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What is Ethanol?
There is no doubt that we need more alternatives for fuel sources and that we are now in what the media refers to as an energy crisis. We cannot continue to rely on oil and coal. They are dirty, expensive and seriously limited.
In the past 10-15 years, huge progress has been made by scientists and researchers and there are now alternative fuel sources around. But none of them are perfect either. Below we explore ethanol as a biofuel.
Ethanol is a plant-based byproduct. It is mostly made from corn but can also be produced from barley, sugar cane crops, soya and sunflower plants; the plants are broken down into simple sugars which are then fermented and distilled into ethanol, a type of plant alcohol.
Ethanol is used as a fuel source in the form of a blend with regular gasoline. Most cars can handle blends containing around 10% of ethanol.
The Problems with Ethanol As an Alternative Fuel
In the United States especially, but in other countries as well, ethanol production is heavily subsidized by the government. In other words, taxpayers are covering the costs. There has been much controversy due to this issue. Not everyone agrees that their tax dollars should go towards ethanol.
Obviously land is a limited resource. How can we justify fuel production when that land could be used to produce food? In the American Midwest, a growing percentage of farmland is now dedicated to corn fields used for ethanol production. Once again, the public is divided on whether this is a good bet. Ethanol is far from a perfect alternative to gasoline. Moreover, if we all decided to switch to biofuels as an alternative to diesel/oil, there would be a global competition for land: food vs. fuel. This could potentially be very dangerous and cause serious geo-political tensions.
In order to produce ethanol, fossil fuels are used by the farmers, and electricity and gas are used during the manufacturing process. Overall it is a costly process. Many argue that this cancels out ethanol’s viability as a clean fuel source. Much work is being done to move towards a more efficient production process that is less fossil-fuel dependent.
Most ethanol is not produced using environmentally friendly practices. It often involves GMO crops and heavy doses of pesticides and other chemicals. This pollutes the soil and waterways and threatens the biodiversity in the area.
In terms of mileage, ethanol does not fare well as compared regular gasoline. Ethanol contains less energy per measure than gasoline so you would need more to go the same distance. Ethanol’s efficiency also varies widely depending on what type of vehicle is used.
Most cars cannot switch to using ethanol 100%. The cars we used today require altering in order to operate completely on ethanol. There are vehicles that can use a blend of 85% alcohol but most cars can handle much less. Most vehicles are not optimized for ethanol use currently. Further, ethanol is not exactly available at gas stations everywhere. Most consumers are simply not exposed to ethanol as a fuel option.
Ethanol is still quite expensive, when compared to gasoline. Depending on geography, it can be much cheaper to use diesel; this is a big deterrent for consumers. As more developments are made in this industry and larger volumes are achieved, the price will eventually decrease but as of today in our recession times, it is by and large not the budget friendly option.
As ever, there are no easy conclusions in the messy and complicated world of alternative energy debates. Join us next week for our final installment in this series- and possibly the most controversial- where we look at nuclear energy.