Ethanol seems like a recent fuel invention, but its first instance of use happened in 1826. This corn-based fuel was used to power an engine at the time. Nicolaus Otto, who invented the four-cycle internal combustion engine, also used this resource to power early models of his work. It was even used as a lighting fuel in the 1850s, but Americans stopped used it after taxes were placed on it to pay for the Civil War.
Ethanol was the fuel that gave power to Henry Ford’s Model T in the early 20th century. It became an octane booster for regular fuels in the 1920s, and then became in high demand because of the fuel shortages that happened during World War II.
The modern ethanol industry began in the 1970s when petroleum fuels became expensive and scarce. Environmental concerns about the use of leaded gasoline created a new need for octane. Since corn is abundant and the predominant feedstock grown in the United States, it only made sense to make it the foundation of a new approach to modern fuel.
There are several pros and cons of corn ethanol to review as we move toward an eco-friendly future.
List of the Pros of Corn Ethanol
1. It provides the world with a greener method of producing fuel.
Ethanol products create fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the other fuels that we currently use. Because the production process involves cultivation, processing, and distilling, it does not get rid of its fossil fuel impact immediately. What it can provide is a 13% reduction in total emissions when compared to traditional gasoline products that don’t receive blending. If producers mix corn ethanol with switchgrass or sugarcane, the environmental benefits improve to reduce our impact on the atmosphere even further.
2. Corn ethanol creates usable byproducts for additional revenues.
The benefit of an ethanol fuel burning cleaner than pure gasoline is enough of an interest to consider using it for many people. When you look at the creation process, a sludge-like byproduct comes from this fuel’s creation.
This food product is rich in protein, making it a nutritious forage option for livestock. Corn ethanol stock can double the usage of the crops that farmers grow, creating the potential for additional revenues. When you also consider the fact that a single gallon provides almost 70% more energy than what it takes to produce it, this option can help us to create an efficient transportation network.
3. Corn ethanol byproducts can be made into non-food products.
Corn ethanol production is useful in the creation of items like dry ice. We can also use the processing capabilities of this agricultural item so that it works as a supportive product for pneumatic systems. When we look at the advantages of the byproduct for food-related purposes, about one metric ton of it replaces around 1.25 tons of cornmeal for agricultural needs.
4. This fuel is more eco-friendly than standard gasoline.
Although there are additional production actions involved in the distillation of ethanol when compared to standard gasoline, there are also significant environmental benefits to consider. Consuming ethanol without other fuels generates up to a 30% smaller carbon footprint compared to what traditional unleaded gasoline. When you look at the older leaded variety, the results are even more profound.
Since we have the option to blend corn ethanol with standard gasoline in today’s vehicles, it is possible to decrease emissions without creating a notable variation in our lifestyle.
5. The corn ethanol market has become competitive with other fuels.
Ethanol could grow as an alternative fuel in the United States because of the government subsidies supporting it. Industry producers received a $0.45 per gallon subsidy before 2012. Although critics propose that this resource would have never become successful without having taxpayer-funded supports available to it, the corn ethanol products show no signs of slowing down since the unsubsidized price became competitive with traditional items.
This advantage means that the corn ethanol industry has the power to stand on its own while implementing significant increases to the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).
6. Corn ethanol is compatible with global fuel distribution systems.
We can blend ethanol with traditional gasoline, use it by itself, or take advantage of its flexibility in a variety of distinct ways. This advantage occurs because of the infrastructure we already have in place. Existing fuel stations that serve drivers and other vehicular needs can administer this product. Distribution pipelines and refinery networks help to create stable production levels, providing this fuel to wherever needs exist throughout the country.
Corn ethanol is stable enough for long-distance shipping, creating a useful export that generates more funds for the economy. Although American ethanol consumption is primarily domestic, this advantage means that we can incorporate many of the bonuses of this cleaner-burning fuel without paying significant expenses trying to conceive of networks that allow us to use the fuel in the first place.
7. It is not a fuel product that meets the definition of human compatibility.
Corn ethanol creation occurs when the combination of sugars and starch from the stock turns into a mash during its processing steps. That product is then cooked and cooled. Then an enzyme called “glucoamylase” goes into the product so that the fermentation process begins.
After 48 hours, this set of steps will create a 10% ethanol mixture. Then producers force the entire mixture through the heating process again to evaporate any water from the current batch. The corn ethanol will then go through another cooling process that incorporates dehydration to create 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 fuel outlets across the United States receive it under safer conditions.
8. We don’t need a lot of agricultural space to be available to produce corn ethanol.
Corn ethanol production rose from 6 billion gallons in 2007 to 14 billion gallons in 2014. The number of plants doubled at that time as well, creating a dramatic increase in the availability of this fuel. Higher corn prices create an incentive for farms to plant more of this crop. When there is a local producer, this impact rises even higher. Although changes to the pricing structure of corn led to an 8.5% increase in availability, the total amount of cropland dedicated to this crop only rose by 2%.
In 2014, a lot of the land which did convert into crops for ethanol production went back to non-crop purposes. That means the overall change in cropland use for corn ethanol from2008 to 2014 rose by only 0.5%.
9. It is more efficient to use corn than other crops to make ethanol.
Other countries might use sugarcane or switchgrass to produce ethanol to make the practice more sustainable, but corn also offers positives to consider. If we were to start creating ethanol from soybeans, then it would require a diversion of about 60% of today’s crop to meet the needs for just biodiesel production. Corn only requires about a 40% diversion rate, and many of the farmers that grow the crop are already producing items that are not meant for human consumption in the first place.
List of the Cons of Corn Ethanol
1. It uses a significant portion of the corn crop in the United States.
The corn ethanol crop in the United States totaled 5.6 billion bushels in 2018. That figure represents over 38% of the total corn crop in the U.S. being devoted to a process where the primary product it creates isn’t edible. Working papers from the National Center for Environmental Economics found that a 1 billion gallon increase in ethanol production results in an average increase to corn prices of at least 3%. There are also changes in government policy on fuel or poor weather conditions that could increase the cost even more.
2. The market for corn ethanol was established through the use of subsidies.
Corn ethanol stopped being subsidized by the federal government in 2012 at the rate of $0.45 per gallon. Tariffs placed on Brazilian imports of the fuel were eliminated at the same time. The only way to establish the market was to offer $45 billion in benefits to the producers of this fuel to ensure that a pro-ethanol policy established itself in the marketplace. The government still advocates for the specific use of this fuel, requiring 36 billion gallons of biofuel products to be blended with gasoline by 2022.
3. Corn ethanol offers a smaller combustion profile than other fuels.
When you compare the effectiveness of corn ethanol to that of standard gasoline, then there is 40% less energy available to drivers on a full fuel tank. That means 1.4 gallons of ethanol is necessary to replace what one gallon of petroleum-based fuel can offer to the average vehicle. When you increase the percentage of corn ethanol in the fuel, then this disadvantage rises.
Vehicles that use an 85% corn ethanol option will see a 25% reduction or more in their gas mileage. Critics point out that this fuel might burn cleaner than standard gasoline, but operators are using more of it to accomplish positive results. That means the environmental improvements that become possible with this fuel resource are restricted since buyers must use more of it.
4. Valuable land is needed to grow the crops for corn ethanol in the first place.
Some sustainable crop options make corn ethanol a viable product, but the majority of them use land that may be better suited to food production. Some of this problem occurs because the U.S. is the prime manufacturer of this fuel. When there are hunger issues to resolve in the United States and around the world, the idea of creating a cash crop that has little human food value produces an ethical question about how we use our agriculture.
This problem could settle if we can move toward more efficient versions of corn ethanol. If we cannon, then the price of corn will cause other food costs to increase because the commodity expenses keep rising. The cost per corn bushel rose by more than $2.20 over the past 30 years as the United States government worked to develop the ethanol industry.
5. Refining gasoline from petroleum is cheaper than making corn ethanol.
When we study the ultimate cost to produce corn ethanol, then it is currently $1.74 per gallon, according to figures released in 2009. The cost of manufacturing gasoline is only $0.95 per gallon, according to the same study. Although this disadvantage does go away when oil prices rise above $110 per barrel, there isn’t an economic advantage available for this industry unless subsidies are in place. Since consumers pay for that financial benefit, each household still pays the full price for the use of their vehicle.
That means the agricultural workers who develop the crops that make corn ethanol can’t afford to use the fuel they help to create if they want to create a sustainable business structure.
6. There are energy cost disadvantages to consider with corn ethanol.
Even though ethanol is an efficient fuel source because it produces more energy than needed to create it, some energy cost calculations don’t go into that final total. Cornell University discovered that the average acre of corn in the United States yields more than 7,000 pounds of usable products. That yield creates over 300 gallons of ethanol. When you consider the planting, growing, and harvesting costs on an industrial scale, then about 140 gallons of gasoline are necessary to create this product. That creates a cost-per-acre figure of $347.
When you add the energy costs of corn production and ethanol conversion to those figures, it takes over 130,000 BTUs to make one gallon of ethanol. It will have an energy value of 77,000 BTUs, which means it requires about 70% more energy to create it than we obtain from it.
7. Growing corn for ethanol requires high levels of artificial soil supports.
When farmers decide to start using their land to produce corn for ethanol, then significant levels of herbicide and synthetic fertilizer are often necessary. Growing this crop is one of the most frequent sources of sediment pollution and nutrient elimination in the United States. When this product is grown on an industrial scale, then this disadvantage becomes even more hazardous. That’s not to say the issue is insurmountable, but there is also a component of practicality to consider. Most croplands require a rotation to maximize production levels. If monoculture is the priority because of the cash benefits available, then there could be an eventual decrease in the levels of food availability.
8. Corn ethanol production could reduce employment opportunities.
Advocates of corn ethanol imply that farmers would have the chance to make more money and hire additional help if they pursue this cash crop. The opposite effect could also happen. When farms are searching for extra profits, then there could be more sporadic employment opportunities available. Livestock pursuances need more human power than growing corn. It is an issue that could even reduce the amount of food available worldwide if this problem continues to operate using market forces.
9. We must have consistent growing seasons to maintain ethanol levels.
If the United States suffers from a poor agricultural year, then there would be a pressing and tense decline of corn ethanol availability. The same dilemma exists for all other forms of this fuel except for cellulose-based products.
We can only produce the amount of corn ethanol that our crops provide. Having a season defined by drought, flooding, or cold temperatures could reduce fuel supplies immediately. There could also be difficulties with pests and diseases to consider, so the pricing of this commodity is a little unpredictable when compared to similar resources
10. Corn ethanol could increase greenhouse gas emissions.
Ethanol does produce fewer emissions than gasoline in a direct consumption comparison. When the United States introduced this alternative fuel to the national supply chain, the total number of greenhouse gases produced from transportation rose. Drivers felt like they could get behind the wheel more often because they were doing less harm to the environment. The increased time spent behind the wheel created a change in habits that eventually led to a 20% surge in CO2 levels.
The pros and cons of corn ethanol attempt to balance specific environmental benefits with higher consumer costs. There are wage and employment benefits to look at with this commodity, but it also requires governmental interventions to establish the product as viable because of the expensive production processes.
If you use an E10 blend in a standard vehicle, then carbon monoxide emissions decrease by up to 30%. There are similar toxicity and CO2 reductions experienced at the same time. A switch to ethanol nationwide in the U.S. is even credited with a reduction in smog.
Ethanol might need more energy to create it than what it provides, but there is conflicting information on that topic. We do know that Brazil and the United States have seen plenty of success with this fuel alternative. Europe, Asia, and Australia are looking at the benefits of using sustainable biofuels because of how well ethanol performs. That’s why most people see the benefits outweighing the potential disadvantages of this product despite its high price tag.
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.