Are Ethanol Vehicles the Answer to the Growing Environmental Problems?

When gas prices hit record highs last summer, most of the talk about possible cheap and renewable fuel sources seemed to surround ethanol, which a product of carbon based feed stock.  Currently, most of the world’s ethanol comes from either corn or sugarcane.

As a matter of fact, you’re probably using a small bit of ethanol when you drive your cars, as most gas stations have begun to use ethanol – usually less than 10% – as a mixture with regular gasoline.

Unfortunately, after doing some research, it appears that ethanol will help much less with the growing environmental problems than it will with helping to wean the United States off of its addition to foreign oil.

Here’s a list of pros and cons that I was able to pull together from a couple of different online resources: 

Pros:

  • Because ethanol is a derived from feedstock, it is a completely renewable fuel source.
  • Can be produced domestically from cradle (the harvesting of the feedstock) to grave (turning the feedstock into fuel).
  • It can be used by itself as fuel, or can be mixed with gasoline.

Cons:

  • Because Ethanol requires so much corn, it’s driving the prices of many food products – such as corn, beef and poultry – much higher.
  • In order to farm enough corn to make ethanol a viable fuel source, it’s going to take a lot of land.  Not to mention the fact that farming on this massive of a scale can create its own environmental problems.
  • When Ethanol is burned greenhouse carbon dioxide is still released, however less carbon monoxide is released.
  • Ethanol contains roughly 2/3rds of the energy per gallon as gasoline.

In terms of being more environmentally friendly than burning fossil fuels, it looks like the jury’s still out.  According to a study published by two Cal-Berkeley professors, ethanol actually produces similar amounts of greenhouse gasses as gasoline.  However, as technologies advance and scientists are able to determine which feedstocks produce less harmful emissions, it’s not unreasonable to think that ethanol will become more environmentally friendly.

One of the major concerns regarding ethanol is weather or not it really is an economically viable fuel source.  Many economists are arguing that because the energy it takes to grow, harvest and process the ethanol is greater than the energy produced by the ethanol, that this is essentially a losing proposition. 

If this is true, I think they are 100% correct, as this means more harm to the environment and to the economy.

For additional information, please check out National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition and Wikipedia.

Comments

  1. you are correct that combusting alcohol creates as much greenhouse gas as burning gasoline. Burning gasoline releases carbon dioxide that was locked in the crust of the earth. The carbon that is used in the creation of corn and alcohol is from transpiration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The goal of replacing fossil fuels with bio-equivalents is to close the carbon loop. We need to stop dumping greenhouses into the atmosphere.

  2. Wikipedia is a valuable information resource. However, as a collection of voluntary submissions, there is a chance of error.

    The Wikipedia ethanol section, does contain misinformation. Contrary to the claim made in “Controversies”, the November 2006 Consumer Report stated, “ethanol has a lower energy content than gasoline: 75670 BTU per gallon instead of 115,400”. An additional self-referenced factoid stated, “automobiles designed to run on ethanol burn the ethanol more efficiently and they have achieved fuel efficiency ratings of 100 mpg [The Alcohol Fuel Handbook].” While possible that some internal combustion engine in some vehicle could obtain such mileage, both the vehicle and the mileage test would have to be specified. Under comparable conditions, an ethanol-fuelled vehicle will get ~2/3d the mileage of a gasoline-fuelled one.

    The Wikipedia ethanol article also cites a reference that is based on a false energy balance.

    Caveat emptor.

  3. hello
    I know that legislation is not everywhere friendly with hemp in USA, but I would like all the farmers or all people who own a bit of soil to know that this crop is the biomass queen.
    When harvested for seeds (with more space between the rows and without cutting the males before pollination) the seeds weight equals the half of the plant’ s weight!
    Say half of the crop (stalks, leaves) for car gaz and the other half (seeds) for us to eat (such a fine food! see http://www.jackherer.com/chapter08.html about that)

    PS remember some states’ legislations are totally unfair because seeds won’ t get no one high…and some forbidden varieties are monoïc hemp (produicing only seeds and no psychoactive THC)!

  4. The other problem with the reporting people is they only predict what they can understand at the moment – few speculate on what technology change may be in place only months into the future. I believe little Ethanol will be made from corn in the near future – Ethanol will be made from cellulose ‘any thing that will burn’ such as garbage, weeds as example. Also corn is not lost after making Ethanol the corn mash is sold for cattle feed that fattens cattle better after making Ethanol than corn not made into Ethanol. What did the people writing the article explains or understand regarding, what happens to the corn after Ethanol is made. Seems they stopped short tracking the total picture of the corn usage and value. Actually Ethanol is a by product of processing corn for food and other products. Maybe someone should report on how ADM in Cedar Rapids breaks down dollars in products from each bushel of corn.

    I see resistance and misleading information pumped into the world population that must come from dollars paid by oil companies to research companies that agree to support anything with one sided facts for the big bucks. Air quality, water quality and Mother Nature will eventually settle the confusion.

  5. Brian Carr says

    Mary – thanks for the comment. I agree that technology could very well change how efficient ethanol is in the future, and will probably change the actual source of ethanol as well. However, when I wrote this post I didn’t really take what “could be” into consideration and just went on what I was able to find about current sources of ethanol. Hopefully in the future it will be undisputed that ethanol is a great alternative fuel, but right now it seems pretty up in the air.

  6. Brian Carr says

    faryann – thanks for the comment. While I agree with you, I think there’s too much of a stigma attached to hemp for it to be something that legislators are willing to put their weight behind. That being said, at this point they should be open to all options.

  7. Brian Carr says

    Russ – I agree, which is why I used another source. I know that Wikipedia probably shouldn’t be used as the be-all-end-all resource and I will probably get away from using it in future posts.

  8. Brian Carr says

    jmcloud – thanks for the comment, and that is a great point regarding releasing carbon that had essentially been locked away in the Earth’s crust. I think the moral of the story is we all need to be willing to travel less or use cleaner modes of transportation.

  9. William Wilgus says

    Unfortunately, ethanol currently requires more fuel to produce than it yields, presents environmental problems of its own, and I understand that it’s also harmful to engines.

    In contrast, Propane, aka Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), is relatively clean burning, is a by-product of petroleum refining, and doesn’t harm engines. Unfortunately, more than insignificant amounts of it are simply burned off during the refining process because of insufficient demand. (The fires on the refining towers visible at night are used to dispose of excess products.) It’s relatively safe and is easily transported—including by pipeline. Since Recreational Vehicles—which use it for cooking, heating, & refrigeration—have become quite common, propane is widely available. It’s also cost competitive with gasoline.

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