August 06, 2015
Ethanol is one of those hot topics that entered the common parlance a few years ago and seemed like a viable alternative to pure fossil fuels. This biofuel was touted as the next big thing in energy and was meant to take at least some of the market from traditional gasoline. Fast-forward to today and the chatter has died down a bit. So what has ethanol been up to? Who can benefit from it, and what is the future of this much-lauded biofuel?
Ethanol fuel, or ethyl alcohol, is a biomass fuel that is made from renewable crops (most popularly corn) and serves as either an alternate fuel or an additive to gasoline. When used as an additive, ethanol helps oxygenate gasoline and reduce resulting air pollution. It typically makes up 10% of the overall fuel mixture (with the other 90% being gasoline) and can be found in the majority of gas across the United States. There are currently higher blends available, such as E15 and the high-level ethanol blend known as E85, but these require a newer-model car or a flexible fuel vehicle (FFV). Roughly 95% of all fuel used in America contains ethanol, meaning virtually every driver today has benefited from its use. There are an estimated 20 million FFVs on the road today that can take advantage of the higher-level ethanol blends mentioned above, but the lack of fueling stations that offer the option is an issue at the moment, so most drivers who own an FFV cannot take advantage of this particular alternative.
Benefits of Ethanol
Today"s average driver can enjoy many benefits from the use of ethanol and ethanol-blend fuels. Businesses that offer fleet services or that use fleet vehicles for shipping or transportation are also subject to these advantages.
On the whole, ethanol has the following benefits:
- Ethanol is renewable.
- Ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline.
- Ethanol produces less carbon and carbon monoxide.
- It has the ability to positively affect the environment.
- Ethanol is biodegradable, making fuel spills less of a problem.
- Ethanol produces valuable byproducts.
- It requires minimal changes to existing fuel infrastructures.
- It can be produced in the United States, lessening foreign oil dependence.
Disadvantages of Ethanol
Of course, like everything else, ethanol does have its disadvantages. Ethanol:
- Is more difficult to ship due to its corrosive nature
- Absorbs water, making it prone to contamination
- Has a lower heat of combustion rate than petroleum, making it less fuel-efficient, meaning that it reduces your miles per gallon
- Requires large areas of land to produce
- Can cause environmental impacts due to soil erosion and fertilizer runoff
Another issue of concern is that producing ethanol requires a fuel source to begin with, and if an ethanol producer uses regular gasoline for this process, it negates the purpose of having a fuel alternative. However, this problem is easily solved if the ethanol producer uses a biofuel for the production process.
The Future of Ethanol
As fossil fuel stocks continue to diminish, more countries will begin turning to alternative fuel sources. As a result of this, biofuels will continue to be in use for some time, and it is expected that 30% of all fuel produced will be ethanol-based by the year 2020. While corn is currently the most-used crop for ethanol, there are other renewable crop options that seem to be a viable fuel source for the future, including sugar cane, cellulosic biomass (a mixture of plant materials), and switchgrass. Algae and fungus are another source that is being researched that offers promise.