The Pros and Cons of Ethanol Fuel

Wednesday, July 17, 2019 - 15:57
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Recently, The All-Party Parliamentary Group for British Bioethanol says the swift introduction of E10 fuel would also help the £1bn British biofuel industry – cutting carbon by as much as taking 700,000 cars off the road.

But is it the panacea to the environmental problems we face until the country is truly “all-electric?”

Ethanol is a relatively low-cost alternative fuel that boasts less pollution and more availability compared to unblended petrol, but there are a number of benefits and drawbacks to this newer form of fuel.

For environmental purposes, ethanol is less harmful than unblended petrol. Carbon monoxide production from ethanol fuel is significantly lower than that of petrol engines, and ethanol is easier to source since it comes from processed corn. This means it also helps farms and manufacturing economies.

The disadvantages of ethanol and other biofuels include the use of farmland for industrial corn and soy growth, rather than for food crops. Also, biofuels aren’t meant for all vehicles, especially older vehicles. There is some resistance from the automotive industry when it comes to adding biofuels to the market. However, many automakers are adapting to low-emissions vehicle standards which require vehicles to use ethanol blends rather than unblended petrol.

Ethanol Benefits for the Environment and Economy

Overall, ethanol is considered to be better for the environment than petrol. Ethanol-fuelled vehicles produce lower carbon dioxide emissions, and the same or lower levels of hydrocarbon and oxides of nitrogen emissions.

E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petrol, also has fewer volatile components than petrol, which means fewer gas emissions from evaporation. Adding ethanol to petrol in lower percentages, such as 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent petrol (E10), reduces carbon monoxide emissions from the petrol and improves fuel octane.

Flexible fuel vehicles that can use E85 are widely available and come in many different styles from most major auto manufacturers. E85 is also widely available at a growing number of gas stations throughout the United States. Flexible fuel vehicles have the advantage of being able to use E85, petrol, or a combination of the two, giving drivers the flexibility to choose the fuel that is most readily available and best suited to their needs.

Because ethanol is mostly a product of processed corn, ethanol production supports farmers and creates domestic jobs. And because ethanol is produced domestically, from domestically grown crops, it reduces U.S. dependence on foreign oil and increases the nation’s energy independence.

Being able to grow ethanol-producing crops reduces the pressure to drill in environmentally sensitive places and the need to develop supply from fracking.

The Drawbacks of Ethanol

Ethanol and other biofuels are often promoted as clean, low-cost alternatives to petrol, but the production and use of ethanol are not all positive. The major debate about corn and soy-based biofuels is the amount of land it takes away from food production. Also, industrial corn and soy farming are harmful to the environment in a different way.

Growing corn for ethanol involves large amounts of synthetic fertilizer and herbicide. Corn production, in general, is a frequent source of nutrient and sediment pollution. Also, the typical practices of industrial corn farmers, versus commercial and local food farmers, are considered more environmentally hazardous in general.

The challenge of growing enough crops to meet the demands of ethanol and biodiesel production is significant and, some say, insurmountable. According to some authorities, producing enough biofuels to enable their widespread adoption could mean converting most of the world’s remaining forests and open spaces to farmland — a sacrifice few people would be willing to make.

In a 2005 study, Cornell University researcher David Pimental factored in the energy needed to grow crops and convert them to biofuels and concluded that producing ethanol from corn required 29 percent more energy than ethanol is capable of generating.

As with many issues around transport and the environment, the solutions are never clear-cut and require further investigation. As we move along the ‘Road to Zero’ they will be a lag between those who still have petrol driven vehicles and those who have moved to ‘all-electric’

3 Comments

  1. You raise an interesting point about the marine environment. The good news is that seaweed grows abundantly, and naturally. In many areas of the world, it needs to be regularly cut and removed to clear beaches, harbors, sea lanes. The seaweed is often then just destroyed as garbage. Using it for fuel would give it a purpose (I should say another purpose because there are other things that seaweed is used for).

    But my main point is that seaweed harvesting is nothing like drilling in the seabed for oil. Leaks won’t occur and cover fish and birds with some sticky ooze, the seaweed won’t explode, and the removal of seaweed in areas that suffer from hypoxia will benefit by helping to restore oxygen to the water.

  2. Let me begin by saying that any article that relies on David Pimentel as an authoritative resource immediately invalidates the article. Pimentel’s reports, both solo and combined with Tad Patzek were completely discredited as soon as they were published, including rebuke from Patzek’s own employing institution, University of California at Berkeley. The reports, by the way, were funded by the oil industry. The studies include erroneous and outdated data. To read more about this visit https://www.theautochannel.com/news/2013/06/11/082057-gusher-lies-book-review-and-reply-to-robert-bryce-pt.html, and scroll down to the section “EROEI” (energy returned on energy invested).

    I’m always surprised when I come across something in the British media that questions ethanol, as if it’s new and as if Britain hasn’t had an enormous amount of experience with it (positive experience, in fact). People forget things, and youngish people may have never been told about ethanol to begin with. Well, for six decades, ethanol-gasoline blends were widely available in the UK, sold as “power alcohol.” It was sold by the largest oil companies, Standard Oil, Esso (now called Exxon), and Cities Service. The blend was marketed as being safer, cleaner, more powerful, and less expensive. Discol brand (owned by Standard/Esso) was made by using ethanol produced by scotch whisky distilleries in Scotland. They didn’t use corn. You can read all about this, and see advertisements from those days in my article titled “The Hypocrisy of Big Oil.” This can be found at https://www.theautochannel.com/news/2017/12/20/478776-hypocrisy-big-oil.html.

    In addition to the extensive use of ethanol fuel in the UK, the rest of Europe relied on ethanol fuel for many years, and it proved itself to be a safe and satisfactory alternative to gasoline (petrol). Moreover, Brazil’s use of ethanol fuels since the 1930’s proves that ethanol is safe to use. Brazil has mandated ethanol-gasoline blends of E15 and above since 1978. Currently, Brazil mandates E27 as their standard fuel. All vehicles and power equipment in Brazil is the same as the vehicles and equipment used in Europe, America, and Asia.

    Regarding the use of corn for ethanol fuel: Corn is a good crop to use, but it is by no means the best in terms of yield; there are several others that are equal and better, such as wheat, beets, sorghum, Jerusalem Artichoke, sugar cane, agave, cattails (bullrush), buffalo gourds, fresh water algae, and kelp/seaweed (the big bonanza of the bunch, which would yield about 100 times more ethanol per acre, per year than corn).

    In America, we use corn as the primary feed stock for ethanol fuel. The reason for this is that our largest crop growing areas are better suited to corn than to sugar cane, also because the farmers in these areas are very experienced with growing corn.

    The article above mentions a few negatives about growing corn related to land use and fertilizers. Often included as a problem is the amount of water required (although this article doesn’t mention water use). Today, American farmers grow far, far more corn than ever before; and they do it using less land, less fertilizers, and less water than ever before. This can all be seen at the following resources:

    Land use – https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/91d7502e043c7c976bdbac4d3953fb82813e0ab4ef4723a5d70e734514dcac9c.jpg

    Fertilizer use – http://www.earth-policy.org/images/uploads/graphs_tables/highlights43_top_3.PNG

    The reason for the increase in crop yields is due to hard work and great innovations in the agricultural industry. These innovations are used, or available to be used, anywhere.

    In regard to water use, most corn grown in the U.S. (more than 85%) is not irrigated and of the top thirteen states who do irrigate, only Nebraska is known to grow corn. In other words, none of the corn belt is in the top 13 states who irrigate.

    Interestingly, the U.S. used more irrigation water in 1980, before ethanol fuels were widely used than after, even with record ethanol production. Ethanol does not or did not cause more water use. See chart:

    https://www.ers.usda.gov/webdocs/charts/62568/usgswaterwithdrawal.png?v=42285

    So, if irrigation (and the diversion of water resources) is not used to grow all this corn, where does the water come from? It comes from rain. From watching movies, and personal experience of visiting the UK on many occasions, I know that rain also falls regularly in the UK.

    The other main problem cited by Mark Salisbury in the article above is the “food or fuel” issue. This is a completely invented problem. In the U.S. there is no shortage of corn-based food products, i.e., corn chips, canned corn, popcorn, corn flakes cereal, corn on the cob, corn oil, and corn syrup. There is as much corn for human consumption as ever (same percentage to the overall total – about 40%). The majority of corn grown is not for human consumption, and the corn used for ethanol is not discarded, the remnants are used as high-quality animal feed. The animals that the dry distillers grains (DDGS) are feed to are then used as human food. Therefore, it’s not a fantasy of “food or fuel,” it’s the reality of “more food and more fuel.”

    About a year ago, I responded to a story in Auto Express that included some of the same issues included in Salisbury’s article, plus some other illusionary negatives about ethanol. I dispelled them all. You can read more about this at: https://www.theautochannel.com/news/2018/09/02/626528-uk-s-department-for-transport-uses-boogeyman-allusions-to-sidetrack.html.

    In conclusion, ethanol fuel is actually a familiar product to the UK. It was widely and successfully used. It is cleaner, safer, more powerful, and less expensive than gasoline (petrol). You don’t have to use corn in the UK, but if you do, it’ll have no negative effects. On the other hand, the UK (which is surrounded by water) just might be the most perfect place on Earth to develop a rich and robust seaweed ethanol industry!

    Marc J. Rauch
    Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher
    THE AUTO CHANNEL

    • Many thanks for this Marc and your comments are greatly appreciated. In a debate such as this, clarity is very much in short supply, and I do feel it is a debate. Yes, we could develop ethenol from seaweed – but that then raises questions about the destruction of the fragile marine environment. Whichever path we take, it seems, there will be pros and cons – just look at the devastation the palm oil industry has had on delicate rain forest environments.

      In my opinion, ethenol, fossil fuels and even battery transport systems are cul-de-sacs and development should be put into viable fuel cell and hydrogen powertrains.

      Thank you for your interest in the article and FleetPoint.

      Mark Salisbury, Editor

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