Ethanol, Schmethanol

“Ethanol, Schmenthanol” is an article in the Economist that points out some of the limitations of ethanol. “Everyone seems to think that ethanol is a good way to make cars greener. Everyone is wrong.” Ethanol is very inefficient. According to Evan Ratliff at Wired corn ethanol “generates at best 30 percent more energy than is required to grow and process the corn.”

Furthermore, burning ethanol still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and when it absorbs water from the atmosphere it becomes highly corrosive. Additionally, ethanol produced from corn reduces food supplies and drives up food costs. The cultivation techniques also require the intensive use of hazardous fertilizers and pesticides.

Ratliff says that “cellulosic ethanol, in theory, is a much better bet. Most of the plant species suitable for producing this kind of ethanol — like switchgrass, a fast- growing plant found throughout the Great Plains, and farmed poplar trees — aren’t food crops.”

“And according to a joint study by the US Departments of Agriculture and Energy, we can sustainably grow more than 1 billion tons of such biomass on available farmland, using minimal fertilizer. In fact, about two-thirds of what we throw into our landfills today contains cellulose and thus potential fuel. Better still: Cellulosic ethanol yields roughly 80 percent more energy than is required to grow and convert it.”

Unfortunately, no one has figured out how to create cellulosic ethanol at a competitive price. So, until scientists can find a way to make cheap cellulosic ethanol from biomass, corn ethanol will continue to dominate the market.

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