Ethanol is a transparent liquid that has hundreds of uses in our modern society; It was also presented as a possible future replacement for gasoline. In nature, this substance is produced by the fermentation of carbohydrates and the microbial degradation of animal waste. In our industrialized world, ethanol is grain alcohol that is simply refined and distilled from renewable plant sources such as corn. Ethanol is clean, easy to produce, and biodegradable, but is not this intoxicant having the power to cure the company’s thirst for fuel?
According to the National Association of Corn Producers, US farmers produce more than 5.1 million tons of corn for the sole purpose of creating ethanol last year (2010). As bushel (56 pounds) of corn can produce 2.8 liters of ethanol, which means that more than 14280 million gallons of ethanol was made. Of these, more than 92% of ethanol is used as fuel (13230 million gallons). The other 8% was used for human consumption or for the production of many of the health and beauty products we use every day.
Obtaining fuel ethanol
There are two ways to obtain ethanol as an alternative fuel: by chemical means or by natural means (in the latter case it is called bioethanol).
- Bioethanol: Bioethanol is obtained from the fermentation of a large amount and diversity of plant materials with a high content of carbohydrates in their different plant forms such as starch, sucrose and cellulose. The ethanol is then distilled off from the rest of the ferment and thus an ethanol suitable as an alternative fuel is obtained.
- Ethanol of chemical synthesis: Fuel ethanol is obtained by chemical synthesis through hydrating ethylene and using sulfuric acid as a chemical accelerator of the process. In this synthesis, a mixture of ethanol and water is produced, which is then distilled in order to convert ethanol into an alternative fuel.
Advantages of ethanol
- Being renewable and produced locally, ethanol reduces dependence on oil, which improves the countries’ energy security. This is even more important for non-oil producing countries, given that most of this is in areas of high political instability, such as the Middle East, and that the price trend is to continue increasing or remain high.
- In general, ethanol is a fuel with high clean combustion, non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, octane that is safer than gasoline. In addition to this, pure ethanol is about 1/3 of the current price of gasoline and can be easily produced here in the US.
- Pure ethanol is never used as fuel in the consumption of vehicles. E ‘always mix with gasoline instead. This does a series of good things. The mixture of ethanol with gasoline decreases the harmful emissions of a car, reduces the overall cost of fuel, and increases the efficiency of the motor car. Virtually all the gasoline that can be purchased in the United States actually mixes with ethanol for these reasons. Today, E10 (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline), is the standard fuel sold to more than 90% of gas stations in America. E10 can be used on any vehicle that is designed to run on gasoline.
- Ethanol, being an oxygenate of gasolines, improves its octane in a considerable way, which helps to decontaminate our cities and reduce the gases that cause the greenhouse effect.
- Being an oxygenating additive, ethanol also replaces additives harmful to human health, such as lead and MTBE, which have caused an increase in the percentage of people affected by cancer (MTBE) and the decrease of mental capacities, especially in children (lead).
- The octane rating of pure ethanol is 113 and it burns better at high compressions than gasoline, which gives more power to the engines.
- Ethanol acts as an antifreeze in the engines, improving cold engine starting and preventing freezing.
- It increases the value of the agricultural products from which it comes, thus improving the income of the rural inhabitants and, therefore, raising their standard of living.
- Due to the advantages of ethanol, and the problems of gasoline, there has been a recent push towards the use of more of this substance in our vehicles. Today, many car manufacturers offer a flex-fuel version of their vehicles. Flexible fuel cars are able to run on either highly mixed ethanol or gasoline called E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline) standard. At the end of 2009, there were about 8.3 million vehicles in the United States capable of running on E85 fuel. However, this technology is underutilized, because the infrastructure to deliver E85 is not only available to most people.
Disadvantages of ethanol
- Since ethanol is produced mainly from corn, and corn requires land to be cultivated, it can probably be inferred that a considerable amount of land would not be needed to support our ethanol needs in the future. The land is a limited good and if ethanol becomes the next big thing, there can not be much space left to grow other important crops. A 2007 study published in the journal Science, said we would have to use 21.5 percent of our existing agricultural land only to replace an additional 5 percent of the gasoline used in the United States with ethanol and biodiesel. Remember, this is agricultural land that is currently used for the production of other vegetables and cereals.Nevertheless,
- When the profitability of increases in corn, farmers will be more willing to grow this cereal instead of other much-needed food products. The increased demand for corn-based ethanol will cause its price, and the price of other crops, to rise. The price of many foods and corn products will also increase accordingly. In addition to this, if we stopped importing our crude oil and replaced it with our own ethanol crop, we could simply start importing most of our food instead. In this case, we could become so dependent on foreign food in the future, since we are dependent on foreign oil today.
- Surprisingly, a greater dependence on ethanol could also harm our environment so that gasoline has had minimal impact. Corn needs more fertilizers and pesticides to grow than many other vegetables do. The increase in agricultural corn production means that negative impacts on stormwater runoff also increase. This could have the effect of aggravating the increase of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
- Ethanol is consumed 25% to 30% faster than gasoline; To be competitive, therefore, you must have a lower price per gallon.
- When it is produced from sugar cane , in many places it continues with the practice of burning cane before harvest, which releases large amounts of methane and nitrous oxide, two gases that aggravate global warming. This would be solved by mechanizing the harvest process, but rural employment would decrease, despite the criticisms that have been made of the conditions of this.
- When ethanol is produced from corn, natural gas or coal is used in the manufacturing process to produce steam, and nitrogen fertilizers, fossil herbicides and heavy agricultural machinery are used in the cultivation process. This could be solved by using organic or at least ecological agricultural production systems. You can also use the CO2 from the distilleries for the production of algae (which in turn can be used to produce biofuels). In addition, in the case of nearby livestock, manure methane can be used to produce steam (in essence this is equivalent to using biogas to produce biofuel).