The Future of Ethanol as a Biofuel

Now it seems only natural to start my biofuel posts with corn because corn is probably the most talked about biofuel right now. With the government and many corporations trying to declare how promising of a future ethanol is going to have, it is almost impossible to not think about corn when mentioning biofuel. At this point corn is the only method that we have in place to mass produce ethanol. Trash, municipal waste and cellulosic sources are some additional sources being discussed as viable methods to create ethanol. If you look at the table “How Green Are Biofuels” (from gas2.org’s site) you will see some major road blocks with using corn as fuel production. Looking at some of the other ethanol fuel sources you see that there are better options than corn. Still the strain on our food supply, crop land and the large amounts of water used to produce ethanol from some of the alternative sources are still very high.
Even if technological improvements can be made to some of the proposed processes and sources ethanol would still have some serious pitfalls, distribution and energy content. Because of ethanol’s characteristics it has a high tendency to attract water(gasoline does not), even relatively small traces of water which can be decremental to vehicle engines. Small amounts of water can be found in the current gasoline distribution pipelines, because of this, ethanol can not be distributed using the current pipeline distribution system, it basically needs to be trucked everywhere. How is trucking a fuel every where it needs to go efficient? The amount of energy and diesel fuel needed to distribute this fuel is greater than our current transportation fuel, not to mention ethanol contains a third less energy than conventional gasoline.
Ethanol, which is supposed to be the “fuel of the future” has so many drawbacks that it is hard to even imagine how any one who understands the law of thermodynamics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Laws_of_thermodynamics ) could even suggest this as a fuel. When factoring in all of the energy used to produce and distribute ethanol the energy return is roughly 1:1.3 (http://petroleum.berkeley.edu/papers/Biofuels/NRRethanol.2005.pdf ), at best when using corn. Most studies find ethanol gives a negative return, meaning it takes more energy to produce ethanol than what you get out of it. How then can society survive on a fuel that takes more energy to produce it than what you get out of it? Even if you get a 1:1.3 energy return life would be drastically different than it is today. Ethanol is getting all of the attention, with the government requiring ethanol production to increase until it reaches roughly 36 billion gallons by 2020(http://money.cnn.com/2008/03/05/news/bush_ethanol/index.htm), other superior alternatives seem to get ignored. If ethanol production continues to increase until it reaches the 36 billion gallon goal, we will see a strain on our environment and economy. We will begin to look into some of these other alternatives in future posts.

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