The concept of bio-fuel is one that many can support. Renewable energy is a growing concern, especially for those who wish to gain independence from reliance on foreign powers and large corporations that control the world’s oil supply. Using bio-fuel is one way that many feel they can find this freedom.
Ethanol brings many benefits to its users, chief among them the independence it brings from foreign oil and an increase in support for local, rural economies. In addition to these primary benefits, bio-fuels have the added bonus of being easily renewed every year because they are derived from plant products. This provides American consumers with greater control over fuel supplies, and allows consumers to increase fuel consumption without worrying about events in the Middle East affecting gas station prices.
The main form of bio-fuel is ethanol, which is most commonly derived from corn. Corn is a resilient crop that can be grown in most environments within the continental United States, and it takes up less room per crop than many other bio-fuel options. Many farmers in the U.S. have already moved from growing corn as a food crop to providing non-food corn to ethanol producers.
Current ethanol production is handled by businesses that sell ethanol to gas companies, who then incorporate it into the gas we purchase at the fuel pump. The process goes as follows: one acre of land can yield about 7,110 pounds (3,225 kg) of corn, which can be processed into 328 gallons (1240.61 liters) of ethanol. Research performed at Cornell University demonstrates that it works out to roughly 26.1 pounds (11.84 kg) of corn per gallon of bio-fuel.
However, is ethanol all that it’s cracked up to be? Many researchers believe that in our haste to alleviate our oil dependence, we have embraced a false savior in ethanol. Supporters are quick to point out that mixed gas containing ethanol reduces vehicle emissions. While this is true by the numbers, it fails to look at the greater impact.
Ethanol produces fewer emissions per gallon than gasoline; however, it also produces considerably less power. Consumer Reports shows that with a Chevy Tahoe, they averaged 14 mpg on gasoline and only 10 mpg on ethanol. This is a decrease of 29%. When you look further into an MIT study from 2004, you find that the calculated overall reduction of CO2 emission is 30%. In the end, you burn the difference in fuel to reach the same destination.
The average American uses 420 gallons of gasoline per year. To eliminate the purchase of oil-based fuel, you would need about 630 gallons of ethanol. This translates to a community needing about two acres per person of nothing but cornfields in order to provide enough fuel for all. This estimate does not include the fuel necessary to run farming equipment or the energy needed to process the ethanol. Combine that with the energy requirements necessary to create ethanol and you lose the little bit of independence that such a fuel can bring.
Consumers do have other options. Currently, we produce ethanol by refining plant sugars. By planting and growing vegetation that produces more natural sugars than corn, you can produce more ethanol with fewer plants and use less land to produce the same amount of fuel. Planting faster-growing crops will speed up the production process by allowing multiple harvests per year, again reducing space that must be dedicated to crop growth.
The best plant for making ethanol is sugar beet, as it is very high in natural sugars; sugar cane is also an excellent choice. One significant benefit is that the process is not very complicated and can be mastered by anyone with a few barrels, some copper pipe and yeast.
To become a fully viable alternative, we need to develop a more cost-effective method of converting cellulose directly into ethanol. Cellulosic ethanol yields 80% more energy than is required to grow and convert plants into fuel. Cellulose is not a food crop—it can be grown in all parts of the world, and the entire plant can be used to produce cellulosic ethanol. Switchgrass yields twice as much ethanol per acre as corn.
The real benefit of cellulosic ethanol is that it can be created from non-edible plant parts, allowing farmland to become multi-purpose and produce food for both man and machine. This also helps reduce the amount of waste produced from the “farming” of these products.
The cost of ethanol production, combined with the amount of time and space it consumes, makes a self-sustaining ethanol-based life difficult, if not impossible, for the average consumer. However, from experience with learning how to properly refine, process, and treat ethanol, we grow closer to making it affordable and efficient enough for private use.