Ethanol for Fuel
In the famous fairy tale Rumplestiltskin, the miller’s daughter is required to spin straw into gold. Only magic can accomplish it. But today, as the price of gasoline goes up and up, most Americans believe that alternative fuels must be developed — soon — and are hoping for some similar magic. The reality of the impending fuel crisis was brought home by Hurricane Katrina, which shut down Louisiana oil refineries and drove up the prices. Great hope that bio-fuels will be the solution to the problem has triggered interest and investment in the development of alternative fuels — particularly, in ethanol. The challenge is to find cost-effective ways to make alcohol out of such renewable resources as corn, soybeans, and sugarcane, cellulose from the stems and leaves of plants, forest cuttings, wood chips, and all the non-food parts of crops that currently get burned or buried. Green Fuel Technologies, for example, in Massachusetts has found a way to create a bio-diesel fuel “by feeding smoke-stack emissions from factories into giant tubes filled with algae” (Popular Science, 2006, p. 60). Instead of straw-into-gold, waste-into-fuel is the goal. And instead of magic, technology is at work.
The purpose of this essay is to explore the progress of ethanol as a fuel derived from renewable crops and especially cellulosic ethanol, which can be produced from agricultural, municipal and forestry waste, corn stalks, sawdust and waste paper. The Department of Energy has commented, “Not quite lead into gold, but maybe more valuable for the U.S. economy, for cutting air pollution, and for reducing dependence on foreign oil” (cited in E: the Environmental Magazine, 2006). Although considerable research has been done on ethanol with hopeful results, much more research is necessary in order to produce enough to significantly reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil.
The energy bill passed by Congress in 2005 provided “a guaranteed market for 7-1/2 billion gallons by 2012” (Fortune, 2005). This would be ethanol from corn, which has drawn a lot of criticism from various sectors as “welfare” for farm states; however, it’s a start. Because the government has mandated more ethanol — both to replace oil and to supplement it — the government should fund private research to develop ethanol as a major alternative fuel. As an article in BioCycle puts it, “Now, more than ever, we need to showcase the technologies, research, policies and projects that demonstrate renewable fuels are not only feasible, but economically viable” (BioCycle, 2001). In this essay we will discuss the history of ethanol, its current uses, arguments for and against its serious development, and the progress of building production facilities for ethanol.
History of Ethanol
Ethanol has a longer history than most people realize. Henry Ford’s original plan was to run his Model-T on ethanol; however, gasoline proved to be cheaper at that time. During the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s ethanol began to appear at gas stations in the U.S. It was a way to stretch the dwindling supply of gas. Gas became plentiful again during the 1980s, but pollution then became a big issue, and ethanol reappeared “as an environmentally friendly replacement for toxins such as lead and benzene” (Ingebretson, 2001, p. 53).
Ethanol burns more completely because its molecules contain 35 per cent oxygen, which makes it cleaner. It will not threaten water supplies. Ethanol is plain old alcohol, nothing more; in fact, to avoid federal and state alcoholic beverages taxes, producers must make it undrinkable by adding 5% petroleum. Thus, refineries are really high-tech stills. When ethanol is made from corn, the corn ground into meal and mixed with water to form a mash. After about two days, the mash becomes “beer.” Then it goes through the still, and 200-proof alcohol is the result. Solid wastes left over are turned into animal feed, and the CO-2 that comes from the fermenting process is used for carbonation of soft drinks (Imbretson, 2001).
In the mid-1970s Brazil instituted a large-scale ethanol program. Their ethanol is taken from sugarcane, and used either pure or blended with gas. In the 1970s Brazil was heavily dependent on fossil fuels, and they were concerned about national sovereignty. OPEC’s decrease in oil production had driven up prices; meanwhile, sugar industrialists were at the point of bankruptcy. With sugar prices so low, it made sense to turn sugarcane into ethanol (Oliveira, Vaughan & Rykiel, 2005). Now, more than 50% of Brazil’s vehicles run on ethanol.
Oliveira, Vaughan, and Rykiel (2005) report that amendments to the Clean Air Act of 1990 led legislators to consider fuels for the first time as a way to reduce pollution. The amendments called for controlling carbon monoxide and improving gasoline by increasing the oxygen content. Because ethanol oxygenates, it became a major fuel component. Most ethanol produced in the United States (90%) comes from corn. Pure ethanol is rarely used. It is nearly always mixed with gas. The most popular blend is called E85 with 15% gasoline and 85% ethanol.
Current Uses of Ethanol
Nebraska is a good example of increased ethanol production and use. In Nebraska ethanol use was about 24 per cent in 1999 with one person in four or five choosing an ethanol blend, but the number has increased to over 40% as a result of “a concerted and coordinated effort to promote ethanol-blended gasoline” (Gardner, 2003, p. 42). An advertising campaign in Nebraska came about because although people in the state believed ethanol was good for farmers, reduced air pollution, was good for the economy, and reduced dependence on foreign oil, when they got to the pump, they weren’t actually buying it. The campaign to get them to buy ethanol was “built around making the right choice for fuel and the right choice for Nebraska” (cited in Gardner, 2003, p. 43).
As of 2001, only about one million vehicles used alternative fuel — less than 1% of the 200 million vehicles on U.S. roads. Deierlein (2001) states, “Most industry veterans believe this is because alternative-fueled vehicles cost more, weigh more, have a smaller range and fewer opportunities to refuel, require training and must be fueled twice because they require two different fuels” (p. 62).
An article in Automotive Industries echoes the concern that ethanol use is not as high as it should be; however, it blames the ethanol industry for not truly being “behind the use of the substance as a fuel which subsequently has driven up the price of ethanol” (Automotive Industries, 2003, p. 52). Ethanol companies get a higher price for ethanol when it is used as an oxygenate blend with gasoline. Hence, they are more interested in blending it than with using it pure. The article also explains that ethanol cannot come into contact with aluminum because it is corrosive and although it doesn’t look any different than gas, it has to be “dispensed differently and requires a different pump” (p. 53). Because of this, it costs more, and this makes gas stations hesitant to invest in the needed equipment.
Manufacturers are now turning out “flex-fuel” vehicles that can run on gas or an E85 blend. However, not many of these flex-fuel cars are actually operated using ethanol. It is still hard to find it. Everyone agrees that ethanol is cleaner and more efficient to produce than gas. But David Friedman, research director of the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Vehicles Program, argues that cellulosic ethanol is “dramatically more efficient than corn ethanol” (cited in E: the Environmental Magazine, 2005, p. 10). Cellulosic ethanol is being produced throughout the country in small quantities using “everything from brewery waste to cheese whey.” Iogen Corporation in Canada is making it from wheat straw and selling it commercially. But a spokesperson from Renewable Fuels Association, an ethanol lobbying group, says, “Right now cellulosic is an inefficient technology. Funding into additional research is needed.”
Rather than using food crops, cellulosic ethanol is made from waste products. The Department of Energy says that 375 million gallons of gasoline per day cannot be replaced with agricultural wastes alone. But another potential source for ethanol is switchgrass, a native prairie grass that needs very little fertilizer, is drought resistant, and wouldn’t take up space where food crops need to be planted. Nathaniel Greene, a senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council, argues that if we don’t get beyond corn ethanol, “we won’t be able to make a big dent in oil consumption” (cited in E: the Environmental Magazine, 2005, p. 10). Cellulosic ethanol is an area where the government ought to be investing research monies.
Arguments for and against Ethanol as a Major Alternative Fuel
The transition from petroleum to renewable alternative fuels could produce a great and positive impact on the world’s economy. R. James Woolsy, CIA Director, said in Foreign Affairs: “If the hundreds of billions of dollars that now flow into a few coffers in a few nations were to flow instead to the millions of people who till the world’s fields, most countries would see substantial national security, economic and environmental benefits” (cited in BioCycle, 2001, p. 4). Likewise, in the same article, Kay Martin of the Ventura County, California public works agency is quoted as saying, “From a macroeconomics or macro-environmental perspective, it just makes sense.” The need to build an infrastructure for production of bio-fuels creates economic opportunities.
Of course, not everybody is so enthusiastic. To grow corn, diesel tractors are required to plant, fertilize and harvest it with substantial coal-fired electricity needed for the still. David Pemental, a professor who has done research and a leading opponent of ethanol, says corn ethanol is “unsustainable, subsidized food burning.” He charges that most of the one billion dollars spent per year by federal and state governments goes to agribusiness (such as Archer Daniels Midland, a mega corporation) that already owns 35% of the market. He also claims that an acre yielding 7,110 pounds of corn will produce 328 gallons of ethanol. He estimates 140 gallons of fuel would be needed to plant and harvest each acre. That, plus the energy costs of refining it and moving it to filling stations would make it cost prohibitive and a poor way to use agricultural lands. Others dismiss Pimentel’s criticisms. A different study showed that ethanol production yielded 36 per cent more energy than what was needed to produce it. Also Pimentel doesn’t take into account the livestock feed and other byproducts that result from ethanol production.
Lavelle (2003) argues that “the ethanol industry could be transformed by biotechnology. Researchers,” who, she says, can now unlock the sugars found in tough agricultural waste products — corn husks, rice hulls, saw grass, and wood chips — which can then be fermented into an alcohol that can fuel vehicles. This so-called cellulosic, or biomass, ethanol would require less energy to produce and could be manufactured from material that is now burned or buried” (p. 20).
In December, 2003 the Department of Energy awarded $75 million in grants for biomass ethanol research, but the succeeding budget reduced biomass ethanol funding and left the private sector to lead future development (Lavelle, 2003). Federal funds for research and development of cellulosic ethanol would be taxpayer-money well spent.
A more serious criticism is the environmentalists’ fear that biodiversity would suffer with large extensions of monoculture. Fauna and flora would be lost in the process. This could be mitigated, however, if one-third of every ecosystem type were preserved (Oliveira, Vaughan, & Rykiel, 2005). There is also the problem of land use. Producing ethanol from cellulose in large enough quantities to replace current fuel consumption “would require the additional growth and harvesting of woods and grasses over enormous areas of land.” An article in Issues & Science Technology (2002) points out that “to supply ethanol for the current light vehicle fleet of the United States would require an area of energy crops as large as the current area of food crops grown in the United States.
Additional land use of this magnitude would be staggering and contentious” (p. 18).
According to Haroon S. Kheshgi, an engineer for EXXonMobil Research, nothing will replace petroleum because to run an average U.S. car with corn-derived ethanol for a year would require 14 acres of cropland — about nine times more land than is needed to feed one person the same length of time. Aside from the fact that Kheshgi is invested in the oil industry, this argument, does not consider the use of agricultural waste products as the source or use of the by-products of distilling ethanol. If the land were still used to grow food, and the wastes were used for ethanol, benefits to the environment would be great. Also, if hydrogen power is the ultimate goal, ethanol could be “part of a transition strategy for shifting from today’s internal combustion engine technology to tomorrow’s hydrogen-based engines” (Issues in Science & Technology, 2002, p. 17).
Some detracters claim the ethanol industry wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for federal subsidies and tax breaks that have boosted profits. But ethanol producers say the oil industry has received subsidies worth $130 billion during the past 30 years. This does not count the cost of maintaining military to protect oil supplies in the Middle East, about $50 billion more a year.
The second largest producer of ethanol, Illinois, has six ethanol plants. In 2004 these plants produced 875 million gallons of ethanol using 325 million bushels of corn. 40% of the total ethanol consumed in the United States currently comes from corn grown in Illinois. The ethanol industry invested $1 billion in Illinois in 2004 and generated 800 plant operations jobs and 4000 industry-related service sector jobs (Advanced Materials & Processes, 2005). Plainly, ethanol is good news to corn growers and government subsidies are well spent.
Retooling for Ethanol
The problem at this point is not lack of alternative fuel vehicles (AFV) that can use ethanol. According to John Brewington, a fleet management consultant in Mount Airy, N.C., “The number of E85 vehicles far outstrips any other AFV. But they never get any E85 to run them. The availability of E85 is very limited” (Brown, 2004, p. 35). Gregg Duckett, the public works operations manager in Phoenix, says the problem with E85 is infrastructure. He says there are only about 200 fueling stations nationwide that carry it, even though more than two million vehicles will use it. And the cost of transporting ethanol makes it average 37 cents higher per gallon than unleaded gasoline (Brown, 2004). Nevertheless, ethanol producers want to boost refining capacity. According to Agri Marketing in 2001, 34 of the nation’s 62 ethanol plants were then scheduled to undergo some form of expansion, and the number of new plants under construction is growing. But the ethanol industry is highly fragmented. Farmer’s co-ops are building refineries, hoping to compete with bigger producers. They are located near the fields, which is an advantage, and have the latest technology. It is very expensive to build an ethanol plant, however. “A large-scale refinery capable of processing 100,000 bushels a day — enough to yield about 250,000 gallons daily — would carry a $350 million price tag” (Ingebretson, p. 53).
The cost of installing an ethanol storage tank and pump at a service station is $62,400. It would cost about $2.7 billion to install pumps at corner service stations. This price is fairly reasonable when you consider that it cost $12 billion to retool for unleaded gas (Dolan, 2002).
With oil prices rising, alternative fuels made from renewable crops are rapidly becoming more attractive. As production increases and with more experience, the prices for these fuels should go down. In fact, with the use of agricultural and forest wastes, the prices should go down even more because the resources needed will be less expensive. Cellulosic ethanol is nearly carbon-neutral, which makes it good news for the environment (Fulton, 2005). Increasing the use of ethanol can improve energy security and vehicle performance. Rural economies would benefit too. In areas where farmers are being paid not to plant, new incentives could encourage production of crops for ethanol instead. Production of ethanol can reduce waste, as well, by re-cycling by-products. If the government would support more private research, there is every possibility that ethanol use might more than double worldwide in the next five years.
Advanced Materials & Processes (2005). Industry insider: Automotive, 163 (5), May, 69-70.
Automotive Industries (2003). Fill’er up, 183 (5), May, 51-53.
Brown, D.C. (2004). Moving toward alternative fuel vehicles. Public Works, 135 (12) Nov, 34-7.
Deierlein, B. (2001). Alternative fuels: The race is on! Waste Age, 32 (8), Aug, 62-63, 67.
Dolan, G.A. (2002). In search of the perfect clean-fuel options. Hydrocarbon Processing (International edition), 81 (3), Mar, 13-15.
E: the Environmental Magazine (2006). Consider the alternatives, 17 (1), Jan-Feb, 38-39.
Fortune (2005). Here come the new fuels, 152, (7), 3 Oct, 146.
Gardner, D. (2003). Ethanol campaign fuels interest in Nebraskans’ use of alternative fuel. Agri Marketing, 41 (2), Feb., 42-43.
Ingebretson, M. (2001). Ethanol’s bright future. Agri Marketing, 39 (9) Oct, 52-54.
Issues in Science and Technology (2002). Ethanol for transportation, 18 (3) Spr, 17-20.
Lavelle, M. (2003). Living without oil. U.S. News & World Report, 134 (5), Feb, 17-20.
N.G., J.G. (2001). Fuel for economic renewal. BioCycle 42 (10), Oct, 4.
Fulton, L. (2005). Biofuls for transport: A viable alternative? The OECD Observer, 249 (41) May, 44-45.
Oliveira, M.E., Baughan, Burton, E., and Rykiel, E. (2005). Ethanol as fuel: Energy, carbon dioxide balances, and ecological footprint. BioScience, 55 (7), Jul, 593-602.
Popular Science (2006). The stories to watch in the year to come, 268 (1), Jan, 52-60.
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