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'[EE]:: Peak Soil - Why cellulosic ethanol,biofuels'
|This longish (about 13,000 words), extremely interesting and
more-convincing-than-I-expected article argues that cellulose bio-mass
based ethanol is not only unsustainable as a fuel but has a severe
cost far in excess of its value and causes unaffordable long term
damage to the agricultural systems on which it depends.
This is not just a "greenie rave" although it is that as well.
I skim vast quantities of material, quite often at not too much beyond
headline or chapter header level, increasing the amount I read as
interest or apparent relevance dictates. I'm quite liable to go back
and skim through this in greater depth and maybe even read the lot if
it proves as useful as it promises. (But, most things fail the
A reasonable summary paragraph from the article is
Fuels from biomass are not sustainable, are ecologically
have a net energy loss, and there isn’t enough biomass in America
to make significant amounts of energy because essential inputs
water, land, fossil fuels, and phosphate ores are limited.
Before you seek to argue with that it would be a good idea to read or
to at least skim the paper.
Fortunately, lunar Helium 3 will save us all ... :-) (Russell's
comment, not theirs)
Summarised summary re corn
Corn Biofuel (i.e. butanol, ethanol, biodiesel) is especially harmful
Row crops such as corn and soy cause 50 times more soil erosion than
sod crops [e.g., hay] (Sullivan 2004) or more (Al-Kaisi 2000), ...
Corn uses more water, insecticide, and fertilizer than most crops
(Pimentel 2003). ...
The government has studied the effect of growing continuous corn,
and found it increases eutrophication by 189%, global warming by 71%,
and acidification by 6% (Powers 2005).
Farmers want to plant corn on highly-erodible, water protecting, or
wildlife sustaining Conservation Reserve Program land ... BUT ...
Crop residues are essential for soil nutrition, water retention, and
soil carbon. Making cellulosic ethanol from corn residues -- the parts
of the plant we don’t eat (stalk, roots, and leaves) – removes water,
carbon, and nutrients (Nelson, 2002, McAloon 2000, Sheehan, 2003).
"I asked 35 soil scientists why topsoil wasn’t part of the biofuels
debate. ... ... "
Answers can be imagined,
Alan B. Pearce
>This longish (about 13,000 words), extremely interesting and
>more-convincing-than-I-expected article argues that cellulose
>bio-mass based ethanol is not only unsustainable as a fuel but
>has a severe cost far in excess of its value and causes
>unaffordable long term damage to the agricultural systems
>on which it depends.
I looked at the editors note heading it, and it seems the article is a
treatise on an argument I have heard here in the UK, that converting
existing food producing farmland to ethanol producing crops is a bad way to
go. HOWEVER there are crops suitable for producing ethanol that will grow
quite satisfactorily on ground that is too poor to grow food producing
crops, in arid areas, and my understanding of the argument is that these
areas should be put to this use, rather than food producing farmland.
I don't have any references to documents on this, but may find some time to
try and track some down.
Alan B. Pearce wrote:
> [...] my understanding of the argument is that these areas should be put
> to this use, rather than food producing farmland.
That is probably so. The problem lies in the "should". If it is lucrative
to produce fuel crops on bad land, it is possibly more lucrative to produce
fuel crops on good land, and maybe even more lucrative than to produce
other crops. You can imagine what a species of egomaniacs does with this...
I've met that argument of course.
You'll find that, while the "soil too poor to be useful" argument
notionally addresses some of the issues raised by this paper, it
doesn't address them all.
Without attempting to reprise what can be read in much more competent
form in the paper, issues such as irrigation, general effect on biota
and overall ecosystem from fertilisers, destabilisation of topsoil,
and quite a lot more still needs addressing and the author would
argue (with some apparent merit) that the idea still falls short of
However, even if such arguments were overcome, there's the cute
concept of "ground that is too poor to grow food producing crops, in
Arguably (and I'd lean towards being convinced) there is no such land
in existence that can be more profitably utilised for eg ethanol
production. If you can grow a cellulose based product on it you can
find a food crop that will grow there as well and expect a greater net
'real' return. AFAIR there was a link about this posted on this list a
while ago - quite possibly by me :-).
AFAIR candidate crops for "as bad and as dry as it comes" were
And fwiw, if people *can* grow fuel based crops on land suitable for
food growth and make short term personal profits from this and there
is no 'big picture' oversight, what do you expect would happen. This
of course immediately raises the 'the land is mine and I can do what I
want with it' arguments and there will be at least one
usually-a-lurker seeing this line of argument as leading to a commo
pinko left wing socialist anti-capitalist sellout. BUT it doesn't have
to be as long as the *total* costs of actions taken by individuals are
factored into the mix. You are then welcome to make whatever use of
your capital that you wish as long as you bear not only all the
benefits but also all the costs of your actions. Of course, when the
total costs are debateable (which often happens when we are looking at
systems with very long term multi-generational lifecycles) and/or when
government subsidies and/or protection warp 'the invisible hand'
realities, then true costings don't occur. As an example, this is the
situation in the nuclear power industry, which is gearing up worldwide
for another push towards the light*, with massive effective subsidies,
unprecedented government protections which other industries would
dearly love to have, and a complete inability (and unwillingness where
it is possible) to genuinely cost the genuine lifecycle costs of
operating the business. [[Any business that has a revenue producing
phase of a few decades and a subsequent maintenance phase of a few
tens or more of millenia where the remains of the plant must be
genuinely securely maintained at a high level of security, has an
inordinately difficult time showing a DCF positive net present value.
This doesn't seem to deter anyone involved from seeking the available
short term gains and leaving the fallout (pun very intended) to
hundreds of subsequent generations.]]
Ethanol crop soil destruction seems minor in comparison:-)
But, it may not be :-(
* possibly very very very bright light :-)
(yes yes, I know, that was a joke.
As in "fine and warm and very very bright")
M. Adam Davis
I always treated biomass as essentially a solar collector. It has
some inputs other than sun, and requires post-processing to convert to
energy, but some studies show that it's still better than the 7% we
get out of an average solar cell, which requires a great deal of
energy to create, but no post processing later.
Still, there are better solar collectors than 7%.
Reminds me of the dust bowl.
On 5/14/07, Russell McMahon <paradise.net.nz> wrote: apptech
> I always treated biomass as essentially a solar collector. It has
> some inputs other than sun, and requires post-processing to convert to
> energy, but some studies show that it's still better than the 7% we
> get out of an average solar cell, which requires a great deal of
> energy to create, but no post processing later.
In "Entering Space" (which I highly recommend to anyone with more
than a passing interest in the engineering require to transition from
Type 1 to Type 2 to Type 3 society), Robert Zubrin points out that
the agriculture of the US state of Rhode Island (smallest of the states,
3100 sq km, of which 32% is water and, likely, a similar amount is
city, town, road, etc.) consumes more energy in the form of light
than the entire electrical output of humanity, the world over, at
Peter P. wrote:
> Meanwhile Brazil is the country with the largest use of ethanol for
> running cars, and yet there is no mention of it in most 'studies'.
They do mention it here :)
> Also Brazilians are not complaining (much) about this
Maybe not, but it's not without problems. Huge monocultures of sugar cane
are not good for the land, and possibly are not sustainable over decades.
The way it's done here doesn't seem to be a model that can easily be
applied to e.g. Europe. Too much need for sun and space IMO.
Russell, I haven't had time to read through the article you posted,
but I came across this fact the other day and thought you might be
interested to know. Lightning storms are part of the nitrogen cycle
of the earth, and it accounts for approximately 5-8% of the nitrogen
fixed in the soil.
I'm still pondering the phosphorous issue. It seems like it all
eventually ends up in the water, and could be recovered from algae
growth or extraction of lake and sea floor sediments?
On 5/14/07, Russell McMahon <paradise.net.nz> wrote: apptech
> cellulose bio-mass
> based ethanol is not only unsustainable as a fuel but has a severe
> cost far in excess of its value and causes unaffordable long term
> damage to the agricultural systems on which it depends.
|> I'm still pondering the phosphorous issue. It seems like it all
> eventually ends up in the water, and could be recovered from algae
> growth or extraction of lake and sea floor sediments?
It depends in part on how dilute it gets and what value is placed on
it. If that's the sole remaining source then the value could be quite
On average, and this varies rather widely, there is notionally several
kg of Uranium within digging depth on a "1/4 acre" residential
section. Extracting it, let along profitably, is another matter.
Gold is perhaps easier. But not by a lot. Sea water contains vast
amounts of gold all up, but totally uneconomic quantities per given
volume. The level is so low that it is exceptionally difficult to
assess it accurately but a\n average figure of around 10 parts per
trillion seems about right. May be 5+ times high in places such as the
Bering Sea which are fed by high gold areas.
Reasonable reference here
Best hope for economic extraction is probably to engineer a
microorganism that retains gold and drinks a lot.
At say 10 ppt by volume that's about 140 microgram per ton(ne). At
current gold prices of about $US650/gram
that about $US1 of gold per tonne of seawater.
It's sobering (to me) that the total expected gold content of seawater
is only about 8 times more than all the gold that mankind has
extracted from various sources throughout history - ie sea water is
rather low grade ore. Total gold extracted in history is thought to be
about 5000 cubic metres! 'Quite a lot'.
William Chops Westfield
On May 29, 2007, at 11:31 PM, Russell McMahon wrote:
> current gold prices of about $US650/gram
$650/ounce, I think... (not clear WHICH kind of ounce, though.)
>> current gold prices of about $US650/gram
> $650/ounce, I think... (not clear WHICH kind of ounce, though.)
Whoops - yes :-).
That makes the gold content of seawater about $US0.04 / metre^3.
Anyone who finds this thread in the slightest way interesting really
should read or skim the original article (I've only done the latter).
They say that some people think that most of the world's "placer gold"
(at 98% pure) was concentrated and deposited by microorganisms, and
they explain why. *IF* this is the case, then the prospects of
developing some creature to do it from seawater look higher. This sort
of development attempt is liable to be what destroys us all as a side
effect :-). (Placer gold occurs in hollow tubes about ?1 (?100) micron
across. This structure is not obvious to the eye.
I wonder if the brine concentrated byproducts of desalination plants
have a greatly increased gold content.
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