How Much Corn Is in a Barrel of Oil?

Biofuels & Climate Change

A segment on the Discovery Channel’s show “How Stuff Works” caught my eye this week and prompted that question. The segment points out that Xanthan gum, fermented from corn syrup, is used in oil drilling. Xanthan is combined with the drilling mud used to cool drilling equipment, and it helps to clear dirt and rock from the mud as well as maintain a pressure cap on the bore hole.

The primary markets for Xanthan gum are of course food and cosmetic ingredients — check your supermarket shelves for the number of products containing it. But enough is used in oil production that a 2006 Saudi Aramco white paper explored establishment of a Xanthan gum production plant in Saudi Arabia to meet oil drilling needs. The white paper projects the market for Xanthan gum for 2007 and 2008 among the Gulf Cooperation Council countries (Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates), using Saudi Aramco’s exploration and production models. For 2007, the projected need was nearly 15 million pounds, and for 2008, nearly 12.5 million pounds.

Arguments about the diversion of food and land for biofuel fail to consider exactly how many non-food products contain corn.

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8 Responses to How Much Corn Is in a Barrel of Oil?

  1. mus302 says:

    I don’t think people understand that agriculture has always been about more than just food production. As you point out corn has many industrial uses as do most other crops as well. I have been on message forums where someone would say that farmland should only be used for food production and I always reply that I bet the person sat there in cotton pants and shirt grown on farmland while typing that message.

  2. Ron Steenblik says:

    Boy, you people are really grasping at straws. This year, ethanol production in the United States is expected to absorb 1/3 of the U.S. corn crop.

    Total world demand for xanthan gum for oil drilling is around 1/20,000th of the starch produced from the U.S. corn crop.

    Or, to put it another way, demand for corn starch from ethanol producers will be almost 7,000 times that from producers of xanthan gum for oil-drilling.

  3. Ron is right.

    With sadness I paged through a seemingly endless stream of laboriously cross-linked eloquence, which never attempted to address the fundamental problem with biofuels: They are brutally and immediately unsustainable, no matter how produced and from what feedstock. Such is the physics of the planet Earth. See more at

    So how many angels can sit on a kernel of corn?

  4. Sincere thanks to Mr. Steenblik and Professor Patzek for adding your comments.

    I’d be interested in the source of Mr. Steenblik’s cited statistics about demand for corn in oil drilling. The point, though, is that opponents of biofuels have argued that biofuel production directly competes with food production. I think it is fairer to say that the expansion of the biofuel industry competes with the expansion of many other industries for affordable resources (not just corn per se, but more precisely the sugar in corn). The question of sustainability is not unique to biofuels.

    Mr. Steenblik studies subsidies provided to biofuels and other industries. The economic viability of an industry is one leg of sustainability, but again this is not unique to biofuels. The EPA’s current work to apply sustainability criteria to biofuels under the Renewable Fuel Standard should take into account how the criteria may be applied to other industries, particularly the petroleum industry.

    Professor Patzek’s paper merits a more detailed response; I have not yet found an academic publication responding to it. In general, though, energy conservation and alternative energies such as solar power are not mutually exclusive alternatives to biofuel production.

    I find most interesting Professor Patzek’s assessment that renewable resources are not actually renewable. This is in fact the premise behind the model proposed by Searchinger et al., as he explains in his letter to the California Air Resources Board. But to observe that there is a theoretical upper limit to the renewability of biomass on a geologic time-scale is different from drawing a conclusion that current production will reach that upper limit within a specific timeframe.

  5. It is intresting to see the depth of refusal to face up to the reality of massive extraction (in millions or billions of tons per year) of biomass from an ecosystem in annual cycles (corn, sugarcane, soybeans, oil nuts, etc.) and multiyear cycles (plantation trees). Please remember that we want biofules not for 1 or 2 years, but for decades or centuries, and as a steady stream. This simply cannot go on without depleting and ultmately killing the parent ecosystem. The premise of my OECD paper was to look at the MODIS satellite measurements of net primary productivity (NPP) of large ecosystems across the globe and compare it with the needs of humans and other heterotrophs. That’s it. There is no way out, especially for the US, where the current consumption of fossil fuels exceeds the above-ground NPP of all plants. Forget lumber, paper, cows, and humans. The only agriculture sustainable on a scale of 2000 years was developed in China, and ended in earnest in 1945. That agriculture relied essentially on recycling *everything*. If we look at the Mesopotamia today, its ruined soil is leading to constant human strife, misery, and wars. This is the log-term future of agrofuels for all of us.

    • pwintersatbiodotorg says:

      Other researchers using the MODIS data come to far less pessimistic conclusions than Prof. Patzek. For instance, Marc Imhoff, a biophysical scientist with NASA, emphasizes the importance of technology in helping balance the NPP equation. In a NASA Earth Observatory feature article, he is quoted as saying, “We have the technology to get out ahead of this. The data isn’t just showing us the bad news; it is also giving us the power to study the changes ahead and understand them. We are far from being helpless. Our ability to assess our environment and our situation should give us a sense of empowerment.”

  6. True Patzek says:

    Tad, there is no question that agriculture exacts damage on ecosystems. That is obvious. The question is what can the biofuels influence be? Should we just burn tar sands instead?

  7. Bruce Dale says:

    If I understand correctly, one of Dr. Patzek’s fundamental objections to biofuels is that removal of so much biomass will cause ecosystem collapse. He uses net primary productivity (NPP) as the limit on how much biomass might be sustainably removed. But NPP is variable, depending on human management and even on natural plant succession in unmanaged ecosystems. Dr. Patzek has apparently calculated the “worst case” NPP, the NPP without human management. The actual productivity of managed farms and forests is many times greater than their NPP in the absence of management. If I am mistaken, I would appreciate if Dr. Patzek would correct me and tell me how he calculated NPP. It is not clear (to me at least) how he did this from his OECD paper.

    To give a specific example, the Imperial Valley of California has a relatively small NPP in the absence of management. The Valley has lots of sun and pretty good land, but not much water. It has a much larger NPP under human management. I think it is safe to say that without human intervention we would never get much gasoline from crude oil or much electricity from the sun. So why is it acceptable for humans to use solar photovoltaics and batteries to harvest solar energy for transportation but not to use advanced agricultural and bioconversion technologies to harvest solar energy as sugars to produce liquid fuels? Human intervention and management are required in both approaches.

    In any case, it is simply not true that large-scale harvesting of biomass for energy production will necessarily lead to ecosystem collapse. For example, in the Sao Paulo region of Brazil, they have been harvesting sugarcane on the same lands for 400 years, removing or burning all the above-ground biomass. Those lands are more productive than ever. The same rice fields in China and Japan have been productive for centuries, even though both the grain and the straw are removed. Lands in Europe have been under the plow for centuries and are still productive. The same hay lands have been harvested in Nebraska for over 100 years. Where is the evidence that large-scale biomass removal will cause ecosystem collapse?

    Of course, we could be stupid about how we manage these agroecosystems. Of course we could do biofuels wrong and make terrible choices. We could do the same thing for any petroleum alternative, including solar photovoltaics providing power to battery operated vehicles. We could use toxic and environmentally persistent chemicals to manufacture these devices, dispose of the wastes recklessly, mine and refine the metals irresponsibly, and dispose of the batteries, etc., carelessly rather than recycling them. We could do all of these stupid things. In fact, we have already done similar stupid things. But why will we necessarily be stupid about biofuels and smart about other petroleum alternatives?

    I have been working for over 30 years to make biofuels both economically and environmentally sustainable (See My approach to biofuels is that of the Ecological Society of America, which recently (January 2008) stated: “Biofuels have great potential, but the ecological impacts of their development and use must be examined and addressed if they are to become a sustainable energy source.” These are professional ecologists speaking — by inclination and training they are both cautious and analytical about ecosystem integrity. I encourage you to read their whole statement on biofuels. You will find that it contains no doomsday pronouncements such as those favored by Dr. Patzek.

    There are legitimate and valid environmental issues surrounding biofuels that merit attention and research. Net primary productivity is not one of these issues. The logic that Dr. Patzek has apparently applied to NPP limitations, if applied consistently, would exclude all petroleum alternatives — all of them. All petroleum alternatives, solar energy, biofuels and any and all others, will require human intervention and management.

    Dr. Patzek: speaking for myself, it is not “refusal to face up to the reality” about biomass use. I have simply weighed your arguments in the balance and found them wanting.

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