Ethanol: Fuel Panacea or Lethal Liquor

by Dan Schafer

It is kind of a farmer's dream come true: Who would have ever thought he could grow from his ground the fuel he needs to run his tractor? But the bio fuels are just that. For the Midwestern American farmer it is probably corn (maize). For the Brazilian farmer it is probably sugarcane. For the Swedish farmer maybe it is sugar beet. All of these are now, at one place or another, being brewed into ethanol. But weren't we talking about fuel? Not about booze! But even as George Bush knows, ethanol can be both. In 2007 he is pushing for the fuel dimension with a vision of it eventually replacing the Middle Eastern variety.

But the vision is not without its critics. If they do not term it so, they fear an ethanolic pandemic. That is, they fear that just as an alcoholic loses control and becomes obsessed with alcohol to his own detriment, ethanol enthusiasts are becoming obsessed with something that might become the world’s undoing. They question a future led by slogans like “American farmers could produce enough ethanol to meet all the U.S. energy needs!” What is the fear? Well, if all of the West’s crop growing acreage is devoted to ethanol, who is going to raise the food? And what is going to happen to the price of food for people who can only just afford it now?

The idea that ethanol could replace all the fuel needs of western countries is no doubt a bit of a stretch in the first place. But does the slogan mongers’ optimism have some substance? Or is it just a case of: “Why do you build me up, build me up…Baby, Just to let me down, let me down?”

Do the enthusiasts have any facts on their side? First, they can’t ignore the obvious problems ethanol has. It is not the same as petrol (gasoline). It is more corrosive to natural rubber seals and some engine metals like magnesium and aluminium, as well as having a lower energy content than petrol. The lower energy content requires an adjustment to the air-fuel ratio. But the facts show that these are problems with solutions. Flexible-fuel engines meet the corrosion and air-fuel mix problems and are standard production for many models produced in Europe and the USA. In Brazil virtually all new cars sold have flexible fuel engines. Henry Ford already had a flex fuel engine in his 1927 Model A.

But the lower energy content of ethanol obviously leads to less distance travelled per litre of fuel. What answer do the enthusiasts have for that? First they can point to places like Brazil and Sweden where the price differential more than makes up for the lower energy content. They can also point to that fact in the U.S. where in early 2006, ethanol, in the form of E85 (85% ethanol, 15% petrol) was sufficiently cheaper in price than petrol to make getting from A to B cost less in real terms than filling up with petrol. (see photo) Now in recent months the combination of increased demand for ethanol and the slumping of oil prices has seriously eroded that price differential.

However, the fact that the present volatile world political situation has everyone ready for a repeat, sooner or later, of stratospheric petroleum prices is an argument that the enthusiasts hardly need to verbalise. These arguments combine with the very real prospect of a major breakthrough that would be able to make use of cheaper feedstock to make ethanol and thus lower its cost even more. Further, critics who directly compare the energy content of ethanol and petrol and conclude the vehicle efficiency will be parallel, miss an important factor. Practically, ethanol burns more cleanly and completely, which, besides the added benefit of cleaner exhaust, can make up values approaching half of that energy deficiency.

As the ethanol enthusiasts answer that lower energy content problem, they are led to another thing that makes many of them really enthusiastic. That clean burning and the fact that a good part of the CO2 it produces is taken from the atmosphere by the plants it is made from make ethanol comparatively a very good fuel for low green house gas emissions. It is an answer that has been with us since Henry Ford’s time, but just needs us to start making use of it.

However, there is yet another criticism the enthusiasts must first answer. That is the suggestion that producing ethanol uses up as much energy as it provides. That is, the fuel used to till the soil, make the fertiliser, harvest the crop and then make the ethanol could be more energy than the ethanol produces. The US DOE (Department of Energy) answers that one for them. Their study concludes that for every 100 BTU of energy put into the production and delivery of ethanol 138 BTU is produced. That is, the sunshine and the farmer’s sweat have added 38 BTU more than was put in, a 38% net increase in usable energy. Compare this with the production of petrol. Only 80% of the net energy invested in its production is available to the consumer. When the new breakthrough technology, ethanol from cellulose, that we have started discussing, reaches maturity there should be 169 BTU available from every 100 BTU invested. Eventually, of course, more of that input 100 BTU can come from biofuels like ethanol and reduce the fossil fuel demand even more.

But what about the critics’ argument that increased devotion of arable land to growing crops for ethanol is going to lead to competition with growing food and either shortages or high prices for food? For example, what if U.S. farmers used up 90% of their farmland to produce enough ethanol to replace the 300 billion gallons of petrol the U.S. now uses? Ironically, the first answer to that is that at this stage a little of that problem might not be a bad thing. The biggest problem for world trade, and consequently the most serious problem for undeveloped countries’ farmers (often the majority of their population) is the distortion of food and crop prices. That is, the developed countries’ subsidising and protecting their own agriculture creates surpluses that depress crop prices and keep poor country farmers poor. If crop production for ethanol can take some of that surplus out of the equation and reduce the need for developed countries to protect their farmers, the poor farmers of the world benefit as well. And, as economics works, the increased wealth of the farmers works its way into the wealth of the country as a whole.

The second, more direct answer, is two-fold. First, ethanol does not need to carry the full load of reducing the West’s dependence on oil. Other fuels like biodiesel and eventually hydrogen will play their part. Second, ethanol can be produced from many things besides crops. All sorts of waste like overripe fruit, garbage, etc. can be turned into ethanol. Then ethanol produced from cellulose, which (in early 2007) is just about commercially viable, opens even wider the possible feedstocks for making ethanol. Possibilities include wood chips, grass cuttings and other such things that now end up in landfills. Ethanol production can make a market for a lot of what is now expensive-to-dispose-of rubbish.

Another cellulose process feedstock will be switch grass, a naturally occurring prairie grass in North America. It can be grown on marginal land not viable for crops. Its potential for ethanol is far greater than corn or sugarcane, perhaps 50% more per acre than sugarcane and more than double that available from an acre of corn.

Just as discovering oil shooting out of the ground seems such a wonder and unearned gift, so does the potential of sources like lowly alcohol suddenly becoming an answer to obvious problems seem like an equally wonderful and unearned, if more indirect, gift. It seems the earth and solar system and, presumably, the universe are designed to keep surprising us with gifts just timed and tailored to our needs.

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