Ethanol or good old Mr. Gasoline?

2011/12 Note: Hydrogen.

The world is dependent on oil, especially gasoline. The millions of vehicles around the world consume about 83 million barrels of oil a day. Every day for a year. That’s a lot of oil. And exhaust particles going into the atmosphere.

The debate in recent years has been ideas for a cleaner, better alternative energy source. I’ve heard of hydrogen fuel cells, biomass, solar, nuclear. But none are as politically involved as ethanol.

Why is this “ethanol” talked about so much? First, it runs cleaner than gasoline. Cleaner means less crud goes into our atmosphere. 0% pollutants compared to gasoline. It releases CO2, but not as bad as gasoline. Ethanol is like the alcohol people drink. Light it up and you get energy.

Ethanol comes from plants, various types would work. In the case for the United States, the main crop would be corn. Brazilians use sugar cane and have pretty much adopted ethanol into their country. It’s renewable, and also would be domestically produced. No more barrels of oil from Saudi Arabia or Alaska. Your local farmer would most likely produce the ethanol you’re using.

I wanted to first introduce ethanol, and then ask a question. Is ethanol worth it? There are several problems with ethanol aside from the benefits. All events are hypothetical, but researched by me. It may be wrong, but it’s not incorrect either.

It takes fossil fuel to convert plants into ethanol. Some argue that producing the ethanol would use up more energy than given out. The figure states that in order to produce 1 liter of ethanol, it takes 10,000 kcal to produce something that has only 5,000 kcal of energy value. Energy is lost. In the future, there should be improvements, but in current times, ethanol consumes more than it puts out. Also, ethanol can’t be transferred through pipes, since it picks up water and impurities. This requires an additional labor-force of trucks and tankers, which costs more. That cost will most likely be passed onto the consumers.

Ethanol isn’t that much cheaper than gasoline right now. $2 compared to about $3. And remember, ethanol gives less energy. Expect to fill up more.

The materials available to produce ethanol may also be a problem. Right now, America is using corn and experimenting with fibers and maybe algae. Brazil can work with their sugar canes, but frankly, they’re not as big as the United States, let alone use as much as cars can in Los Angeles. Great for Brazil. America doesn’t grow sugar cane. We have a lot of corn and grains. We use corn in the form of high-fructose corn syrup, which is in everything. So I suspect if a switch to ethanol was to occur now, food prices will increase.

•The average U.S. automobile, traveling 10,000 miles a year on pure ethanol (not a gasoline-ethanol mix) would need about 852 gallons of the corn-based fuel. This would take 11 acres to grow, based on net ethanol production. This is the same amount of cropland required to feed seven Americans.

•If all the automobiles in the United States were fueled with 100 percent ethanol, a total of about 97 percent of U.S. land area would be needed to grow the corn feedstock. Corn would cover nearly the total land area of the United States.

Meeting demands
Can ethanol meet demands? Can manufacturers supply at least a small city first? Brazil worked, but it’s not every single car. I think they can support 10 million or so. We consume 83 million barrels of oil a year. Oil is pumped up, and flows through the pipe. Ethanol is produced from plants, and currently, farmers would need to grow and harvest plants very fast. A scenario in my mind is that there are no more crops to harvest, and no ethanol production for weeks, or even months. Imagine the chaos that’ll cause. This is if America switches to 100% ethanol dependency, which is impossible.

A quote by the Theglobalist says, “The world produced enough ethanol to displace roughly 2% of total gasoline consumption”. That was written in 2005, but it can’t be more than that now, since the world uses petroleum more and more. In the future, there’ll be better, more efficient ways to harness ethanol, but relating to right now, there probably isn’t enough space to grow a day’s supply of ethanol. Unless everyone starts farming.

These are my four reasons why I think ethanol won’t work just yet. It’s a great idea, but not fitting for its time. Maybe a few decades earlier, when dependency on oil wasn’t so great, and the government could’ve started researching ethanol. Flashback to the modern world, where oil is literally the blood of the world.

I like alternatives forms of energy. But ethanol is not on the top of my list. It hasn’t sold me on the benefits, except that it’s cleaner, supposedly cheap to make as demand increases, and will be better for the environment. The grim reality is that ethanol isn’t too practical to produce, consumes about the same amount of fossil fuel to process, and produces less energy. The cost adds up in the end. I would rather support R&D in fuel cells or another form of alternative energy like nuclear power.


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