Monday, March 10, 2008


While we're on the subject of fuel (see my previous post, The Great American Gas Swindle Revisited) I thought it might be worth writing a bit about ethanol.

I'm not an expert! This is just stuff I've read online and in The Economist. But it all seems pretty credible to me.

What is Ethanol?

Ethanol is a petroleum substitute made from various organic sources, such as sugarcane or, in the United States, corn. Presently, a mix of 10% corn-fuel ethanol is added to most of the petrol in the United States, reducing our reliance on foreign oil.

On the surface of it, ethanol looks absolutely fantastic as a replacement for petroleum. First off, it's pretty much a standard replacement. Most modern cars could run on 100% ethanol fuel without any adjustment whatsoever. Even old clunkers like mine could run pretty easily on ethanol once some of the gubbins had been adjusted.

Secondly, we can produce ethanol fuel in the United States, which is awesome. It's a renewable resource, unlike oil (which is rapidly running out. Currently, the supply can barely meet the demand.) Additionally, the three major suppliers of oil to the United States are Venezuela, Iran and Saudi Arabia. Venezuela and Iran hate our guts, while 'friendly' Saudi Arabia was the birthplace of no less than 15 of the 19 hijackers responsible for 9/11.

So on the face of it, roll on the production of corn-ethanol! Let's cut the apron strings from the likes of Venezuela and Saudi Arabia. We'll see how far their anti-American rhetoric gets them after their economy is robbed of American oil-dollars.

But, sadly, it's not as simple as that. Is it ever?

Corn vs. Petrol.

The problem with the type of ethanol America produces is that it's not an efficient source of fuel.

Although production of ethanol in Brazil and other southern countries seems to work very well, this is because it's based on ethanol produced through sugarcane. Sugar is a highly efficient energy source and it takes just 1 'unit' of regular energy to produce 8 'units' of ethanol energy.

Unfortunately, sugar doesn't grow very well in the United States, so we're left using corn. The problem is that corn doesn't have a very good energy balance. In fact, it takes almost one and a half units of regular energy to produce a single unit of ethanol energy.

This simply doesn't make sense. If you're using traditional sources of energy to produce corn ethanol, you end up burning more oil or coal than you produce. It's utterly unsustainable.

Secondly, corn-ethanol requires crops to produce it. A lot of crops. To replace the 140 billion gallons of imported fuel used by America every year, you'd have to plant corn over every single inch of the United States... and then some.

Not to mention that corn-ethanol produces just as much CO2 as regular petrol, meaning it's just as bad for the long-term future of the environment (contributing to global warming.)

As it is currently, it doesn't look like corn ethanol makes any sense as a replacement to imported foreign oil. But there is hope...

The future...

Cellulosic ethanol is a possible alternative source of ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol is fuel produced from lignocellulose - the 'stuff' that plants and trees are made from.

This type of fuel is made by breaking down the lignocellulose with water or gas and then fermenting the generated sugars. Basically brewing a type of rum your car can drink!

The advantage is that garbage itself (like cardboard and wood) could be used as a base to produce this fuel - and the production itself generates 80% less CO2 which will make a dramatic reduction in America's contribution to global warming.

But the best part is that it takes just 1 unit of regular energy to make 5 units of cellulosic ethanol - and it's cheap, too. Within 10 years, it's estimated that the cost of a gallon of cellulosic ethanol will be about $1.07. That's compared to regular petrol, which costs between $1.20 and $1.50 a gallon.

It's still early days for this fledgling fuel - but it's an exciting proposition. Perhaps within the next decade, we'll see the clock turn back to the golden age when the United States was self-sufficient!

With the economy in the doldrums and the news looking ever bleaker, it's quite exciting to peek at something positive on the horizon.

Roll on cellulosic ethanol. The gas-tanks of both my American guzzlers are eagerly awaiting their first taste!


Anonymous said...

awww, yeah, Roland! that last picture of you is HOT, man!! love it.

Hope you are having a marvelous monday!

Katie at CuppaJoe

Anonymous said...

awww, yeah, Roland! that last picture of you is HOT, man!! love it.

Hope you are having a marvelous monday!

Katie at CuppaJoe

Anonymous said...

see i felt so strongly about the photo so i printed my comment twice! :)

Katie at CuppaJoe

Roland Hulme said...

Tis a wee bit cheesy!

Kitty said...

Gosh how cool do you look in that picture?

;-) x

The Chronicles of a Fashionista in PDX said...

Interesting! I didn't know newer cars can take E100 I know mine can only run off of the traditional E10...
No less, a good blog! :)