, significantly, it absorbs its CO2 directly from seawater in a way that differs significantly from leaf transpiration in air (mechanism is more akin to root absorption with water as the medium of transport). Ocean plants also use photosynthesis to convert carbon, but their primary medium of carbon intake is water. One thing we do know about evolution is that really useful alternatives are rarely discarded by it, and every life-form employs multiple means to many of the same ends.

    We see a great deal on the internet regarding photosynthesis that is published solely because the carbon cycle’s is critically important to the climate-fad argument. Because of that criticality, we are swamped with informational messages (mostly fluff) on photosynthesis to the near exclusion of other relevant information on the subject. Even doing a carefully worded search intended to exclude PS, I got swamped with PS info (including an awful lot of obvious propaganda), and had to drill down many pages to find unadulterated soil-carbon info. I can, for this reason (plus typical presentations never mention alternate sources of plant carbon), almost forgive your laziness and acceptance of such drivel as ‘plants only get carbon through photosynthesis’.

    http://blog.cifor.org/8178/new-tree-planting-and-water-use-methods-boost-soil-carbon-to-aid-food-security-in-africa - article describing program to enrich carbon-deficient soil in Africa. Per the article this program is scientifically based.

    http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v16/n402/abs/016210b0.html - citation to an access-restricted article in ‘Nature’ (a peer-reviewed journal) clearly stating not all of a plant’s carbon is obtained through PS; only that “the greater part of it” is from PS. I suspect were we allowed access to the article we would find by carbon they really mean ‘food carbon’, which is not all the carbon a plant uses. Citation says over half this (lesser?) amount comes from CO2, but that can also mean any amount up to half also. Moreover, and as my next link shows, at least some plant CO2 is taken from soil.

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/portal/utils/pageresolver.fcgi?recordid=1398812090448242 then there is this NIH article not only confirming plants absorb some of their carbon from soil through roots, some of which is in the form of CO2. Moreover, this article makes the same observation I do that non-atmospheric, non-PS carbon intake has been generally and strenuously ignored, and is forgotten in the literature to the point many ‘experts’ (including some biologists) are now unaware of its existence and relevance.

    I believe this suffices to dispel your “fluff” criticism. If not, I will happily supply you with more as will overwhelm obstinence.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/30  at  06:31 AM
  15. J. Jay,

    BTW, in my post #12, I provide you with two links; one 'fluffy' and one from a peer-reviewed source of which you took no notice. Both make the case for soil as sources of plant carbon.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  04/30  at  06:45 AM
  16. J. Jay,

    Regarding your final comment of post #4 wherein you claimed "You are also incorrect that there is a net negative energy balance in the production of bio fuels", no I am right about that also, and this is something we have gone over and over in past debates to which you have offered nothing substantial in reply. If you are serious about answering this question (and honestly), then read (not the first time offered) this scholarly paper by Tad Patzek (see http://gaia.pge.utexas.edu/papers/CRPS416-Patzek-Web.pdf) providing the most exhaustive analysis I have so far found on the thermodynamic life-cycle of ethanol production and consumption. In case you are wondering, Patzek is deeply ‘green’ and believes in man-made global-warming, so his objections to it are not to renewables, climate-hype or the carbon-pollution misnomer. His objects are a) it is bad for the environment and b) it takes us in the wrong direction if the object is reducing fossil consumption. Unlike a great many scholars working on this question of net-energy gain/loss, however, Patzek clearly isn’t in the pocket of the ethanol lobby. Pimentel is another who comes down against ethanol as a net-energy loser and a polluter. The rest are all over the map in their predictions of gain, meaning there is no real consensus on this other than Patzek represents one extreme at 2.3-7 times greater energy lost (in making ethanol than engines recoup) versus the current ethanol industry estimate of a 50% net-energy gain using a far simpler analysis as leaves out important energy cost elements. Among Patzek’s conclusions, he lists the following:
     Excluding the restoration work of decontaminating aquifers, rivers, and the Gulf of Mexico, the minimum cumulative exergy consumption in restoring the environment polluted and depleted by the industrial corn-ethanol cycle is over 7 times higher than the maximum shaft work of a car engine burning the cycle’s ethanol.
     This unfavorable ratio decreases to approximately 4, when an efficient internal combustion engine is used to burn the ethanol, and to 2.3 when an imaginary hydrogen fuel cell is used (i.e., does not exist).
     The industrial corn cycle is not renewable, and is unsustainable by a wide margin (at least 2.3 – 7 times).
     No process changes can make this cycle more viable. (i.e., recent supposed improvements in this process are simply creative bookkeeping exercises by ethanol promoters)
     The annual corn-ethanol biofuel production is a human assault on geologic processes and the geologic time scale, and it can never work.
     The limiting factors, nutrient-rich humus and water that carries the dissolved nutrients to plant roots are augmented by chemicals obtained in the linear, irreversible fossil fuel-based processes.
     Over the last fifty years, corn yield has grown five-fold, mostly because of the steep increases in fertilization rate of corn fields.
     Sunlight is not a limiting factor, and could be used to great benefit if we were in less of a hurry, cf. Appendix C.

    BTW, exergy is a real term and not a typo (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Exergy )

    The net-energy case for bio-diesel is not much better, but may at least be closer to 1.0.
    _
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/02  at  11:49 AM
  17. Readers,

    Please forgive the funny indenting in my just prior post above. The list of Patzek's conclusions was supposed to have been in the form of bullets, but did not appear that way when posted.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/02  at  11:52 AM
  18. Bob,

    While I am impressed with your efforts to come to grips with the reality of photosynthesis, I suspect you confuse the uptake of nutrients (some of which have carbon atoms in them) with the process of growth, which is solely due to the process of photosynthesis. The nutrients are involved as a catalyst, but the carbon in the plant's structure comes from CO2 in the air.

    You might want to Google the word "Hydroponics." This is the process of growing crops in water using no soil at all!

    You may have an orchid or two around the house. These plants grown in the jungle up in the air and have no contact with the soil at all.

    And whether it is possible to have a net positive energy balance for crop production using only renewables, I suspect you are old enough to remember steam tractors that farmers used prior the advent of gasoline powered internal combustion engine tractors. (I can remember riding on these as a child!) These steam tractors were fired with wood (a renewable) so that the claim that the energy balance for agricultural production must always be negative without the use of petroleum does not hold water.
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/04  at  04:55 PM
  19. J. Jay,

    You grow tiresome and are grasping at straws.

    I am (and was) perfectly aware of hydroponics as an alternative to growing plants in the ground. So what? It may be that is how hydroponic farmers do it, and even some plants come by it naturally (e.g., water lilies), but it is not the way most plants do it in a state of nature. I never said you cannot grow plants in water in the absence of soil-carbon (given you carefully control other factors) only that plants utilize soil carbon almost as much as they do atmospheric CO2; which remains true. I also conceded (most) plants can make do without soil carbon, but not without photosynthesis. And, no, I am not confusing food carbon with carbon as a carrier for other nutrients (carbon compounds found in soil are not typically nutrient carriers). The articles I supplied you with put to rest your nonsense claiming soil-carbon is never utilized as a food source, so I will simply reference you back to those. FYI, nutrients are broken down at the roots into constituent parts prior to being transported up the plants capillaries; and water is the plant’s carrier medium – not carbon.

    I already pointed out there are plants that grow suspended in air (a few), making your point regarding orchids redundant and resolving exactly nothing. Moreover, there are more than 20,000 orchid species many of which grow only in soil or anchored to trees and other plants from which they draw nutrients (i.e., parasitic) including carbon, so you need to be more specific which subspecies grows in and on thin air (doubtful). All you have shown by this is plants (including orchids) get carbon from a variety of sources other than atmospheric CO2, thereby making my earlier point.

    Yes, I remember steam-tractors but, again, so what? In what way does that show the energy used to produce ethanol is less than that that recovered upon burning it in an engine? Answer: it doesn’t. All that shows is wood is also a fuel. Big woof!

    The problem with your arguments is you utterly lose track of the original question and are chasing corollary phantoms. The original question was: a) are ‘renewable’ fuels (like ethanol) sustainable from the life-cycle net-energy perspective and b) do they also pollute in the same sense and degree as fossil fuels. The answer to a) is ‘unlikely’ and to b) a resounding ‘yes’ and includes CO2 as a so-called pollutant. You then invoked the carbon-cycle, arguing a log’s carbon does not come out of the ground; which I substantially proved is incorrect because plants do, in fact, take a great deal of carbon from the ground. You invoked that argument thinking it would disprove my argument that, on a Btu basis, bio-fuels add as much CO2 to the atmosphere as fossil fuels. It didn’t. The rest of your argument devolves into trying to prove soil-carbon is unnecessary to plants; which, while that may or may not be true , is still irrelevant to your own argument given most of them do so anyway, and that changing that basic paradigm changes your argument to something else altogether.
    _
    Posted by .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)  on  05/04  at  07:23 PM
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