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Mixed fuels, mixed messages: the motivations for ethanol expansion

In the lead up to the federal election, Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer called for an increase in the number of vehicles using ethanol-based fuels, as a way of reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions…

In Brazil, environmentally sound practices mean ethanol production significantly reduces the country’s greenhouse gas emissions. Flickr: Sweeter Alternative

In the lead up to the federal election, Queensland mining magnate Clive Palmer called for an increase in the number of vehicles using ethanol-based fuels, as a way of reducing Australia’s greenhouse emissions.

Now that the Palmer United Party looks set to wield influence in the senate from 2014, policies such as these need to be scrutinised.

So, could ethanol fuel actually improve Australia’s environmental credentials?

Well, in theory, Australia could lower its total greenhouse gas emissions from transport by increasing its use of ethanol (or E10) fuel as a proportion of total fuel consumption.

The appeal of ethanol expansion can quickly be illustrated by the numbers.

Firstly, most petrol cars manufactured since 1986 - and more than 99% made today - can use E10 fuel (a blend of 90% standard unleaded petrol and 10% ethanol).

In 2010, the transport sector in Australia was responsible for emitting over 83 megatons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. We consumed a total of 51 gigalitres (GL) of liquid fuels, including 19GL of petrol.

It would therefore require a relatively small increase in production, from the current 0.45GL to 1.9GL per year, to turn every litre of petrol currently sold in Australia into E10 fuel.

To create this amount of ethanol, we could build 10 new ethanol plants, each delivering 0.15GL. That might seem like an ambitious project, but we know that between 2007 and 2009, the United States industry alone constructed 60 new plants.

But to actually assess the environmental benefit of ethanol expansion we’d need to know the reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that ethanol could offer, compared to the equivalent volume in petrol.

In that case, let us assume that the pure ethanol we produced offered greater than 80% reduction in emissions compared to the equivalent amount in unleaded petrol. This type of analysis takes into account the “full life cycle” of ethanol, from the production of the fuel to its emission through the tailpipe.

If we replaced 1.9GL of Australia’s petrol with ethanol fuel and dispersed it through bowsers in the form of E10, this would reduce total vehicle emissions by about 8% per year compared to keeping the equivalent portion as petrol.

This is a large reduction, but is it achievable?

Experience elsewhere in the world shows that ethanol’s environmental credentials depend on local feedstocks, conditions, and technology.

In Australia, the greenhouse gas emission reductions currently afforded by locally produced ethanol compared to the equivalent volume of petrol are estimated to be between 20% to 60%. The range arises partly because Australia’s three ethanol plants use different feedstocks: waste starch originating from wheat, processed sorghum, and molasses originating from sugar cane. The whole life cycle of ethanol matters when adding up emissions reductions.

Comparisons with the USA and Brazil

In the USA, ethanol is produced mainly from cornstarch and in Brazil from sugarcane-derived sucrose. The 2012 ethanol production figures are orders of magnitude higher than in Australia. The USA produces about 50GL of ethanol and Brazil about 23GL each year.

Studies place the greenhouse gas emission reduction of ethanol compared to equivalent volume of petrol at 19% in the case of corn (US average) and at up to 87% for sugarcane ethanol on a full life cycle basis, when best practices are employed in Brazil. The Brazilian case study shows that sugarcane ethanol is not only more environmentally friendly, but is economically more competitive.

The Brazilian industry has achieved such success because it has the land and technology to produce ethanol cheaply and efficiently and has been supported by the government over decades despite economic and political fluctuations. Mandating ethanol use began in 1975, after the oil crisis. The government guaranteed ethanol purchases, fixed petrol and at times ethanol prices, and afforded low-interest loans for agro-industrial ethanol refineries. These measures can be considered to be market distortions, but they have led to the development of a significant new agricultural and manufacturing industry base.

Stalks of Brazilian sugarcane crushed to extract sucrose, from which ethanol is then made. Flickr: Sweeter Alternative

Is increasing ethanol production good policy for Australia?

The answer is: “it depends”.

Based on the experience from abroad and in Australia, ethanol is a proven and relatively inexpensive platform for curbing greenhouse gas emissions in transportation. But it is not free and not without its challenges.

A larger and more environmentally friendly ethanol industry in Australia will not be realised without producers, retailers, consumers and government aligning to expand the market and to ensure this is done in a sustainable manner.

Whether it is good or bad policy to boost the ethanol industry in Australia hinges on the factors that motivate this expansion. Reducing greenhouse gas emissions will not be the only factor at play. Others include regional development, diversifying fuel supply, creating new industries, and reducing dependence on foreign oil.

But improving the greenhouse gas credentials of the fuel industry will not be guaranteed without policies that foster emissions reductions.

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37 Comments sorted by

  1. Andrew Kewley
    Andrew Kewley is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Student

    Ethanol is a waste of time. So we would have a small decrease in emissions, but at a cost of the degradation of farmland.

    In the grand scheme of things, we need to cut emissions of the transportation sector close to zero. Ethanol does not fit into that picture at all. Electric lightweight vehicles (bikes and scooters, not cars), electric public transport and solar thermal energy would get 80% of the way there though.

    I'm already doing it, so I know it can be done.

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Andrew Kewley

      I largely agree with your comment, however;

      "but at a cost of the degradation of farmland"

      keep this in mind;

      Call it "fuel without fossils": Jonathan Trent is working on a plan to grow new biofuel by farming micro-algae in floating offshore pods that eat wastewater from cities. Hear his team's bold vision for Project OMEGA (Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae) and how it might power the future.

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    2. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Err, you didn't insert a link to this Project Omega in your comment, Michael, so I googled "Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae".

      I clicked on the first link on the search results page, to NASA's OMEGA project: http://www.nasa.gov/omega‎ - and this is what it found:
      "Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.
      "We sincerely regret this inconvenience.
      "For information about available government services, visit USA.gov."

      However, there's Good News: after NASA's seeding of the project, it's been floated off, so to speak: http://algaesystems.com/technology/omega/

      Cheers

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to David Arthur

      Sorry about that mate, I think I meant to but obviously didn't

      Yeah the Government shut down in the US means NASA shutdown except for services required for astronaughts on the ISS

      The mars rover, which takes 7 days to start, is shut down

      it's all pretty sad. Thanks for the Link, and the pun "Floated" was most excellent

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    4. David Arthur

      resistance gnome

      In reply to Michael Shand

      Thanks Michael. The OMEGA idea sounds good (big advantage of growing algae offshore is no need to make up evaporative water losses), except that setting it up offshore and then just feeding it urban wastewater forgoes any opportunity to recycle - that's all very well for the US, where they've got oodles more water up in them thar hills, but in water-poor Australia I'd prefer to maximise recycle of pure (RO?) water. Perhaps offshore algae could then be fed on the nutrients recovered in the course…

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  2. John Newlands

    tree changer

    Ethanol is a waste of effort as the net energy added after deducting inputs (fertiliser, tractor diesel etc) is low. In a drought the land needed to grow the crop could be used to produce food. E10 has less 'kick' since pure ethanol has 20 MJ thermal energy per litre compared to 35 MJ/L for undiluted petrol.

    I think the most affordable answer to the looming oil import crisis is to use natural gas as a vehicle fuel.. Start by converting short haul trucks and buses to compressed natural gas CNG…

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  3. chris brain

    farmer

    ah yes ,another feel good . mandates are a wonderful thing for special self interest groups but always at the expense of the little people. think of the big picture if all these green mandates around the world in ethanol windmills solar etc were so good why is that the little people are now unemployed and their countries are all on the verge of bankruptacy. we as a generation that have forgotten what got the little people out of poverty from the previous 1,000 years was the market economy that let individuals flourish ,not goverments and their mandates.

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  4. John Turner

    Retired metallurgist/plant manager

    I have made a few calculations on this subject. If all the grain and sugar presently produced world wide was converted to ethanol at 50% efficiency (optimistic for grains) the production would replace about 5% of the world's liquid fuel consumption. And we would all starve.
    In a world which is already starving in many places, production of ethanol can only be justified if the feedstock is waste or biomass and I doubt if that would produce more than 2% of our liquid fuel requirements.

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    1. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to John Turner

      Call it "fuel without fossils": Jonathan Trent is working on a plan to grow new biofuel by farming micro-algae in floating offshore pods that eat wastewater from cities. Hear his team's bold vision for Project OMEGA (Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae) and how it might power the future.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-HE4Hfa-OY

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  5. ted rees

    Retired Read-Write Engineer at disk memory

    Agribusiness, Oil business. They both want to sell you something you burn. How can plants compete with solar panels that extract 16% of the sun's energy and present it directly as usable energy? We need to use battery electric for short distance travel, and electrified rail for long distance travel. Fuels should be restricted to boats and planes.

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  6. Marcus Clayton

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Ethanol does show a way forward as it is a renewable fuel, but it certainly does not make a lot of sense in the Australian context. The Energy Profit Ratio (EPR) of ethanol is only around 2:1. The EPR of petrol used to be around 15:1, but has dropped as oil has become harder to extract to around 9:1. Methanol is a much better bet, being around 5:1, and should rise with scale to around 8:1 when it is derived from natural gas, or slightly less when synthesised from organic feedstock.
    Transport fuels…

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  7. Daniel Klein-Marcuschamer

    Director, Technoeconomic Analysis at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory

    Ethanol is of course not a perfect answer and it is also not the only answer. The article does not in any way claim that. We cannot, in my opinion, let the better be the enemy of the good, because if we did that, the status quo would prevail and no emissions would be curbed. The ideal environmental policy would be agnostic to the way emissions are reduced (if that is the true goal), but implementation of any such policy has proven extremely elusive in practice. So, should we let the disadvantages of the solutions we do have be arguments against progress, or should we use all solutions we have available in a responsible and balanced way to reduce our emissions? The decision we must make, sadly, is between the imperfect advances we can make and the problematic state we are in. If we had the silver bullet already, there would be no debate and this article would have never been written.

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    1. Marcus Clayton

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to Daniel Klein-Marcuschamer

      Ethanol is only there as any sort of answer, because it is and has been heavily subsidised. Brazil had a problem with a sugar glut. The sugar could not be sold, so the policy decision was taken to make fuel from it. Engines were developed (my business partner spent some years in Brazil in the early 80s and was instrumental in the design of engines that run well on this fuel).
      The only reason ethanol is in this equation, is as a subsidy to the agricultural industry in countries that have a long history of subsidising farmers.
      We should not be agnostic about energy policy, but should choose a path that offers sustainability and does so at the greatest efficiency.
      Choosing ethanol with its poor EPR, will prove to the world that renewables are not viable when the the choice becomes food or fuel.
      The methanol/isobutanol/dimethyl ether sustainable solutions meanwhile will remain unutilised to the detriment of everyone, as they remain unsubsidised, and look to be too expensive.

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    2. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Marcus Clayton

      We already have a rich source of liquad nutrients - our sh*t

      Call it "fuel without fossils": Jonathan Trent is working on a plan to grow new biofuel by farming micro-algae in floating offshore pods that eat wastewater from cities. Hear his team's bold vision for Project OMEGA (Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae) and how it might power the future.

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-HE4Hfa-OY

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  8. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    Better than ethanol would be isobutanol (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Isobutanol):

    1) higher energy density than ethanol,
    2) closer match to petrol for vapour pressure and boiling point, safer to handle than ethanol.
    3) much less hygroscopic than ethanol, so storage easier.
    4) can be produced from non-food biomass, so need not compete with food production.

    "Efficient Biofuel Made From Genetically Modified E. Coli Bacteria"
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2008/01/080106202952.htm

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  9. Michael Shand
    Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Software Tester

    Good article but a little sad that the author confined Ethanol production to land

    I mean to miss the following is poor form and places arbitrary restricts on the discussion

    Call it "fuel without fossils": Jonathan Trent is working on a plan to grow new biofuel by farming micro-algae in floating offshore pods that eat wastewater from cities. Hear his team's bold vision for Project OMEGA (Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae) and how it might power the future.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X-HE4Hfa-OY

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  10. David Jones

    Engineer

    In my opinion this argument has already been resolved. Solar panels have come down enormously in price in the last few years and electric cars are also now becoming much cheaper. Three thousand dollars worth of solar panels will provide enough energy to run an EV in typical usage in Australia. This is a one off cost that will power the car for a lifetime.
    Ethanol fuel simply cannot compete with this on any basis, economic or environmental.

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    1. Marcus Clayton

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to David Jones

      Err No.

      $3K will buy about 1500W of solar panel. Assume a 12 hour day charge, would give 18Kw Hr of energy. This is enough to power a light car for about 2-3 hours, less if you use aircon in traffic.
      This is common and fine living in town or close to work but accounts for less than 20% of transport fuel use. (Let us for the moment ignore the energy cost of making high density batteries, rare earth magnets and associated control systems for the EV)
      The CSIRO flagship study "Modelling of the future of transport fuels in Australia" by Paul Graham, Luke Reedman and Franzi Poldy suggested that by 2050 around 10% of transport energy would be electric.
      90% will still be using heat engines of some sort, and they have to be fuelled.

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    2. David Jones

      Engineer

      In reply to Marcus Clayton

      Firstly, 1500 W of panels will only produce about 6 to 7 kWh/d on average in temperate Australia. This is enough to propel an EV like the Leaf about 30 to 35 km. Average vehicle travel in Australia is 14000 km/year (less for cars in city use), which is 38 km/day.

      Your quoted study is 5 years out of date and the world has moved on. EVs took more than 8% of the car market in Norway last month.

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    3. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to David Jones

      This is enough to propel an EV like the Leaf about 30 to 35 km

      Average vehicle travel in Australia is 38 km/day

      sooo....it is entirely plausible, possible - I mean you highlighted a difference of only 3km as a major obstacle

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    4. David Jones

      Engineer

      In reply to Michael Shand

      It is entirely plausible. The panel output varies a bit by location and season and people's travel habits of course are not uniform but the principle is valid. The EV performance is based on US DOT figures for the Leaf and it includes air-conditioning use. Travel figures are from ABS.
      Passenger vehicles also are a very large component of land transport energy use. According the ABS; passenger vehicles consumed 18,510 million litres of fuel in 2012, while light commercial and articulated vehicles together used only 12,435 million litres.
      Of course it is possible to have electric commercial vehicles as well.

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    5. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to David Jones

      I think your point about commercial vehicles is really important, if industry made the switch, the economies of scale would kick in

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    6. Marcus Clayton

      logged in via LinkedIn

      In reply to David Jones

      "EVs took more than 8% of the car market in Norway last month."
      That may be correct, but why? Subsidies and benefits to those who buy electric cars in Norway include:
      Exemption from GST 25%
      Exemption from road tax
      Exemption from parking fees
      Exemption from road tolls
      Use of bus lanes

      I could counter by saying that in the US the Nissan Leaf is 138, and the Chevy Volt is 140 on the best selling car list, but none of this is relevant to the topic.

      Even if 100% of the cars on the road were…

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    7. David Jones

      Engineer

      In reply to Marcus Clayton

      Marcus,
      Norway does provide EV incentives like many countries (unfortunately not Australia) and hopefully this will kickstart EV takeup just as it has with solar panels. EV and plugin hybrid sales continue to increase in the USA at rates around 30% per annum and EVs and charging infrastructure are becoming commonplace.
      I already provided you with ABS data showing that passenger transport vehicles use most of the road transport fuel. You can already purchase EV versions of delivery vans, light trucks, buses and of course trains (even in Australia) are already predominantly electric.
      I'll grant you, electric planes appear challenging but then again, I don't see too many fuelling up on ethanol. (although they could) But hey, why not take a high speed train instead?

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    8. Robert Heal

      Botanist

      In reply to Marcus Clayton

      "$3K will buy about 1500W of solar panel. Assume a 12 hour day charge, would give 18Kw Hr of energy. This is enough to power a light car for about 2-3 hours, less if you use aircon in traffic.

      Umm no. One doesn't have to read Whirlpool very long, to discover that with 1500 W of panels, you will be doing well to get 6 kWh a day. Even in good conditions, you are doing well to get energy better than the equivalent of 4 hours of full output.

      And then, unless you are working the night shift, you somehow have to store that energy in one set of batteries, and then another set of batteries into your car, with a 20% turnaround energy loss each time.

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    9. Robert Heal

      Botanist

      In reply to Michael Shand

      " I mean you highlighted a difference of only 3km as a major obstacle"

      So your electric car has a range of 38 km ? And your commute to work is 35 km ? So you are winning then ?

      So a 2 km detour to the supermarket or the post office, or there is a bit of unexpected traffic on the way home from work, and your car is marooned, stone cold dead, two blocks from home.

      You may not think this is a "major obstacle", but people considering shelling out $60k + for one of these unreliable lemons, may not agree.

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    10. Robert Heal

      Botanist

      In reply to David Jones

      "I already provided you with ABS data showing that passenger transport vehicles use most of the road transport fuel."

      "We consumed a total of 51 gigalitres (GL) of liquid fuels, including 19GL of petrol."

      The reconciliation of these two assertions, is not entirely obvious.

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    11. Michael Shand
      Michael Shand is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Software Tester

      In reply to Robert Heal

      "" I mean you highlighted a difference of only 3km as a major obstacle""

      is it? is a difference of 3km an insurmountable obstacle for car manufacturers?

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  11. Comment removed by moderator.

    1. Mike Jubow

      forestry nurseryman

      In reply to account deleted

      A sugar mill in Nth Qld has already made great inroads into a more efficient process for cellulosic ethanol production and early results from our own trials of a couple of arid land plants are showing great promise for producing a petrol substitute. The idea behind the arid land plants is so that it does not take the place of food and fibre crops and it does perform reasonably well on poor soils and have the potential to yield around 10,000 litres of petrol and 5000 litres of diesel fuel per hectare. The remainder of the plant extract can be made into lubricants or plastics. The begasse is used to burn for heart energy to process the fuel. We still have a fair bit of work to do to bring it to a commercial enterprise standard.

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  12. Dale Bloom

    Analyst

    This is a typical sugar cane growing area in Australia.

    http://www.ga.gov.au/__data/assets/image/0005/31379/321-Oldest-V1-True-Medium.JPG

    All natural forest from the coast to the Great Dividing Range has been cleared for sugar cane growing or housing development. This includes growing sugar cane right up to the banks of creeks and rivers.

    All natural ecosystems have been damaged or completely destroyed.

    Runoff from the sugar cane fields (which cannot be 100% contained) also has an adverse impact on coral reefs just off the coastline, and probably has resulted in vast areas of hard coral dying out over the years.

    But to make a dint in Australia’s petrol consumption by adding ethanol to petrol, huge amounts of extra land would have to be cleared and more sugar cane planted.

    The best method to reduce pollution from cars is stabilise the population, not destroy more environment and grow the population.

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    1. Robert Heal

      Botanist

      In reply to Dale Bloom

      But if you drive from Brisbane to Cairns, you can see sugar cane growing for about 6% of the way. The other 94% of the road, no sugar cane to be seen at all.

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    2. Dale Bloom

      Analyst

      In reply to Robert Heal

      In the photo, http://www.ga.gov.au/__data/assets/image/0005/31379/321-Oldest-V1-True-Medium.JPG, there are three sugar mills, but the area under cane extends much further west right up to the foot of the Great Dividing Range.

      There has been TOTAL land clearing to grow that cane.

      There is another sugar mill further south at Sarina that has an ethanol plant, and another sugar mill further north at Proserpine that has a furfural plant.

      Both the ethanol plant and the furfural plant have recently…

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  13. Robert Heal

    Botanist

    There are an increasing number of diabetic Australians, and you can make ethanol from their urine.

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  14. Sarina

    logged in via Twitter

    This article was a bit 'light' on the Brazilian ethanol program - yes its been profitable due to massive government support but the bio-ethanol industry its also been widely criticized for human rights abuses

    http://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/mar/09/brazil.renewableenergy

    in fact, about 1/3 of verified cases of slavery in Brazil are associated with ethanol production.
    Plus, the ethanol program has been poor on rural development for farmers - rather it props up large corporate agribusiness and acknowledgement of this by the Brazilian Government was one of the underlying reasons for the development of a biodiesel program (PNPB) aimed at incorporating family farmers.

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  15. Alex Cannara

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Corn ethanol in the US netted 0.3% conversion of solar energy to vehicle motion.

    But, it did increase malnutrition worldwide by more than doubling corn prices.

    Yes, we are dumb.

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