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Updated Automatically on July 24th, 2008
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Ethanol has recently become the fuel economy darling, but does it deserve that status?

There’s no question that ethanol is a better long-term bet than gasoline. It’s renewable and much more friendly to the environment. But is ethanol really ready to take over as the main road fuel for the United States? Maybe not quite, due to problems with availability, production capacity, and production efficiency.

First up is availability. You may be surprised to learn that you’re probably already burning some ethanol in your car. Some states have banned Methyl Tri-Butyl Ether as a fuel additive, so gasoline companies are turning to ethanol as an alternative fuel oxygen booster instead of MTBE. The problem with MTBE is that while it’s less expensive than ethanol and it blends better with gasoline, it’s also a carcinogen and it’s very difficult to remove when it leaks into water. Ethanol is used as a substitute in many places to boost gas oxygenation and make the gas burn cleaner. Because of this, many people argue that distribution and availability aren’t issues with ethanol. But there’s a big difference between ethanol as an additive in readily available gasoline and an infrastructure to distribute a fuel like E85 (85% ethanol.) That requires separate fuel tanks and pumps at fuel stations, and we simply don’t have the tanks and pumps yet. But we’re slowly working on it.

The second issue is production capacity. Simply put, there aren’t enough ethanol processing facilities to provide enough E85 or other high-ethanol fuel to take over the dominance of gasoline. Again, we’re working on it, but it’s going to take awhile. Some investors are banking on the future of ethanol as an alternative fuel and they’re putting a lot of money into ethanol processing and refining companies, so we should see production capacity increasing.

Finally we have the problem of production efficiency, and you can blame the last soft drink you had for that one. Ethanol is distilled from plant sources. In America, the big push for ethanol is from the corn producing industry. Unfortunately, corn is far from the most efficient crop to use for ethanol production. Estimates of the energy required to convert corn into ethanol range from $0.80 of production cost per $1.00 of ethanol produced to $1.20+ of cost per $1.00 of ethanol produced. Obviously there’s a problem if it costs more to make the fuel than it’s worth! The corn industry in the United States enjoys a very favorable regulatory environment that protects one of it’s major products: High Fructose Corn Syrup. This is the sweetener in most soft drinks and many other food items. Because of this regulatory protection, it’s very expensive to import crops that would make ethanol more efficiently like sugar cane. Brazil produces plenty of ethanol using plentiful sugar cane crops, but the corn industry and domestic sugar industry lobbies have ensured that the import duties on those crops make them prohibitively expensive in the U.S. market, and Hawaii cannot produce enough domestic sugar cane to supply America’s ethanol needs. Perhaps sugar beets or some other crop will be more efficient for ethanol production. One thing that shows some promise is cellulose-based ethanol production, which uses things like plant stalks and other fibers that aren’t used for anything else to produce ethanol. Right now the efficient production of cellulose-based ethanol requires enzymes that are only produced in laboratories, but if those enzymes can be mass-produced, cellulose may be the answer to our ethanol needs and ethanol may be the answer to our cellulose waste.

Despite these seemingly huge hurdles, there’s no doubt that ethanol is one of the best contenders for a future road fuel. It’s renewable, and much more environmentally friendly than gasoline. Once we address the issues with raw material, production, and distribution, we’ll be on our way to having cleaner air and a renewable road fuel resource.

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Updated Automatically on July 24th, 2008
better gas mileage

One Response to “Ethanol: The New Fuel Economy Darling”

    I think we should find a way to make Ethanol more available and known to America. I personally am reading as much as i can about Ethanol and I would like to convert my car sometime in the future. I have one interesting fact - “If we used all the corn grown in the united states for Ethanol it would only be enough for 12% of our fuel needs”- I think if we make Ethanol just as energy efficient as gasoline or even better more people will consider it.


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