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Written by Gregory Iwahashi   
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Tuesday, 06 September 2011

Ethanol Fuel

What is ethanol? Ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel that has become popular around the world and is most commonly used to fuel your motor vehicles. However, it is the corn-based ethanol that has garnered interest across the world for over a decade. While corn ethanol is the predominant feed stock of choice, ethanol can be made from a variety of feed stocks. Brazil, for example, is well known for its sugarcane-based ethanol. Most of these starch or sugar-based ethanol types are made from corn, wheat, and sugarcane, and are considered stage I biofuels which have been around for over a decade. While these boast a 20% reduction in green house gas (GHG) emissions in comparison to petroleum based gasoline, new feed stocks are now required to reduce emissions by over 50%. This next stage in biofuels, better known as advanced biofuels, has been made well known by the promising cellulosic ethanol that uses wood and plant matter as the fuel source.1

Where Can You Find Ethanol?
While ethanol is being produced into billions of gallons of fuel each year, many people are unaware of just where this ethanol goes. Next time you are at the local gas station filling up, look for the E10 or E15 sign on the pump. These signs stand for the amount of ethanol blended into the gasoline, with E10 signifying 10% ethanol and E15 being 15%.2

What is the Government Doing to Make Ethanol Available to You?

The volumetric ethanol excise tax, better known as the blender’s credit is responsible for ensuring that ethanol is being used in the United States. This incentive pays oil companies to blend ethanol into their petroleum-based gasoline to ensure that the ethanol being produced reaches the local gasoline pump.3 Furthermore, local and smaller scale producers of ethanol also reap the benefits of tax breaks, helping to make ethanol production an economically viable business.

E10 has been the baseline ethanol blend in the U.S. since ethanol showed up at the pump. Federal standards have required car manufacturers to provide an ethanol guarantee to ensure that 10% ethanol blends can work in your vehicle without causing any damage. Until recently, E15 and above (higher percent ethanol) have been restricted to flexible fuel vehicles that are built to withstand the effects of higher ethanol blends.4;5 However, after extensive research, this summer the government decided that vehicles manufactured after 2007 are compatible with E15.6

What does E15 mean to you? With higher percentage ethanol fuel now given the green light, gasoline stations will be more likely to offer E15 blends to their consumers. This higher blend can be seen as both beneficial to the environment—lower GHG emissions—and to your wallter, as higher ethanol percentages should lower the price of your gasoline. While this sounds good, it also brings up some consumer concerns.7

How Does Ethanol Affect my Car and Gas Mileage?
In regards to fuel economy, although ethanol does provide less energy per gallon than gasoline, both the E10 and E15 blends have shown a negligible decrease in mileage per a gallon. However, in the cases of E85 and other higher blend gasoline ethanol mixtures, reduced gas mileage has been shown in several cases.8 While ethanol works well in engines made specifically to run on it, ethanol has been known to cause damage to cars, including corroding sealants and engine parts, which are costly repairs. One of the most noteworthy problems is that many older cars have problems processing ethanol and breakdown due to damage to the catalytic converter.

The biggest concern with ethanol blended gasoline relates to the recreational and landscaping businesses. While gasoline burns quite well in almost any engine, ethanol does not offer the same versatility with boats, buses, lawnmowers, and other motorized engines. This has and continues to cause problems for people who need pure gasoline to run their machines and not suffer the unwanted effects of ethanol.9

With the blender’s credit and rising gasoline prices, Americans will undoubtedly see more E15 at the local gas station and furthermore be offered more choices than ever before. However, this will also mean that consumers must be aware of what blend they are purchasing and if their car or lawnmower is made for the gasoline being sold at the pump.

How Sustainable is Ethanol Really?
The most common myth about corn-based ethanol is that it costs more energy to produce than it actually provides. However, technological advances, improved farming techniques, and byproduct utilization have proven to produce one third more energy than it takes to produce it. While corn ethanol has proven to be energetically positive, many still argue that the environmental impact of corn is not green enough to combat the climate change problem.10 The Department of Energy has already recognized this problem and has capped corn based ethanol at 15 billion gallons of the 36 billion gallons of renewable transportation fuels to be produced annually by 2022.11

The Big Ethanol Controversy—Are we Choosing Fuel over Food?
Ethanol first came on the scene over a decade ago, but why has it not become a leading or the premiere renewable technology? In addition to the problems that consumers encounter with their vehicles and machinery, Ethanol has historically been plagued by the food versus food debate and blamed for rising food costs.

The U.S. is the largest producer of corn in the world and currently utilizes over 50% of its 300,000 million metric tons of corn for food production.12 Despite this enormous amount of food production, many are concerned with the fact that 90% of all ethanol is currently made from corn.13 Many individuals and companies argue that food price inflation, such as the 4% in 2007 and an even higher 5.3% in 2008, are a direct effect of the increased ethanol production in the past decade.14 However, IHS Global Insight, an economic forecasting company, has cited that numerous other factors such as rising energy, processing, and production costs around the world are the underlying reason for the price increase. In regard to corn ethanol, this will continue to be a hotly debated topic.

The future outlook of ethanol

The U.S. government has already committed to a future with ethanol as a primary transportation fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 2005. The renewable fuel standard requires large volumes of ethanol to be produced starting 2007. However, as previously discussed, corn-based ethanol production will be capped at 15 billion gallons per year by the year 2022. This means that advanced biofuels such as algal fuel, biobutanol, and cellulose fuel should come into play to add to the production of renewable transportation fuels mandated to be produced under the Energy Policy Act.15

Additionally, numerous economic incentives are continuing to spur growth of local and small scale producers of ethanol. While the majority of ethanol produced currently is from corn, 11 companies have already begun the race to establish cellulosic feed stock plants across the U.S. Furthermore, start ups around the world are beginning to look at new feed stocks that may offer even greater environmental and energy benefits.16 While it is unclear what the future holds exactly for ethanol, it is only a matter of when, not if, this technology can displace the need for gasoline around the world

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Comments (1)
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1. 12-03-2012 06:31
Ethanol is made from waste products as sugar cane, the waste from starch production, and red sorghum, so that there is no conflict with food production.This is a good works in internal combustion engines. 

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Last Updated ( Tuesday, 06 September 2011 )