We hear about ethanol all the time – particularly when we
buy gas. In case you were wondering what it's all about and
where it comes from, here is some basic information.
What exactly is ethanol?
Ethanol is an alcohol (the same stuff you get in alcoholic
beverages) that is mainly used to blend with gasoline so our cars
aren't entirely driven by fossil fuel-derived fuel.
Did you know that some ethanol actually comes from petroleum
products? It's true. The ethanol that comes from
agricultural stocks is properly called
"bio-ethanol" although many now mean bio-ethanol
when they mention ethanol, and that's what we mean here.
In the US , ethanol is mainly made from corn,
which makes corn producers very happy – especially as and
when governments begin requiring higher ethanol levels in gas. In
Brazil, massive amounts are made from sugar cane and in Australia
it's mainly made from sugar cane and waste from starch
production and red sorghum.
What's exciting in the ethanol world?
Because we worry about cutting into food crops to "grow
fuel", the most exciting developments are in
"cellulosic ethanol". That is made from
plant waste products – which are simply the
by-products of what we are already growing and using for other
purposes. Here, the cellulose part of the plant is broken down to
sugars and then converted to ethanol. Different means of producing
ethanol are also being developed – all in search of getting
the biggest bang for our energy buck with the smallest
For example, traditionally algae has been grown and then
harvested and fermented. With a new process, the algae grow in
sunlight and produce ethanol directly. The ethanol is thus removed
without killing the algae. How big is that? According to the
company pioneering this, the process can produce 6,000 US gallons
per acre per year compared to 400 US gallons per acre for corn.
What's ethanol's energy kick and price compared to
Ethanol doesn't have as much of a kick (embedded energy) as
gasoline. It takes about 1.5 gallons of ethanol to produce the same
amount of energy as one gallon of gas.
As to how much energy it takes to produce ethanol, that of
course, will differ depending on what is used to make the ethanol
and how energy efficient the process is. Corn, for example,
is a very energy-intensive crop; requiring the use of one
unit of fossil-fuel energy to create about 1.3 energy units of
ethanol. Cellulose, on the other hand, yields roughly twice
as much ethanol (about 2.6 units) as corn per unit of
fossil fuel. Clearly, part of the excitement about cellulosic
ethanol is that since it's made from stuff already lying
around, it doesn't take additional energy to "grow"
it – just energy to process it.
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