Is Ethanol the Champion Bio-Fuel?

The United States, along with the rest of the world, is currently facing a growing energy crisis due to rising oil prices. A potential war with Iran in the near future does not help alleviate these concerns, as regardless of who comes out of this possible conflict as a victor, that fuel is being used as a negotiating point does not bode well for the future. Also, with OPEC in possession of over 77% of oil reserves, the US remains vulnerable to sanctions that have potential to be enforced if we fall out of OPEC’s favor.2 It is imperative, subsequently, that we shift our focus away from an oil-based economy to implementing a sound, sustainable energy policy that can be viable on a national scale and be applied to every socio-economic class.

So, where does that leave us? It is important to note that extensive research has been completed in various alternative sources of energy such as solar, wind, and nuclear but the problem that arises is that many of the technologies currently developed and that are being developed can be used only for niche markets. As a result, this narrows down the field of potential sources that fulfills the US requirements drastically.

Replacing fossil fuels with bio-fuels can generate a number of benefits. In contrast to fossil fuels, which are exhaustible resources, bio-fuels are produced from renewable feedstocks. Thus, their production and use could, in theory, be sustained indefinitely. Bio-fuels’ carbon emissions can be offset by their feedstocks’ photosynthetic carbon uptake. As plants grow, they absorb inorganic carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and incorporate it into sugars. In contrast, fossil fuel production and use removes carbon from the Earth’s crust and introduces it to the atmosphere, where it will contribute to global warming for centuries. Perhaps, one of the most well publicized bio-fuels is ethanol.3 Ethanol is a relatively easy fuel to synthesize, as it is the byproduct of many naturally occurring reactions with bacteria and yeasts. People are attracted to ethanol, because it can easily be synthesized from corn or cane sugar. With record warm temperatures occurring with higher frequency each year, climate change has been on many people’s minds. Thus a push towards implementing ethanol on a greater scale becomes more pertinent with each passing year.

However, ethanol may not be the panacea we are looking for, for several reasons.

The first concern is the source of ethanol. As mentioned earlier, ethanol can be synthesized from corn or cane sugar, but recently has shown potential to be synthesized from previously considered useless biomass. Methods have already been created to convert corn to ethanol, but involve a rather large carbon footprint and an initial amount of natural gas.4 This means we could not completely swear off of our dependency on natural gas. There are also a host of economic issues that are associated with corn-based ethanol that could lead to higher prices in corn-based products. Sugarcane-based ethanol, which has a stronghold in Brazil, holds a bit more potential than corn based ethanol for a couple of reasons. The most prominent reason is that the net energy is significantly higher than that of corn, meaning much more can be done with sugar cane based ethanol. In addition, Brazil historically has had an excess of sugarcane, meaning it should not adversely affect the economy. Brazil is also primed to produce bio-fuels because its government invested money in the mid 1970’s to research the full potential of sugarcane as an energy source. This investment definitely has paid off as Brazil currently synthesizes the cheapest ethanol in the world.5 The final source of ethanol is cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from unused plant-based materials such as cornhusks, hay and grass. This source of ethanol has the most government backing with Steven Chu enacting the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which projects 16 billion gallons of cellulosic feedstock by the year 2022. The most obvious advantage is the fact that this is a byproduct of crops, meaning it would be free. However, unlike corn and sugarcane, a technology has not yet been developed to process the biomass since it is much more difficult to breakdown.6

Sugarcane ethanol presents a possible source of renewable energy.

The next factor of consideration is the economic impact of using ethanol on a macro level as an energy source. Corn-based ethanol is the most prevalent form of ethanol in the United States because it can be grown nationally, unlike sugarcane, which must be imported. Even though the means for synthesizing sugarcane-based ethanol is much more evolved than that of corn-based, there are heavy tariffs imposed in order to protect American farmers. Using sugarcane-based ethanol should also be avoided because it could potentially lead to a dependence on Brazil for energy, which could land the United States in a similar situation it has today with its dependence on oil-producing countries. However, shirking sugarcane imports from Brazil does not mean that the economy is not affected. Because ethanol is the latest trend in the energy sector, farmers are finding it to be more profitable to sell their corn not as a food source, but rather as an energy source. This in turn drives up the prices of food, since a large majority of the food has some form of a corn-based product in it.4 While the effect has been noticeable in the US, it has been magnified in Mexico where corn is a staple part of their diet. In addition to the fact that corn-based ethanol drives up the price of food, another factor to consider is the reality of how to partition harvests between food and energy in times of a poor harvest. This has the potential to cause either an energy crisis or dramatically increase the cost of food. As a result, ethanol currently does not hold promise to be a viable and economical source of energy.

The last factor in determining whether or not ethanol is truly viable is the technology that is currently available to use it as the predominant energy source. Gasoline today does not normally contain ethanol unless explicitly stated. However, cars can use E10 gasoline, otherwise called gasohol, which is a mixture of 90% gasoline and 10% ethanol, without any detrimental effects to the engines. The mileages are slightly lower on these cars, but are at least implementing ethanol.If the percentage of ethanol rises, the engines in the cars start to break down, and at E15 gasoline, are completely destroyed. There are vehicles called Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs), which can run off of E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) or any other mixture of the two.7 FFVs require a slightly different engine and parts and also have a lower mileage due to the fact that corn-based ethanol has a lower energy output than that of conventional gasoline. Since most manufacturing companies do not produce FFVs, it is unlikely that this makes an impact environmentally or economically.

While it may seem that the state of the art of ethanol is improving and we are closing in on removing our crutch on the Middle East for oil, we are, in actuality, far from realizing this goal. What the United States must do is follow in Brazil’s footsteps and focus its research on cellulosic ethanol and develop the accompanying technology. We must invest our funds in the appropriate energy sector and make sure we do not lose sight on the end result of ultimately being energetically self-sustaining. If we do so, there is hope that both our economy and our standard of living will improve.

References:

  1. Coy, P. Save Strategic Oil Reserves for When They’re Really Needed. Bloomberg Business Week: Global Economics. Last modified March 31, 2012.
  2. Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. The New York Times. Last modified December 11, 2011.
  3. Biofuels. US Department of Energy. Last modified February 9, 2011.
  4. Ethanol. The New York Times. Last modified January 12, 2012.
  5. Almeida, C. Sugar Cane: Brazil’s biofuel success. Science and Development Network. Last modified December 6, 2007.
  6. US Department of Energy. Bioenergy. Genomic Science Program. Last modified January 11, 2012.
  7. Ethanol. FuelEconomy.gov. Accessed April 1, 2012.
  8. Image credit: Gas station. Stockvault. Last modified January 2, 2008.
  9. Image credit (Creative Commons): Ethanol Production. Flickr. Last modified September 23, 2008.

Anisha Mukherjee is a student at Duke University. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.

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