Ethanol fuel is an alcohol-based biofuel that’s distilled by extracting sugar from corn in the United States or sugarcane from other countries. Its use has triggered some debate over recent years because of its production and uses. This product burns cleaner than gasoline, which means there are some environmental benefits that are worth considering with this resource. It also tends to cost more than 100% petroleum-based fuels because there are more refinement steps to follow in its creation.
That’s why the largest single use of ethanol is as a fuel additive or for engine fuel. Although the United States leads the world in the production of this resource, Brazil relies on it more heavily than anywhere else. The gasoline sold in Brazil contains at least 25% ethanol, with hydrous ethanol – a mixture of 95% ethanol and 5% water – usable as a fuel in 90% of the new vehicles sold in the country.
U.S. drivers typically see a 10% ethanol ratio in their gasoline, although legislation to push that figure to 15% is pending in some state legislatures and at the national level. E85 vehicles can use an 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline mixture as well.
List of the Pros of Ethanol Fuel
1. Corn-based ethanol creates a usable byproduct.
The advantage of ethanol burning cleaner than 100% gasoline is enough of a benefit to consider using it for many people. When you look at the production process, there is a sludgy byproduct that comes from the fuel’s creation. This food product is rich in protein, making it a nutritious feed option for animals. That means we can double the usage of this agricultural product. When you add in the fact that a gallon of this fuel yields up to 67% more energy than it takes to produce, it’s an efficient option for our transportation networks.
We can also use ethanol to create items like dry ice. It works as a product for pneumatic systems as well. About 1 metric ton of the by-product can actually replace about 1.25 tons of cornmeal when using it for food stocks.
2. It offers a smaller carbon footprint than gasoline.
Even though there are more production steps involved in the refinement of ethanol when compared to gasoline, there is still a significant environmental benefit to consider. Consuming ethanol exclusively creates up to a 30% smaller carbon footprint compared to what traditional unleaded gasoline produces during combustion. Since we can mix ethanol with gasoline in vehicles, that means it is possible to cut emissions without creating a significant difference in our lifestyle.
3. There is no longer an ethanol subsidy in place in the United States.
One of the reasons why ethanol was able to grow as an alternative fuel source in the United States was due to the subsidies placed on the commodity by the government. Producers in this industry received a $0.45 per gallon subsidy prior to 2012. Although critics suggest that this alternative fuel would have never taken off without this taxpayer-funded option being available, the industry has seen no signs of slowing down since the ending of this financial benefit. That means it is an industry that can stand on its own while providing significant contributions to the GDP.
4. Ethanol works with our existing fuel infrastructure around the world.
We can use ethanol with traditional gasoline, by itself, or in a variety of different ways thanks to the infrastructure we already have. The fuel stations that exist to serve drivers and other needs already have the capability to distribute this product. Our distribution pipelines and refinery network can help to produce and provide this fuel to wherever it is needed throughout the country. It is even shippable to create a useful export that can generate more money for the economy, although American ethanol is almost entirely consumed domestically.
This advantage means that we can add many of the benefits of this cleaner-burning fuel without spending a small fortune trying to create networks that allow us to use it in the first place.
5. We can create ethanol from several different natural resources.
Corn and sugarcane are the two most common forms of ethanol production that take place in the world today. We also have more options to consider in locations where these natural products might not grow well. Some industry producers can take the fibers of almost any plant to create a cellulose-based fuel that operates the same way as the “standard” ethanol that is for sale. We can even use grass or algae to create this product, which would make it an even more sustainable fuel to consider using for our transportation needs.
The benefit of using cellulose-based ethanol is that its efficiency levels are through the roof compared to other fuels – including the corn-based version we use today. It can provide almost 40 units of energy for every single unit of energy input that is available.
6. All ethanol must be made unfit for human consumption.
Ethanol is made when the sugar and starch combination from the natural materials gets turned into a mash, cooked, and cooled. Then the enzyme glucoamylase gets added to the product so that the fermentation process starts. After 48 hours, there will be a 10% ethanol mixture in the product. Then the entire mixture goes through the heating process again to evaporate the mixture to eliminate any water from the batch. Then it goes through another cooling process with dehydration to create a 200-proof grain alcohol. A small amount of gasoline gets added to this final product to make it unusable as a food product so that it can be shipped to fuel outlets across the United States.
List of the Cons of Ethanol Fuel
1. The United States consumes a lot of corn to produce ethanol.
Over 40% of the corn that farmers produce in the United States goes to the ethanol industry. This disadvantage impacts the price of grain and food commodities across the board. The price of corn was about $2.50 during the 1980s when it was primarily a food product. When ethanol production began to skyrocket after the 1990s, there was an appreciable climb that began that has never really stopped. Petroleum-based fuels see their pricing fluctuate with corn-based products as well, which means the close ties that the two resources have can directly impact family budgets immediately and severely in some situations.
2. Government requirements for ethanol percentages in fuel is still a form of subsidization.
Even though the subsidies that supported the ethanol market expired in 2012, the U.S. government requires the fuel to be mixed with gasoline in some ways. That means the biofuel market still receives a form of subsidization because consumers don’t have a choice about using this product. There are some fuel producers that still sell a 100% gasoline product, but it also comes at a more expensive price because of the structure of the marketplace. That’s why there is such a passionate debate at times about using this product. Would it still exist if the free market were able to dictate demand levels?
3. Ethanol fuel offers a less effective combustion opportunity for engines.
When you compare the effectiveness of ethanol from any source to that of standard gasoline, then you will receive 40% less energy on a full tank. That means it takes 1.4 gallons of ethanol to replace what 1 gallon of petroleum-based gasoline can produce in the average vehicle. When you increase the percentage of ethanol in the fuel, then this disadvantage continues to rise. Vehicles that use an 85% ethanol option can see a 25% reduction in their gas mileage with every tank.
Critics point out that ethanol might burn cleaner than standard gasoline, but drivers are using more of it to achieve results. That means the environmental advantages that are possible with this fuel resource are somewhat limited since consumers must use more of it.
4. Ethanol is more corrosive as fuel than other consumer options.
We do have the infrastructure to support ethanol distribution right now, but the pipelines that are in place would likely require some retrofitting to be useful. This disadvantage must be carefully considered because this fuel is more corrosive than gasoline or petroleum. The reason for this problem is the fact that the fuel has the ability to absorb water during transport. That’s why many ethanol fuels don’t go overseas because it doesn’t ship well unless it is in a waterproof container.
This disadvantage also means that you can’t let the fuel sit in the gas tank of a vehicle for too long. It could corrode the metal from the inside, creating a potentially expensive repair to manage. Water contamination could also create an issue with ignition when trying to start the engine of a vehicle in the morning.
5. We take up a lot of cropland space to create ethanol.
There are some sustainable crop options that make ethanol a viable product, but the majority of this fuel comes from corn. Some of this disadvantage is due to the fact that the U.S. is the primary manufacturer of this product. When there are issues with hunger to resolve in the United States and around the world, the idea of creating a cash crop that has little human food value brings up the ethical question of how we use agriculture.
This disadvantage could resolve itself if we can move more toward an algae-based product in the future. If we are unable to do so, then the price of corn will cause other food items to increase because the commodity costs keep rising. The price per bushel has increased by over $2.20 over the past 30 years as we have worked to develop the ethanol industry.
6. There is an energy cost issue to consider with ethanol.
Although ethanol is an efficient fuel source in that it can produce more energy than is necessary to create it, there are energy cost calculations that don’t go into that figure. Cornell University found that the average acre of corn in the United States yields about 7,100 pounds of product for processing. This yield creates about 328 gallons of ethanol. When you consider the planting, growing, and harvesting costs, then about 140 gallons of fuel are necessary to create this product at a cost of $347 per acre. That means the feedstock costs already start the price-per-gallon of ethanol at $1.05 before any refinement happens.
When you add up all of the energy costs of corn production and ethanol conversion, it takes 131,000 BTUs to create one gallon of fuel. That single gallon of ethanol has an energy value of 77,000 BTUs, which means it takes about 70% more energy to produce it than we obtain from it.
5. It is cheaper to produce gasoline.
When we look at the final cost to produce ethanol from corn, then it is $1.74 per gallon according to figures released in 2009. At that time, the cost to produce gasoline was only $0.95 per gallon. Although this disadvantage does go away when oil is priced above $110 per barrel, there isn’t an economic benefit available for this industry unless there are subsidies in place. Since consumers are paying for that subsidy, they still pay the full price for the use of this fuel when it is part of the marketplace.
That means that agricultural workers who grow products to make ethanol can’t afford to use the fuel they help to create if they want to create a sustainable business.
6. There is evidence to suggest that ethanol promotes an increase in emissions.
Ethanol might produce fewer emissions than a petroleum-based fuel, the incorporation of this item into the transportation network in the United States resulted in an increase in released emissions. The widespread use of a 10% mixture of ethanol with gasoline led to a 20% increase in carbon emissions from American drivers. This disadvantage exists because of the need to consume more fuel to go the same distance, along with a change in habits that creates more driving since it feels like you can go further distances more often since the regular use of the fuel isn’t as harmful to the planet.
7. Our stocks of ethanol are highly dependent on the quality of the growing season.
If the United States were to suffer a poor year agriculturally with corn, then there would be an immediate and dramatic reduction of ethanol availability. The same problem exists for all other forms of this fuel except for the cellulose-based version. We can only produce the amount of fuel that is available from the plants that produce it, so a poor-quality season could result in a gasoline shortage. There can be problems with pests and drought as well with this disadvantage, so the pricing of this commodity is somewhat unpredictable when compared to other resources.
8. It could reduce the number of jobs in the agricultural sector.
Proponents of ethanol fuel suggest that farmers would have the opportunity to make more money and hire additional help when pursuing this cash crop. The opposite effect can happen as well. When farms are searching for additional profits, then there could be fewer employment opportunities available because livestock pursuits require more human power than corn growth. It is an issue that could even decrease the amount of global food availability there is if this issue is allowed to operate on market forces.
Is Ethanol Fuel Worth Making?
When we look at the pros and cons of ethanol fuel, there are some very specific environmental benefits to consider. Using a 10% blend with standard gasoline can lower the carbon monoxide emissions from a vehicle by up to 30%. It also reduces your VOC exhaust emissions by 12% while offering a 35% and 30% reduction in carbon dioxide and toxicity emissions respectively.
The American Lung Association credits the use of ethanol across the United States as one of the reasons why there has been a 25% reduction in smog-forming chemicals since 1990.
Whether ethanol fuel creates or loses energy compared to what is necessary for its creation is up for debate because there are conflicting studies in this area. What we do know is that it can provide jobs in the agriculture sector, take advantage of our infrastructure, and give us an alternative that could one day be used instead of petroleum items. That’s why it is often worth making, even with some of the disadvantages that are in place.
Natalie Regoli is a child of God, devoted wife, and mother of two boys. She has a Master's Degree in Law from The University of Texas. Natalie has been published in several national journals and has been practicing law for 18 years.