Joseph Miglietta Response to Ethanol Debate Challenge


Joseph Miglietta, a chemical engineer and chemist, responded to my Ethanol Debate Challenge. I look forward to the exchange of ideas. His response is posted below, with nothing changed except for some formatting. Joseph, if you need me to modify this post in any way, e-mail me. My e-mail address is listed in my profile.

I agree with some, but not all of what he writes. My response will be posted within a few days. As always, comments are still open to all. Feel free to add your own comments in favor of or against Joseph’s argument. Let’s just keep it civil, regardless of which side you take in the debate.

If anyone wishes to build a comprehensive argument as Joseph has done, either place it in the comments, or e-mail it to me. I will add the entry and then respond as needed.

Without further ado, here is Joseph’s post.



Response by Joseph Miglietta

I would like to participate a little in this forum not so much for the challenge but for the opportunity of educating people who are concerned for the energy crisis and are badly hurt at the pump. Knowledge may avoid them to be misled by politicians and special interest groups. Especially here in the South where I now live, people’s knowledge on this subject is abysmal. So, if by means of these debates we can contribute a little to this effect, I would feel rewarded. My participation will be limited to debates conducted in a civilized manner (no insulting or taking it personally) and be characterized by objective criticism. I wish to add, I too am a chemical engineer and a chemist.

Conservation could be a solution to the oil crisis; it would also help traffic congestion, not to mention the lessening of environmental problems. But in my opinion, it is a step backward in our progress. Crises offer incentives for improvement; going back, instead, imply defeat. There is a natural conservation effect that takes place in times of crisis. People in this case tend to buy smaller and more efficient cars. In cities with large concentrations, such as New York or Chicago, public transportation is the best solution. But in spread cities as Los Angeles, suburbs and rural areas, our transportation relays on personal vehicles, not to mention for our leisure. It is our way of life. A drastic reduction in the use of personal vehicles would also affect our economy. A lot of people would be out of jobs. Overall, it would imply large sacrifices. In other words, the cure is worse than the disease.

During the first crisis of 1970’s, created by the oil cartel, there were long lines at the pump, particularly in California. I conceived then an idea to improve the fuel efficiency, but I did not have time to work on it. I was too busy trying to fill the vacuum created by the oil unavailability. I recovered spent or contaminated solvents and even made methyl acetate by a continuous process. The first crisis was of relatively short duration; it was the first showdown of the cartel countries against the Western World. Now the rule has changed: spiraling prices is the new rule, and the big oil companies have joined the game. From my student days, I was fascinated with oil for its many applications in many branches of industry, plastics, pharmaceuticals, solvents, etc., and considered a shame to burn it in fuels. But now I consider it even more shameful the fact that we depend on the oil found in rogue countries.

My interest in ethanol is only peripheral. Now that I am retired, I am working on developing my original idea: special additives that promote the shifting of the reaction equilibrium towards mechanical work at the expense of heat in engines using ethanol/gasoline blends.

Of course, producing ethanol from grain (corn) is not the best way. In general, producing ethanol from starch is by far less energy efficient than from sugars. If all the arable land in our country would be cultivated for corn for ethanol production, it would hardly make a significant dent in our fuel consumption. (I am exaggerating here a little to stress my point).

But I look at it in a different way. Farm lobbying is a powerful force that in this present crisis, with the mounting public rage, may counteract to some extent what I consider the most powerful force: the big oil companies. We have made some progress. A 10% incorporation of ethanol in gasoline, or E10, may sometime in the near future be nationwide. Sure, we can achieve this only by government subsidy, but it’s a start. Subsidies are supposed to be temporary measures. In the meantime, this will create an incentive to find more efficient ways to handle starch.

Research is being conducted to use cheaper starting materials. I found interesting the process under research called the Veridium bioreactor technology whereas a special strain of algae can produce a biomass containing 94% starch as opposed to 63% contained in corn, utilizing in the process the carbon dioxide given off by the ethanol-producing facilities. The interesting part is their claim: this biomass can be produced at a much faster rate than plants in less the surface area required for crops. In the present crisis, other alternatives are actively sought. Ethanol, however, offers the most practical approach.

The other alternatives, economically priced hybrid cars, hydrogen fuel cells, etc. are in the more distant future. All these, however, including the substitution of gasoline for ethanol take time. But we need a solution now, not years from now. We are pressed with time in view of the mounting competition for oil from China and India, its spiraling prices, global warming, not to mention that we are indirectly financing terrorism. For these very reasons, we need to import ethanol and reduce the import of oil.

One of the reasons I content is why we impose a tariff on a cleaner fuel imported from friendly countries and import tariff-free oil from rogue countries. The reason should be obvious: oil companies are the powerful force behind. Their tactics is simple: increase the price of gasoline at the pump, and then decrease it by a few cents to pacify the animosity of the public. But oil companies are not the only force against ethanol imports. The farmers are enjoying a windfall of profits. They too oppose competition. The way out, a little simplistic perhaps, is to keep these two forces at bay. As I said before, tax oil after a certain import level and give tax breaks on the amount of ethanol incorporated in the fuel.

As for the farmers, they are receiving a subsidy for the amount of corn used for ethanol. They should receive assurance that the amount of ethanol imported is only what they cannot produce—the more they produce the less we import. Once we develop other alternative crops cheaper than corn, they will need to switch. Grain ethanol is definitely not the most efficient process, except for moonshine. No other process is more energy efficient than sugar. Perhaps, we should grow sugar cane in Florida, Louisiana, some parts of Texas, and Hawaii. We cannot grow much but it may become a contributing factor. Another possibility is beet sugar.

We cannot compete with the cheap labor in Brazil, but better technology may give us a hedge. Still, we may not compete with the price of Brazilian ethanol, but it is better to contribute to sustain the labor force in a friendly country than sustain the finance of rogue states. Brazil has much less cars than us, and a vast territory with ideal climatic conditions for sugar cane. Consequently, they have a surplus of ethanol and they can easily meet an increased demand.

I know no other alternatives for ethanol; better perhaps, but not as commercially readily available as ethanol. Eventually, ethanol will be phased out but I don’t think this will happen for many years to come.

As for E85, my first reaction is: if we still cannot go national with E10, let alone E85. But that is not the question. E10 will not make us energy independent. But E85 would. E100 would be even better in this respect, but fuel efficiency is better with E85. I don’t consider a 15% gasoline consumption oil dependency. We can get this and more outside the oil cartel. The idea behind this is to create the necessary infrastructure for E85.

As I said before, we can import the necessary alcohol we still cannot produce. I use the word “alcohol” to include methanol, which could be produced from coal, and we have the world’s largest reserve of it. The technology has not yet been developed, however. The catalytic process from hydrogen and carbon monoxide may offer more economical possibility than that depending on natural gas hydrocarbons. Also, methanol is even less efficient than ethanol. But that is another matter of discussion, from which I prefer to stay out, since I would be biased. If I were involved in other energy projects that do not include alcohols, I would feel biased and stay completely out of this discussion.

Joseph Miglietta

13 thoughts on “Joseph Miglietta Response to Ethanol Debate Challenge”

  1. Importing ethanol means more monoculture in foreign countries meaning loss of biodiversity along with the extinction of species [1] – this the current state of affairs and we aren’t even desperate yet.

    Secondly it includes the displacement of indegenous people from ancestral lands who otherwise would have local subsistence economies and instead become economic refugees in squatter camps and imported food (to take the worst case scenario).

    No, conservation is the solution. And not just ‘smaller cars’. I’m talking about system-wide, including public transit, local food markets, basically a change in the way of life. This is getting off the topic of ethanol as a solution though.

    Technology will present solutions for more efficient, cleaner engines – and ethanol figures in there. But it will not “enable” the car addiction. Technology will provide solutions to trucking, busing, shipping, manufacturing even in the future oil-less economy. It will give you a warm home to go to even without oil or coal. Imagine every home with solar domestic hot water heaters. Imagine a return of the steam engine train, Photovoltaics powering lights and appliances in every house. And clever backup systems during cloudy weeks like using a thermal mass to store heat and efficient electrical generators running on biomass.

    Unfortunately it comes down to whether you want a billion cars (US, China, India) or 6 billion people. You can’t feed them both. [2]

    [1] –

    [2] –

  2. Rob, I agree about importing ethanol. It looks to me like brazilian ethanol comes from clear-cutting rain-forest, which is produced relatively briefly and abandoned. Not sustainable or scaleable.

  3. Joseph said – My interest in ethanol is only peripheral. Now that I am retired, I am working on developing my original idea: special additives that promote the shifting of the reaction equilibrium towards mechanical work at the expense of heat in engines using ethanol/gasoline blends.

    Now what is this to mean?

  4. I’m not sure I agree that reducing consumption implies defeat; it may instead imply maturity: we have figured out how to do less with more.

    I find it difficult to accept the idea that, for example, graduating fron a Hummer or an SUV to a fuel-efficient vehicle is a sign of defeat. To me, it would show that we’ve matured and are ready to take a real problem seriously.

    I also disagree with the analogy of our situation to the cure being worse than the disease. Short-term pain for long-term improvement may be necessary; amputations are a painful cure, after all, and if not administered may lead to death. On the other hand, I would agree that death would be more comfortable than a painful cure 🙂

  5. One other thing, in addition to my previous comment: the “chemical engineer” credential seems to have no bearing on the discussion.

  6. “special additives that promote the shifting of the reaction equilibrium towards mechanical work at the expense of heat in engines using ethanol/gasoline blends.”

    Perhaps he’s referring to additives that increase octane, or in some other way increase compression. That would increase the temperature at which ignition takes place, and potentially improve thermal efficiency, like diesel.

    BTW, Robert – what do you think of the idea that ethanol can run at higher compression than gasoline, and therefore make up for lower BTU content?

  7. BTW, Robert – what do you think of the idea that ethanol can run at higher compression than gasoline, and therefore make up for lower BTU content?

    There is some truth to that, although to date nobody has been able to completely close the gap. Saab recently reported an engine with improved ethanol performance:

    Saab’s 9-5

    They said that the increase in fuel consumption when using E85 was only 12.5%, instead of the typical 30% or more you see when using E85.


  8. …what do you think of the idea that ethanol can run at higher compression than gasoline, and therefore make up for lower BTU content?


    That can be done, and it works. But the problem is that if you have a high-compression engine specially designed to run on fuel alcohol, that engine won’t work well with lower octane gasoline.

    Indy racing cars have used high-octane methanol for years and years just because it would work in high-compression engines, and those high-compression engines can operate closer to the optimum efficiency for Carnot-cycle engines.

    But having a high-compression engine designed to get more power doesn’t really compensate for the lower energy density value of ethanol and methanol compared to gasoline and diesel.

    What determines how far a gallon of fuel will push a car is still largely a function of the fuel’s energy density.


    Gary Dikkers

  9. Mr. Miglietta’s piece is written in vague generalities and is otherwise almost content-free.  He never addresses the needs of the crops that the nation would need to run on E-10, let alone E-85.  EROEI appears to be something he has never considered.

    You’ll have to do better than that, Mr. Miglietta.

  10. Addressing Some Critics
    Rob said…
    jmiglietta answered…Brazil, the largest country in South America, as big as Canada and bigger than the lower 48 states of U.S., is not exactly a monoculture country. It produces, manufactures and exports a variety of products, and is the world’s largest exporter of coffee and sugar, in addition to ethanol. Their sugar mills have the ability of producing sugar or ethanol, according to the demand. Some of their sugar cane is cultivated in their northeast region near the rain forest, but most of it is raised in the vast region of Sao Paulo state where many more folds could be cultivated. The sugar cane cultivation and ethanol production may take away some of the population now living in the slums of the city of Sao Paulo, the largest city in South America.
    For conservation, I was not referring to smaller cars—that’s the natural process that occurs when fuel gets to be expensive. I too was referring to public transportation. Europe has better-developed public transportation than the U.S. (except, perhaps, in large city concentrations like New York or Chicago). I lived in Vienna, Austria for a few years. To go from point A to point B by public transportation, it would take me some 35 to 40 minutes between the waiting for transportation, the stopping at each station, and arriving at destination. By car I would cover the same distance in less than 15 minutes. This is what we would be facing here, it is more than traffic jams often we complain about, and we don’t even have here the adequate mass transportation.
    Personal transportation has been for quite some time our way of life. More recently, Europe has adopted the same type of personal transportation, while retaining their mass transit transportation. And now China and India are beginning to adopt theirs.
    Technological advancements have helped us in the past and may help us in the future. Among those technological advancements that you so well described, one stands out of place, incongruous with the rest. You describe an oil-less economy. Oil energy giving way for more efficient, cleaner and inextinguishable forms; even renewable energy in the end is solar energy. But one among them stands out of place: “a return of the steam engine train.” This is the only regressive note among the rest. All are meant to continue to improve our living standards, but that one may stand as a nostalgic memory of the past. It seems to me that you must have put it there for that purpose. I would have continued to describe the rosy future to include fusion, that practically inextinguishable form of clean, nuclear energy that one day we may conquer.
    However, the impending energy problem must be solved now. Even if we were to regress and adopt mass transit transportation, its transition and its adaptation would take time.
    Ethanol may not be the final solution to our transportation problem, but it is the most practical transitional solution for our independence from imported oil, even if this means temporarily switching our dependence from imported oil to imported ethanol. It will only be until engines with better alternative fuels will be commercially available at affordable prices. Other nations, including China and India, may follow suite. When this will happen, even the threat to our national security may cease to exist. I don’t wish to speculate beyond this period. Fifty years from now, we may have some other forms of transportation, perhaps even mass transportation that may change our way of life, or addiction, if you will.

    Nick said…
    jmiglietta answered…
    Please refer to my answer above. I don’t think rain forest in Brazil is involved, not to a great extent anyway.

    Anonymous said…
    jmiglietta answered…
    It’s a little bit difficult for me to explain. During the past few years I have been conducting development and evaluations on special additives for ethanol/gasoline blends. For E10, E20, and E25 I have obtained engine efficiencies equal to gasoline. I am not violating the first law of thermodynamics; I am not creating energy. This is the part I cannot disclose for now. With this additive, conventional, unmodified engines can use all three blends. The advantage is that all internal combustion engines on the road today may use these three blends, not just E10. In addition, initial test indicate that this additive may contribute to counteract the ethanol effect of raising the gasoline vapor pressure, releasing volatile compounds that contribute to smog in the summer. I am waiting now for an official laboratory evaluation. In anything that the government is involved, however, takes a sweet time. For higher ethanol concentrations, including E85, I shall require a flex vehicle. I don’t expect results equal to gasoline, but if the efficiency is better than E85 without this additive, it may be a contributing factor to make E85 more economically acceptable.

    Mattbg said…
    jmiglietta answered…
    I think it’s a question of semantics. I am not saying that reducing consumption is a sign of defeat. On the contrary, improving engine efficiency, or developing new technologies to better ourselves and solving problems are sure signs of advancement. But going back to old ways and assuming sacrifices is accepting defeat. Sacrifices for a better tomorrow is acceptable. But indefinitely change our way of life for the worse, such as going back to mass transportation, is what I called the cure worse than the desease.

  11. Yup, lot’s of nostalgia 🙂 (I’m 500 feet from the tracks of: )

    But that led me to research the topic a while back. The regret of the last designers is they never were able to combine the advances in power (by American designers) with the improvements in effeciency (by Frenchman André Chapelon and S. American L.D. Porta designers). I read about it here:

    And the wiki link:

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