The Promise and the Problems of Ethanol

An alternative fuel for gasoline-powered vehicles, ethanol (a form of alcohol derived from plants) reduces greenhouse gas emissions and the need for fossil fuels. The major controversy surrounding ethanol involves the source of the plant material used to distill it:

  • Corn ethanol: If you want to get a good debate going between the alternative fuel industry and environmental groups, mention corn ethanol. In the United States, this fuel is made primarily from corn (other areas of the world use sugarcane as a base instead). Essentially, the corn is fermented, and the resulting alcohol (ethanol) becomes a replacement fuel for gas. One of the most common forms of ethanol currently is known as E85, which means that it’s 85 percent ethanol.

    Although the corn absorbs carbon dioxide as it grows, the electricity required to create ethanol seriously reduces the overall environmental benefit of burning it as vehicle fuel. And then there’s the major issue of replacing food crops with corn ethanol crops. According to Co-op America, the demand for corn ethanol increases corn prices, which creates serious affordability problems for those who rely on corn as part of their diet; plus, it’s using good agricultural land for fuel instead of food. And whether it’s used for food or fuel, corn is treated heavily with pesticides, and a lot of corn is now genetically modified. Given the costs, most environmental groups want the country to move away from corn-based ethanol rather than embrace it.

  • Cellulosic ethanol: This comes from biomass rather than corn. Biomass is plant matter that’s considered waste, such as corn stalks and paper pulp, so it’s automatically more environmentally friendly than corn ethanol. It’s also possible to create cellulosic ethanol from some grasses that don’t require agricultural land to grow; they can be grown on marginal land, which means land that isn’t in competition with food crops — again, this is far more environmentally sound and people-friendly than corn ethanol.

    Unfortunately, cellulosic ethanol isn’t yet commercially available, although some manufacturing facilities are being built.

Some petroleum-based fuels already contain a small percentage of ethanol, and these are fine to use in gasoline engines. However, purer blends, such as E85, require the purchase of a flexfuel car that can accommodate both conventional gasoline and ethanol fuels.

A lot of government and industry resources are being funneled into corn ethanol production, but you can get in touch with your legislative representatives at the federal and state levels to let them know that you want resources focused on cellulosic ethanol as a more ecologically and socially balanced alternative fuel.