Ethanol Corn Sugar Cellulose

Ethanol, or grain alcohol, can be produced from corn, sugar beets, sugar cane, or other crops primarily by fermentation. Ethanol came onto the scene largely as a means of moving toward energy independence. Brazil currently uses ethanol to meet an estimated 40 percent of its transportation requirements. Presently, roughly 20 percent of the corn grown in the United States is converted to ethanol. Current farming methods use a high percentage of petrochemicals, which to some extent defeats the intent of displacing oil.

Mixtures of ethanol and gasoline (such as 15 percent ethanol and 85 percent gasoline, or E85) are becoming common as an alternative fuel in certain areas of the United States. The energy payback from corn-grown ethanol, however, is marginal. Depending on agricultural conditions, ethanol produces on average only 25-30 percent more energy than the energy it took to produce it. This results in a net energy benefit, with the actual numbers depending on the specific production conditions, including how much carbon dioxide emissions are needed grow, harvest, process, and distribute the ethanol. A higher percentage of ethanol in the fuel blend may require engine modifications. Some automobile manufactures are now offering flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) to accommodate either gasoline or higher-percentage ethanol mixes. Because of its chemical structure (carbon-oxygen bonds rather than the more energetic carbon-hydrogen bonds found in petroleum-based fuels), ethanol delivers about 30 percent less energy per gallon than gasoline. This may not be as noticeable with low-ethanol blends but may become more of an issue when there is more ethanol in the mix.

Since ethanol contains carbon in its chemical structure, it, like any other carbon-containing fuel, produces carbon dioxide when burned. For a given amount of energy produced from the same size fuel tank, both ethanol and gasoline produce comparable amounts of carbon dioxide. One difference is that the carbon dioxide that gets released to the atmosphere when ethanol is burned came from the atmosphere through the process of photosynthesis that produced the corn. Ethanol can be thought of as just returning the carbon it removed from the atmosphere. This does not give ethanol a real advantage over gasoline, however, because if the corn wasn't removing carbon dioxide, presumably some other crop would be there in its place. Growing corn to produce fuel requires farmland that otherwise could grow food crops. This could introduce price pressure on food at a time when increasing flood and drought conditions might diminish the usefulness of some agricultural areas around the world.

The process of producing ethanol involves a fermentation step that produces carbon dioxide. For every 0.51 kg of ethanol produced, 1 kg of carbon dioxide is produced. Capturing this carbon dioxide would improve ethanol's effectiveness in terms of greenhouse gas reduction. Additional carbon dioxide is released when ethanol is burned, but it is made up of the same carbon atoms that were removed from the atmosphere to grow the feedstock to produce the ethanol.

Brazil has pioneered the use of ethanol. The government mandated 25 percent use of ethanol as a means toward energy independence. Government support, available agricultural acreage, and a climate conducive to growing sugar beets helped to promote this effort. Whether or not other countries can replicate Brazil's experience with ethanol, the experience today does serve as a success story in implementing a change in a country's approach to energy production and use.

While achieving the twin goals of energy independence and pollution reduction, it is questionable whether ethanol can make much of a dent in the level of carbon dioxide emissions in the short term. Potential efficiency improvements in the ethanol growth and production cycle may improve this situation, this especially if organic farm wastes such as corn stalks, grasses, wheat and rice straw, leaves, and other agricultural leftovers (called lignocellulosic materials) are used as a starting material.

Cellulosic crops are attractive because they have higher yields than high-carbohydrate crops such as corn and sugar beets. They grow more easily in areas that are not suitable for grains or other food crops without the need for extensive fertilization. They do not necessarily compete with crops grown for human or animal consumption. The cellulosic materials can provide some of the process heat needed to separate the ethanol after the fermentation process, avoiding the need for consuming additional fossil fuels in the process. At this point, substantial more research is needed to make this a commercial option.

Guide to Alternative Fuels

Guide to Alternative Fuels

Your Alternative Fuel Solution for Saving Money, Reducing Oil Dependency, and Helping the Planet. Ethanol is an alternative to gasoline. The use of ethanol has been demonstrated to reduce greenhouse emissions slightly as compared to gasoline. Through this ebook, you are going to learn what you will need to know why choosing an alternative fuel may benefit you and your future.

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