Ethanol is a fuel that can be used for transportation needs that may replace up to 85% of the gasoline that is currently used in modern vehicles. It is a natural product, made from corn, that is then refined into fuel.
One of the advantages of using ethanol is that it decreases our reliance on fossil fuels. Although gasoline is still required for most vehicles, virtually all modern vehicles can run using a 90/10 gasoline and ethanol mix. Some vehicles are rated for E85 fuel, or a gasoline product that is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.
The primary disadvantage of ethanol is that it requires cropland space in which to grow. Because it is derived from corn, we take up lands that could be used to grow food for ourselves or for livestock and use it grow a fuel product instead. Even in the US, 1 in 5 children live in a food insecure household.
List of the Advantages of Ethanol
1. It is proven to reduce combustion emissions.
When compared to a fuel that is based on petroleum, such as gasoline, ethanol is able to reduce GHG emissions very effectively. For some vehicles, a reduction of up to 29% may occur for every mile traveled. Spills are less of a problem with this fuel as well. Because it is a corn-based product, nearly three-quarters of ethanol that is spilled in the environment can be broken down in as little as 5 days.
2. It creates byproducts that are also useable.
The two primary byproducts that come from ethanol production are DDGs and carbon dioxide. When CO2 capture technologies are applied to ethanol production, it can be used for dry ice creation, cryogenic freezing, and an agent for pneumatic systems. DDGs stands for “dried distillers’ grains” and is used to replace cornmeal or soybean meal in animal food stocks. According to Corn and Soybean Digest, one metric ton of DDGs could replace 1.22 metric tons of corn and soybean meal being used as food products.
3. It can often use our existing infrastructure.
Moving to an infrastructure that is primarily focused on ethanol would be simple with our existing resources. There are more than 2,000 fuel stations in the US that already dispense E85 fuel. Refineries, pipelines, and distribution networks that carry traditional gasoline could be modified quickly to carry ethanol. Other fuel station resources could be transitioned to distribute this fuel with few changes as well.
4. It is a fuel that is energy balanced.
In 2007, the corn ethanol that was produced in the United States produced 1.3 units of energy for every 1 unit of energy input that it received. Other forms of ethanol, such as sugarcane ethanol in Brazil, are even higher. Sugarcane ethanol offers 8 units of energy for every 1 unit of energy input. A new form of ethanol, called cellulosic ethanol, is even more effective. Depending on the production method used, it may provide up to 36 units of energy for every 1 unit of energy input.
5. It doesn’t need to be made from just corn.
Ethanol in the United States is dominated by corn. In Brazil, ethanol is dominated by sugarcane. Cellulosic ethanol is created by using the cellulose, or the fibers of the plant, instead of using the fruit or the seeds that are produced. Cellulosic ethanol could be produced from any potential living plant organism, including algae or grass.
List of the Disadvantages of Ethanol
1. It isn’t as effective a fuel as traditional gasoline.
Compared to petroleum-based gasoline, ethanol is a less effective fuel. It takes up to 1.4 gallons of ethanol to replicate the mileage that 1 gallon of gasoline can provide. Flex-fuel vehicles that can run on E85 fuel have found that their gas mileage rates are over 25% lower, with some models seeing a 30% reduction with city miles.
2. It is a corrosive fuel.
Although pipelines could be used to carry ethanol throughout the country, most of them would need to be retrofitted. Ethanol is highly corrosive because it has an ability to absorb water. That makes it difficult to ship the fuel over long distances unless there are protective technologies incorporated into the distribution networks. Because water is absorbed by this fuel, it can also become contaminated and potentially damage a vehicle that is sitting for too long.
3. It requires a lot of cropland space.
To create the current levels of ethanol production in the United States, 40% of the corn that is grown is dedicated to this fuel. The US is the world’s largest producer of corn, which means that level of diversion changes the pricing structure of this commodity. Corn pricing is volatile, but it trades consistently higher today than it did in the 1980s. In October 2017, the price per bushel was $3.45. In October 1986, the price per bushel was just $1.26.
4. It is costly.
Prior to 2012, The Balance reports that ethanol producers in the United States received a subsidy of $0.45 for every gallon of fuel that was produced.
5. Its use has resulted in a net emissions increase.
Although ethanol fuels do produce fewer emissions than petroleum-based fuels, its incorporation into the US fuel supply has resulted in higher overall emissions being released. Since 2014, the widespread use of 10% ethanol fuels has resulted in an increase of 20% of measured CO2 emissions. This occurs because drivers are inclined to drive further and longer because they feel like they are causing less damage to the planet.
5. It has altered food production principles.
Because of the higher price-per-bushel of corn, more farmers look at ethanol as a viable way to make a living. Instead of using their lands to produce food products, they convert over to growing fuel products. As ethanol demands increase, additional farmers will look to convert to the higher paying yields of corn, especially if there are subsidies available for crop loss.
6. It is reliant on the quality of the growing season.
Because ethanol fuels are produced from natural products, the amount of fuel that can be produced is reliant on the quality of the growing season. A poor season because of draught or pests could result in fuel shortages, increased pricing, or other issues that have the potential to disrupt our transportation networks.
The advantages and disadvantages of ethanol show us that a well-regulated system that includes multiple types of ethanol could be beneficial. In the US, with such a heavy reliance on corn-based fuels, the socioeconomic impact of artificially high yield costs, combined with cropland loss for fuel, could increase household food insecurity levels. A greater balance in production methods could restore balance in this area.