Wine Talk

Snooth User: hipergas

Energy crisis - wine surplus

Posted by hipergas, Jun 18, 2008.

Does anyone see the potential? Until now, it's been corn famers raising the banner of ethanol for fuel, and the biggest downside: it's raised the price of corn for food.

Anyone care to throw their two scientific cents as to the alcohol production efficiency of corn versus winegrapes?
Maybe this is the best way to cut down on the wine production surplus and help the energy crisis. Win-win, anybody?

Now that's something the industry can rally behind!


Reply by ryanopaz, Jun 19, 2008.

France has been doing this for a few years now. Distilling spare juice into fuel for cars...

Reply by Mark Angelillo, Jun 19, 2008.

Well, it would definitely help the corn industry, which is becoming a disaster. I think corn ethanol is mostly a fad though, and once the mainstream catches wise to the problems with these types of biofuels I think it will see a decline.

Using the surplus grapes is a great idea -- weighed against the wasting of it. But, ethanol is not a good solution for high performance vehicles and I don't think it's very feasible to ship it any long distance as the energy yield of this method is low for the consumer after all of the processing/labor/transportation costs.

I imagine the efficiency is much the same for corn and wine grapes. That is to say, pretty low. Again, if there's a surplus it's worth taking advantage of it.

Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Jun 19, 2008.

Corn is already a pretty awful plant to use for ethanol production because its commerical production is energy-intensive and drains a lot of nutrients from the soil (requiring crop rotation and intensive fertilizer use). Grape vines are better in both of these regards, but are still a miserable choice for ethanol production.

Biochemically, the goal of ethanol production is to turn the sun's energy into a potent liquid that fits into our energy distribution infrastructure. In the grape vine's case, its leaves capture the sun's energy via photosynthesis and use it to produce more stalks, stems, leaves, roots and, of course, grapes. However, if you are only harvesting the grapes, that's a lot of plant material (and energy) that is going to waste. By dry weight (taking the water out of the equation), grapes are a much smaller percentage of a vine's annual green growth than the corn kernels are compared to the total corn plant. Simpler plants like sugarcane and, eventually, grasses will be much better ethanol producers.

So, unless there's already spare grape juice (or wine) lying around or their are social reasons for the continued subsidizing of grape production (like in France and other parts of Europe), this isn't really an energy solution. Since there is not a true wine surplus in the US, and our ethanol plants are mostly in Iowa, I can't see our grapes being turned into fuel anytime soon.

Reply by hipergas, Jun 19, 2008.

Thanks RBoulanger for your analysis. Last night I worked on a spreadhseet with some VERY rough estimates and guesstimated ethanol production from grapes abuot 396 gallons per acre farmed (at very high yields in tonnage, allowing for lower Brix), compared to some numbers for corn ethanol in the mid 400's.
So, about a 10% less ethanol per acre, but then we haven't factored in farming costs, which need much reworking for a vineyard, since we haven't farmed for total sugar production regardless of acidity and aromas in winegrowing since infamous times.

And yes, sugar cane and grasses are better options than corn and grapes, but we still have a couple of years until global warming turns the US plains into warm, sugar cane plantations; whereas we already have the weather for high-sugar grapes.

Eventually, solar collectors (I prefer mirror arrays heating water t photovoltaic cells) would be a better solution than all fuel-crops energy wise: electricty is cheaper to transport and the cars running on it won't release any gases into the atmosphere.

It still was a neat idea...

Reply by Chris Carpita, Jun 19, 2008.

I agree with Mark that the benefits of ethanol from grapes are best used to avoid wasted sugars. And RB is right about the energy distribution in the plants, much of it goes into the roots. The key to this kind of energy is gasoline aromatics converted directly from cellulose: something of which stalks, leaves, and roots have a huge amount.

As a perennial, however, grapes aren't the best source of cellulosic fuel, since you need to keep those roots, but it might be a good use for the felled leaves. The best source is grasses, as hipergas suggested.

Given all that, the technology is developing rapidly, but not quite there yet. Use of corn for ethanol was a crime, as raising food prices beget starvation. The focus must be on solar/wind power until cellulosic fuels are at an economically feasible stage.

Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Jun 19, 2008.

It IS a neat idea - it just isn't going to work on a commercial/industrial scale.

What's your formula for turning tons of grapes at a certain brix into gallons of ethanol?

What about using bush vine zinfandel with absolutely minimal human input?

Reply by hipergas, Jun 19, 2008.

Maximizing sugar tonnage per ace with minimum farming costs is what we are looking for.

Minimal pruning is cheap, but shading may get in the way of max canopy surface and leads to inefficient wood tissue proliferation.

My calculations are at home, but I started from tonnage/acre, potential brix, potential alcohol of wine with maximum alcohol efficiency (we are not looking for good drinking wine here) and naively hoped for 100% alcohol distillation without losses.

At about 16 tons/acre, if you can get to 19 brix and turn around into a low 14's% alcohol wine (.55 alc efficiency is doable), yielding 170 gallons of wine per ton of grapes (again, not the nicest wine, but we're trying to maximize yields), you should be getting close to 380-390 gallons of ethanol per acre, with numbers that seem conservative enough, and this is without research that could help maximize efficiencies.

Zin only appears to be really high sugar because the thin skins allow too much evaporation later in the season and brix shoots up, but your tonnage goes down. Plus farming costs of bush vines is not as economical as with a trellis system better suited to mechanization. Plus, the trellising provides support that vines (being the climbers they are) naturally lack and allows for optimal canopy management for max surface area of sun exposure.

So, academically, it would be interesting to rethink wine grape growing for ethanol production, although we know it is not economically sound in the end and at the end of the day, we all would be better off with energy sources that don't rely on combustion (except for grilling our foods!)

Man, I feel like a total geek now...

Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Jun 19, 2008.

Excellent post!

You earned your geekdom by using the words "inefficient wood tissue proliferation"

Reply by hipergas, Jun 19, 2008.

I'm flattered, monsieur.

Reply by Agent Red, Jun 25, 2008.

I was just speaking with one of our winemakers on this subject today. He deals with juice that is a quality level where even surplus or 'sub-par' juice is selling for $12 a gallon.... Not that you could pour a gallon of wine into your gas tank, but pretty soon Gasoline will be the same price!

Reply by hipergas, Jun 26, 2008.

Dear Red Agent, there is plenty of wine out there at $8/gallon and less. I know a guy who knows a guy... Then again, I was looking at this from the perspective of wine purposefully not made for drinking..

Reply by Mark Angelillo, Jun 27, 2008.

Some wines that are in fact made for drinking probably shouldn't be. Ha.

Reply by Rodolphe Boulanger, Jul 2, 2008.

Here's one man's solution to the energy crisis. Now if only I had an Aston Martin...

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