Ethanol on the Cob

“Corn is Better Food than Fuel,” read a headline in the September issue of Mechanical Engineering magazine (v.139, No 9, p. 11).  Having siphoned gas from a pickup truck in my youth—an efficient way to transfer gas to a dirt bike—I agree.  I’ll have the corn, please.  Hold the fuel.

All kidding aside, the piece in Mechanical Engineering was sharing findings from a National Science Foundation-funded study conducted by University of Illinois researchers Meredith Richardson and Praveen Kumar who concluded that the net social and economic worth of food corn production greatly exceeds that of biofuel corn production.  Richard Yuretich from the National Science Foundation summed up the researchers’ results in a post from the university:

Using corn as a fuel source seems to be an easy path to renewable energy.  However, this research shows that the environmental costs are much greater, and the benefits fewer, than using corn for food.

A couple months later, Mechanical Engineering published a response from a reader who suggested that it would be regrettable if corn based ethanol were abandoned in the United States over the food versus fuel argument (“Don’t Knock Ethanol,” Letters & Comments, November 2017).  The reader concluded:

If we were to give up the idea of corn-to-ethanol because of the food versus fuel argument, we would also have to give up all uses of corn for any purpose besides food.

So, should corn be used for food or should it be used for fuel?  And why, in 2017, is there a debate over the use of corn in the first place?

The answer to the second question lies in two laws passed by the U.S. Congress and signed by the President of the United States at the time, George W. Bush.  They were the Energy Policy Act of 2005 and the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007.  These laws led to the creation, then expansion, of the U.S. Renewable Fuel Standard, or RFS, “a national policy that requires a certain volume of renewable fuel to replace or reduce the quantity of petroleum-based transportation fuel, heating oil or jet fuel,” according to an EPA overview of the program.  It is a result of the RFS program that most gasoline sold in the United States contains 10% ethanol.

Absent the RFS program, we would debate the use of corn the way we debate the use of any other food product having alternative uses.  That is to say, there would be no debate at all.  As with other commodities, prices would direct the production and distribution of supply toward demand.  And so it remains with corn.  Despite appearances, the corn based ethanol debate is not first and foremost a debate over whether corn should be used as food or as fuel.  Rather, the underlying question is whether the increased demand for ethanol created by the Renewable Fuel Standard is doing more societal harm than good by distorting the market for corn.  Hence, studies that examine the social and economic worth of corn as food versus corn as fuel are not making an argument to limit the use of corn to food only, but are providing evidence that the RFS comes with a societal cost.  Therefore, to suggest that the results of such studies are advocating for the use of corn as food and food alone is a distraction from the fundamental question of whether the RFS does more societal harm than good.

If one wishes to advocate for the production of corn based ethanol, a more fitting approach would be to quantify the benefits of the Renewable Fuel Standard, which were meant to include reducing greenhouse gas emissions and U.S. reliance on imported oil, then compare those benefits to the societal costs of the program.  Even better would be for our elected representatives to critically examine these societal costs and benefits before passing such far-reaching legislation, make a compelling case that the benefits will surpass the costs, then agree to repeal the legislation if the net benefits do not materialize.  (Hope springs eternal.)

Photo credit:  MichaelGaida at

Making Progress—from XKCD

XKCD is a “webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language.”  In other words, its a comic that appeals to engineers, a profession that exemplifies romance, sarcasm, math, and language, though not necessarily in that order.

Sometime before the turn of the century, for better or for worse, the spreadsheet replaced the scientific calculator as the engineer’s tool of choice.  Hence, spreadsheet humor amuses engineers.  So too does PowerPoint humor, though that is just as likely to make us cry.

So, for the engineers (and accountants), we have Making Progress from XKCD.

The Viability of Solar—And Everything Else

Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, publishes a monthly feature called “The Vault,” where decades old articles are reprinted to offer perspectives from the past.

In the most recent issue (October 2017, Vol. 139, No. 10), the editors included a forty-year-old article titled, “New Career Paths in Engineering, Applications of Solar Energy,” by Lloyd O. Herwig, which provided an overview of the projected economic viability of various solar power technologies circa 1977.  The article was a reminder of how often the economic viability of up and coming technologies is only 10 to 20 years away, to which one might add, “And they always will be.”

Acknowledging that forecasts of economic viability are often wrong is not a criticism of such projections per se.  To his credit, Dr. Herwig stated that the projections he was citing in 1977 were themselves based on forecasts of “technology development and competing alternative fossil and nuclear-fueled plants.”  Absent a crystal ball, how would he or anyone else have predicted the events that would lead to a generations worth of low cost energy at the very height of a widely perceived energy crisis?

What is so frequently misunderstood about projections is that their benefits arguably lie less in their accuracy a decade or two later, but in the work of developing and maintaining them in the first place.  Forecasting requires gathering data, considering multiple scenarios, challenging assumptions, and estimating risks, which in turn can be used to develop contingency plans and improve the speed and effectiveness of decision making in the face of uncertainty.  At the same time, we do ourselves and the practice of forecasting a disservice when we either (a) unquestioningly believe our projections, investing too much in their accuracy over the long haul, or (b) dismiss them outright because “they’re always wrong.”

When done well, forecasting is as much about what is happening now as it is about the next 10 to 20 years, something that is worth considering when investing in projections of economic viability or in their results.

Photo credit:  skeeze at

Facebook Saves Humanity

As an engineer, there are few stories that amused me more than a recent report that our end would come not at the hands of Skynet, a group of “defense network computers, new, powerful, hooked into everything, trusted to run it all,” but at the hands of Facebook, the social networking site launched from a Harvard dorm room.  The first reports were ominous and entertaining:

Facebook shuts down robots after they invent their own language

It finally happened.  An Artificial Intelligence (chatbots in this case) was on the verge of seizing control of everything, but thank God someone had the presence of mind to shut it all down before Bob and Alice (the bots) launched emojis at a billion Facebook users, creating an international incident.  The best part of the story?  Bob and Alice’s conversation having been taught to barter, then having invented their own “bizarre form of communication.”

[Begin transcript]

Bob:  i can i i everything else ……….
Alice:  balls have zero to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob:  you i everything else ……….
Alice:  balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to me to me
Bob:  i i can i i i everything else ……….
Alice:  balls have a ball to me to me to me to me to me to
Bob:  i ….
Alice:  what to do with humans?

[Experiment terminated]

Okay, I added the last line, but you get the point.  To say I was amused by Bob and Alice’s conversation, not to mention the tone of the article, would be an understatement.  Personally, I thought it was a publicity stunt from Facebook.  (“You’re buying Whole Foods, Amazon?  We have Skynet.  Checkmate.”)  No surprise the web was immediately awash with stories refuting the claim, which may have set a record for Snopes.  (Verdict?  False.)

As entertaining as the initial reporting was, it also underscored our fascination with tales of global apocalypse and our propensity to extrapolate future outcomes by oversimplifying the behavior of almost everything, natural or man-made.  For example, we need only liken the human brain to a computer and it’s a short step to convince ourselves that our robot overlords will take our jobs (Kevin Drum, 2013).  (Interesting that our robots will definitely take our jobs, but probably won’t kill us.  I’m with The Terminator franchise on this one.  I don’t think our robots will settle for our jobs any more than Henry VIII settled for an annulment.)

Oversimplify the behavior of something and it’s easy to propose a runaway theory of anything.  Whether it’s runaway population growth in the 1960s or the runaway depletion of oil reserves in the 1970s or runaway global warming and artificial intelligence today, propose a runaway (or hockey stick) theory of something and it’s a straightforward exercise to posit catastrophe on a global scale, rather than what we have in reality experienced—trade-offs between costs and benefits, amidst uncertainty, over time.

Personally, I’d be more concerned about a runaway comet.  Not much to extrapolate there.  Just, “BANG!”  Maybe we can get Bob and Alice to work that one.  (“Comets have a comet to me to me to me ….”)

Photo credit:  OpenClipart-Vectors at