back to article Ethanol cars unhealthier than petrol ones?

An American academic has published research (pdf) suggesting that bio-ethanol vehicles could be more damaging to human health than ordinary fossil-fuelled ones. Mark Jacobson of Stanford University in California used two computer models to predict American air quality in the year 2020. In the first scenario, it was taken that …


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  1. Steve Mason


    "The question is, if we're not getting any health benefits, then why continue to promote ethanol and other biofuels."

    How about the fact that as a planet we are running out of oil, and the need to switch to renewable fuel sources far outweighs the results of some dodgy research with "blips" in the data.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Using ethanol does have a couple of benefits

    Namely lower hydrocarbon and nitrogen dioxide emissions and an almost complete absence of the carcinogenic particulates you get out of diesel engines.

    And I didn't even come over all Clarksonian about how fabulous ethanol is for octane numbers

  3. Simon Martin

    More of a troll than a gorilla

    I get a bit fed up to see nuclear pushed as the "only" way out of the energy generation problem. The disingenuous nature of the arguments put forward by the nuclear industry and its supporters really annoys me. just look at the amount of CO2 generated in extracting the fuel from ore and the problems with disposing of the worn out power stations (let alone the spent fuel.)

    If we'd invested the money squandered on nuclear solutions on technologies such as geo-thermal, solar, and wave energy then the future would be looking a lot brighter (and cheaper.)

  4. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    The gorilla might also be a geothermal one according to a certain MIT experts report.

  5. Steve Evans

    But how do you make ethanol...

    I'm rather curious about the current green-washing with regard to ethanol. Sure it will only release the carbon dioxide the plant absorbed a few months earlier, but to produce it requires distillation, and you can bet your life that at this moment in time the producers don't care where the power for the distillation is coming from. More than likely the big fossil fuel power station down the road somewhere. Unless you're in France, where it's more than likely coming from that strange bit outside of town with the curious 24 hour glow.

    You're better off with a red neck style illicit wood burning still. (Well actually that's probably about as carbon neutral as you can get!).

    If you want to be green, you want a nice old diesel car (modern common rail diesels aren't good at the next bit). Get some cold pressed rape seed oil, or even peanut oil as Mr Diesel intended all along, and away you go.

    For winter use there are a couple of modifications to make due to the viscosity of cold veggi oil, but nothing no show stoppers.

    As an added bonus, if you befriend the local chip shop and use the old stuff (filter out the bits of haddock of course), you can also chuckle as any tail-gater gets instant au de chip shop.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Energy profit...?

    "The gorilla in this particular room may be a nuclear one."

    I've heard a few peak-oil crackpots go on about nuclear power having a near-zero "energy profit" -- ie that after the energy used to mine, extract and process (not to mention dispose of) fissile materials is taken into account, nuclear reactors provide no new energy -- but I've never heard anyone from the nuclear industry deny these claims.

    What's the scoop?

  7. Ian Michael Gumby

    Yet the big N sits in the corner...

    I think the point is that biofuel isn't a solution in terms of reducing polution and dangers of petroleum based fuel.

    Going electric means an increase in electricity demand, that we can't meet without growing the production of energy. Wind won't cut it.

    Hydro electric won't cut it. Solar won't cut it. Nor will all of those combined cut it.

    Coal plants? Not a good idea.

    Which leaves nuclear.

    Nuclear makes sense, only its a dirty word and it takes time to develop and deploy a nuclear plant. Not to mention finding a site that you could actually build a plant without facing local oposition.

    Unless we can change our attitudes, we're screwed.

  8. Sandy River

    Ethanol Predictions - Garbage in Garbage out -

    Ethanol Predictions - Garbage in Garbage out -

    Computer models can be rigged to predict just about anything depending on the assumptions - The algorithm here seem to be on large scale assumptions -

    The ethanol process depends on the raw material, type of fuel used, and the efficiency of the factory process - All of this is in evolution -

    Bottom line is we don't know how the ethanol process will evolve or what the in products will be - corn - switch grass - wood chips - etc. -

    One fact often ignored here is that only the starch is removed from the corn - The food value remains in the form of brewers grain, and corn oil -

    Another big plus is that we can keep our money at home and create jobs with it here -

    It will be interesting to follow this - If Brazil can make this work, it follows that with the use of technology we can make it work to some degree -

  9. Scott Kirwin

    It's not a bug - it's a feature.

    "Jacobson found that the E85-driven model forecast 200 more deaths per year across the USA, the majority occurring in Los Angeles."

    And this... speaking as someone on the East Coast... would be a bad thing? After all, what's the harm in losing a few aspiring actors and screenwriters?

  10. C

    The problem with Ethanol

    The real problem with using Ethanol as a fuel is the resources required to produce it. There isn't nearly enough farmland to grow the corn needed if we were to depend solely on ethanol for fuel. Taking the US as an example - even if all the US farmland were used to grow corn, the US could not provide enough ethanol for its own use. Most technologically advanced countries have an even smaller percentage of farmland than the US does, and most countries will continue to become more advanced and developed not less, further reducing available farmland. At best, ethanol is only a short reprieve to help stave off the inevitable demise of fossil fuels; at worst (if countries continue clearing rain-forests to create more farmland) it could cause global climate change on a scale much worse than most people could imagine. And to top it all off, the energy returned on energy invested in producing ethanol is 1. Yes, it costs as much energy to produce it as you get in the end product.

    My personal opinion is that if the world is to continue to develop as it currently is, we ultimately will need to depend primarily on solar power. And we've a long way to go to make the use of solar power efficient enough to be anything more than a small boost to main power sources.

  11. Eugene Goodrich

    Hot lead; uranium stores; the first switch is the hardest

    200 deaths per year is rather less than the U.S. military is suffering to "maintain stability" in Iraq right now.


    I'd heard a complete switch to nuclear power would cause a peak uranium problem in not too many years, because the known supply of the stuff won't hold up to the world's staggering power consumption.


    A switch to ethanol, or to any other fuel, could be a first step to flexibility in general. How long has gasoline (for cars; diesel for trucks) been the only U.S. motor fuel? How long has everyone said there's no way we could ever change because of the logistics? If we change one time, we've broken the ice and that increases the possibility of researching different fuels in the future. (I refuse to believe the current thinking on all these fuels and what it'll cost us based on where we are now is the "final answer" for the next fifty or a hundred years. I believe in iteration.)

  12. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    nuclear industry association on CO2

    It wasn't hard to find.

    If you assume that electrically powered mining and processing equipment for the ore is impossible, that no fuel will ever be reprocessed, nor the Plutonium generated from U238 used, nor Thorium (which is more abundant than Uranium and can be bred without bomb material being produced - see Indian work) then the assertions about carbon cost can begin to look credible, but I suspect most of the publications are dishonest.

  13. Morely Dotes

    Does no one remember mass transit?

    Once upon a time, not too many years ago, if one lived in a major metropolitan area like Los Angeles, or London, one didn't need a private car. There were trolley systems, powered by electricity, which were clean, reliable, and more than fast enough. There were trains for longer trips - city to city - which could easily be, or in many cases were, also electrically-powered.

    It's long past time to require a business license to operate a private motorcar within the city limits (deliveries, taxis, and such still may need them, after all), and to force the end of pointless consumerism.

    General Motors is perfectly capable of making trolley cars, after all - if they *want* to. And if they can't sell John Q. Public a new SUV every year, perhaps they will want to.

    Another green transportation method for longer trips has been proposed as well:

  14. Mark Tebbutt

    Come the Revolution!

    he focus on wind power as the only way to produce renewable carbon free electricity for battery electric cars seems a bit odd to me. Surely renewable electricity should come from multiple sources e.g. solar photovoltaic, wind, wave, hydro.

    Bio-fuel cars can only be a short term stepping stone as there is not enough land to grow the plants to supply all the cars especially considering the water shortages in many parts of the world that climate change will cause. The surprising fact is that if the biomass used to produce the bio-fuel was burnt in a power station the electricity produced would power a battery electric car twice as many miles as a bio-fuel car (Well to Wheel efficiency). Check out this very eye opening short well to wheel efficiency presentation of the different car fuel types.

    Tesla motors ( battery electric powered roadster goes on sale in the US in August approximately for around £45K. It has a range of 250 miles per 4 hour home charge with a 0 to 60 time of 4 seconds. The key point is that if a Roadster owner where to install only 3 kilowatt of solar photovoltaic panels on their home (in the UK) the panels would produce enough carbon free electricity to power the car 19000 miles per year! and others are working on thin film printable solar panels with a price of $1 per Watt! There is a quiet revolution going on in personal transportation and power generation been led not by the multinationals but Silicon valley start-ups . Within 10 to 15 years the internal combustion engine as used for personal transport will be as dead as the fossil fuel it burns.

  15. Mark Mayer

    Other Biofuels?

    Ethanol is a bust and a boondoggle for Big Ag special interests. Besides these health concerns, there are a lot of other reasons why ethanol is not going to be an effective solution.

    I am curious about whether bio diesel, especially algae based bio diesel, suffers from the same health problems as ethanol. Bio diesel has a lot of advantages over ethanol: it's carbon neutral, it's scalable (meaning it can be manufactured in the backyard, by neighborhood coops, townships, on up to large scale enterprise), very low to no sulfur emissions, transportable via existing pipelines (ethanol must be transported in tanker trucks or by train), more efficient production than corn based or even sugar cane based ethanol, especially when produced from algae (we're talking magnitudes more efficient), and in the case of algae based production, the process can also be used to clean waste water and scrub the carbon from smokestack emissions. As a short term to intermediate term solution, bio diesel seems like a no brainer. The problem is that Big Agriculture is making a major lobbying push for corn based ethanol, and the politicians from corn growing states in the U.S. are getting their panties all moist.

    I'm a conservationist, but I think Nuclear should play a part in the solution. It's the lesser of two evils, by far the lesser. Those that are not even willing to discuss or reexamine nuclear energy are closed minded ideologues.

  16. Tom

    Models past and present

    As said before:

    "Computer models can be rigged to predict just about anything depending on the assumptions - The algorithm here seem to be on large scale assumptions"

    So now we have a forth "lie":

    Lies, Damned lies, Statistics, and Models.

    When the models can accurately predict the weather next week (the current ones are pretty good for about 4 days), then I MIGHT believe them. In the mean time, I'll keep consuming gasoline (petrol) in my vehicle.

    As for nuclear fuel: Once they allow re-processing of spent fuel (to get more) then we will solve a couple of problems. Waste, and sources. Unfortunately, re-processing generates fuel that is "too good" and suitable for "bad things" which is why Jimmy Carter (shortsightedly) banned it. Also note that a coal fired power plant releases MORE nuclear waste into the atmosphere that a nuclear power plant. Go figure!

    Wind/Geothermal: Harness all the hot air from governments worldwide (including the UN) and we wouldn't much more!

  17. Jim

    Radical Idea! - Use Less Energy?

    All existing (and near-term planned) energy sources are either finite or inadequate or both. The global population continues to grow and the number of those wanting to emulate the privileged, energy-rich lifestyles of the west increases at a much greater rate. It leaves us with a diffcult choice of hit an energy crunch, hit a resource crunch or cut energy usage.

    Oh, or pray to the god of technological advancement to save us with, as yet unthought of, scientific miracles...

  18. J

    It's worked for us (relatively)...

    "The question is, if we're not getting any health benefits, then why continue to promote ethanol and other biofuels."

    How about because such biofuels are supposedly much better environmentally than fossil fuels? I mean, the CO2 from the plant you kill today for fuel will be re-assimilated later when other fuel plant grow. Not all of it, but a fair bit. With fossil fuels: probably zero.

    In Brazil, we've had already almost 30 years experience with ethanol derived from sugar cane. I'm not in this business, but there are some things I heard about it there. There was a time, in the mid 80s, when more than 50% of the cars ran on ethanol. The octane is higher indeed, but the gallons/mile is a bit worse. Since ethanol was (and is) quite cheaper than gasoline there, it was worth it. But then oil prices fell... and ethanol cars became much less fun, and slowly retreated to very low numbers. Now, with oil prices spiking, they are trendy again, with one important difference: now most if not all new cars are "flex fuel", which means they run on either gas or ethanol or whatever mixture of those. You can have half a tank of gas and then top it with ethanol if you're short on cash, for example. Millions of cars here in the US are flex fuel too, and people just started noticing that recently (because they started putting a little sticker saying so in the back of the car).

    Of course the fleet in Brazil is much smaller (some 10x last time I've seem any numbers) than the one in US, but nonetheless only a single smallish state (São Paulo) produces almost all the ethanol we need. Plus the largest orange crop in the world, and much more. Check on your box of Minute Maid. :-)

    Now, if those fast neutron fission reactors would become reality, most of the problems of current nuclear tech would just go away. Oh well, new problems would sure arise...



  19. Joe Futrelle

    Reality check, everyone

    There is absolutely no way we can continue to consume the amount of energy we do now without cheap oil. Net energy on renewables will never come close to what we get from oil now.

    We have no alternative but to consume less.

    The debate over which energy source to use to power our vehicles so we can drive them as much as we do now is moot.

  20. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Cost of Nuclear

    Additional to the admitted costs of Nuclear is the cost they fail to admit: Risk.

    - Accidents: Even given the Nuclear Industry claim that a "Chernobyl" could "never happen here" and multiplying that infinitesimally small risk by the total cost of a "Chernobyl" (which was fairly mild rather than a worst-case scenario), we arrive at a very significant additional cost.

    - Deliberate attack: Both the US & UK have conducted studies on this risk and concluded that a 9/11-style attack on a nuclear power-plant would result in a cost about 100x (UK) to 1000x(US) the cost of the actual 9/11 attack.

    They found that nuclear power stations are vulnerable (forget the claims they are 100% bomb-proof - this is groundless propaganda) targets for terrorists or other enemy action.

    I also disagree with the waste & decomissioning costs the nuclear industry puts out - they do not reflect the real-world costs currently being incurred and - once again - fail to include the costs of the Risks involved.

    The Nuclear industry is a shady one, run by people who revel in anti-democratic levels of secrecy and immoral levels of profit at the expense of the public purse - it is in short, not just Dirty and Dangerous, but also Dishonest.

  21. Brian

    i bet they didn't take everything into consideration

    What about the higher air quality from the increase in surface level ozone? Ozone is commonly used in bars, hotels, and other public areas to defeat cigarette smoke and other harmful airborne contaminants. How many more people would survive long-term, without the negative effects of these common contaminants?

  22. the Jim bloke Silver badge

    Energy required to produce ethanol

    Why does the energy output of ethanol being equal to its production requirement make it inferior to batteries ?

    It is fundamental to my understanding of the universe that you will never get as much energy out of a battery as you spent charging it, so the ratio of output to input will always be less than one, and biofuels become more attractive as a mechanism for storing and transmitting energy.

    Whats to stop people using solar/wind/geothermal/nuclear energy to refine their biofuel, then power their vehicles using that.

    Improving "green" power technologies is vital, but we have a transport infrastructure that needs to be maintained while we do it.

  23. Dawid

    air car?

    Why don’t the brilliant investigative reporters at El Reg go get some more info on this bad boy for us?

    Looks almost too good to be true.

  24. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Nuclear power

    While the us debates over the use of nuclear power, china tries to build cheap gas cooled nuclear reactors that can run on unprocessed uranium (a uk invention) and there are fast reactors that burn weapons grade plutonium. The us reprocessing ban resulted in all spent fuel exported to japan for reprocessing, who doesn't really know what to do with its massive amount of weapons grade plutonium stockpile. (several thousand bombs worth) In france, they are trying to build fusion reactors, which they really need given the amount of energy used by a single tgv train. (1/5th of an average reactor block) France's most prominent partners are japan and china. From the look of all this, the solution might not be clear but it's not the usa who really tries to solve our problems.

  25. Peter Johnston

    Don't forget the damage batteries do

    A simple ozone catalyst would transform his figures. What annoys me more is that everyone touts batteries as part of being green when they do more damage to the environment than almost anything - lead and nickel are poisonous heavy metals which damage the environment in their mining, manufacture into batteries and disposal. That's why a Prius damages the environment more than a Hummer.

  26. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward



    It's long past time to require a business license to operate a private motorcar within the city limits


    I LIVE within city limits but I work some 25 miles away in rural nowhere (my partner can't drive and she works within the city itself) - so I'd have to pay to come home from work?

    I'm sooooo bored of this issue in the press, I'll be dead before it affects me overly much and I've no intention of spawning offspring... want to solve the crisis - get rid of a couple of billion worthless human being.

  27. simon

    long haul not for electric cars?, why not change the batteries?

    seems quite obvious, instead on filling up with liquid, you pull into a station and swap your batteries for changed ones.

  28. Anthony Bathgate

    Nukes are a nice temporary solution

    I'm sitting within spitting distance of Three Mile Island, and I can tell you this - the people here are STRANGE, but it's not the accident that made them like this, because the entire state of Pennsylvania is like this.

    Nuclear accidents are so far off the radar these days that it's not even funny. This is no reason to shy away from them (and this is the ONLY reason the United States is keeping away).

    I have strong ties within an environmental activism organization, and their official stance on nuclear power is that it's a very useful patch between our current carbon-fueled society to whatever lies in the future. It isn't the ideal solution, because it still poses a fair amount of environmental problems, but the environmental cost of an all-nuke conversion is GREATLY outweighed by the environmental benefit of dropping fossil fuels from power plants alone. It's sustainable on currently-known fuel sources and current reactor designs for a few hundred years, which is plenty of time to hone next-generation energy technologies.

    Naturally, you can't go stuffing nuclear reactors into cars, and batteries are a VERY poor decision in the present state of the art. The best we've been able to come up with is a significantly increased emphasis on public transit (powered by whatever is most convenient), biodiesel in long-haul diesel trucking applications, ethanol or biodiesel in long-haul car applications, and, unfortunately, plug-in or battery exchange programs for short range car applications. Batteries can be disposed of in an environmentally conscious manner, but they're still pretty harmful stuff.

    At least, that's how we see it. We can't even get a word in with a congressman, since we aren't associated with Al Gore.

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