MIT Study Examines Ethanol Balance

Based on her most likely outcomes, Groode concluded that traveling a kilometer using corn ethanol does indeed consume more energy than traveling the same distance using gasoline. However, further analyses showed that several factors can easily change the outcome, rendering corn-based ethanol a greener fuel.

Published: 13-Jan-2007

A recent MIT analysis shows that the energy balance of corn ethanol is actually so close that several factors can easily change whether ethanol derived from that process ends up a net energy winner or loser. Further analysis shows that making ethanol from cellulosic sources such as switchgrass has far greater potential to reduce fossil energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

A graduate student in MIT’s Department of Engineering, Tiffany A. Groode, performed a life cycle analysis on the production of corn ethanol, as others have done. Groode, however, incorporated the uncertainty associated with the values of many of the inputs.

Following a methodology developed by recent MIT graduate Jeremy Johnson (Ph.D. 2006), she used not just one value for each key variable (such as the amount of fertilizer required), but rather a range of values along with the probability that each of those values would occur. In a single analysis, her model runs thousands of times with varying input values, generating a range of results, some more probable than others.

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