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Ethanol as a Transportation Fuel Essay

Abstract

In this paper I will explore the use of ethanol as an alternative fuel source. Ethanol is considered a renewable energy resource; as it is derived from crops such as: corn, sugarcane, beets, as well as, other organic materials. The use of ethanol could decrease our dependence on ever depleting supplies of fossil fuels; such as oil. In this paper, I will briefly review how ethanol is produced in different parts of the world. I will also review several of the advantages of using ethanol as a renewable source of energy for the transportation sector.

Many environmental organizations support the use of ethanol as it burns cleaner than fossil fuels. Ethanol is considered a renewable resource because it is plant based. Additionally, this paper will review several of the common disadvantages of using ethanol as an alternative fuel source for the transportation sector. One of the main issues is the amount of farm land required to produce enough ethanol to significantly offset the amount of fossil fuel currently consumed. This paper will also review current United States policies that support the use of ethanol by American consumers.

Ethanol as a Transportation Fuel

One of the major problems the world is faced with today is what to do about our dependency on fossil fuels. Petroleum dependence is a big problem for the United States because the supply will eventually be depleted if consumers continue to use it at the current rate of consumption. In an effort to find a viable alternative to foreign oil, many politicians and environmental groups have been heavily promoting the use of alternatives fuels such as ethanol. The continued increases in oil prices, strong farmer support, government subsidies, and environmental concerns have led to major expansion of global ethanol use over the last few years. Even though its use has increased over the past decade, ethanol has been around for several centuries. “In 1908, Ford Motor Company’s first car, the Model T, used corn alcohol for fuel energy (gasoline)” (Ethanol Fuel History, March 2009).

Ethanol is produced by the fermentation of starches or sugars. The usual starting material is corn, sugarcane, sugar beet, or certain types of grasses. Fermentation is the same process used in the production of alcoholic beverages. It can be either mass-produced by fermentation of sugars or from cellulose. “Brazil, the Saudi Arabia of sugarcane, is the world’s second largest ethanol producer after the United States. About 45% of Brazil’s motor vehicles run on ethanol-gasoline mixtures produced from bagass, a residue of sugarcane” (Miller, T., Spoolman, S., 2009, pg. 218). Corn is the most common crop used for ethanol production in the United States. Reports and experts are showings trends that the use of commodities such as corn and sugarcane are impacting both the economy and the environment in a negative way. Food prices and fuel prices are on a record increase due to the excess demand for fuels. There are advantages and disadvantages to using biofuels.

The following are some of the advantages of the use of ethanol. Ethanol-blended fuels can reduce the net emissions of greenhouse gases. The emissions produced by burning ethanol are less than those produced by burning gasoline. “In 2007 an EPA study estimated that using corn ethanol would reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 22% compared to burning gasoline” (Miller, T., Spoolman, S., 2009, pg. 218). In the United States, ethanol is primarily derived from corn which is a renewable resource that is grown by American farmers. Ethanol also benefits energy security as it shifts the need for some foreign-produced oil to domestically produced energy sources. Some forms of crops used for ethanol production produce a high energy yield. “Using switchgrass to produce ethanol yields about 5.4 times more energy than it takes to grow it” (Miller, T., Spoolman, S., 2009, pg. 218).

The following are some of the disadvantages of the use of ethanol: The production of ethanol requires the use of food based commodities such as corn. As the world population continues to grow this could lead to increases in food prices and food shortages. Certain precautions have to be taken, “because E85 is a corrosive solvent, fuel storage tanks and dispensing equipment must be corrosion and damage resistant” (Ethanol – A Renewable Energy Source, n.d.). Additionally, large amounts of land are required to grow crops such as corn, sugarcane and/or switchgrass. This could result in the clearing of more forest land, which could have a negative impact on the environment and local ecosystems.

The United States government has implemented a number of policies in support of biofuels. These policies are intended to support American farmers, reduce our dependence on foreign oil and reduce greenhouse gases. Some current policies include: “The Energy Policy Act of 2005, written by the EPA contains regulations to ensure that gasoline sold in the United States contains a minimum volume of renewable fuel.

The Renewable Fuel Standard Program was signed in 2006. This national renewable fuel program is designed to encourage the blending of renewable fuels (ethanol) into our nation’s motor vehicle fuel. The nationwide Renewable Fuels Standard (RFS) will double the use of ethanol and biodiesel by 2012. In December 2007 Energy Independence and Security Act signed by Congress and the President, which requires the use of 15 billion gallons of renewable (ethanol) fuel by 2015” (Ethanol Fuel History, March 2009).

I do not believe the current United States strategy for ethanol use and production is feasible. The current yield of corn based ethanol is low compared to other forms of ethanol. The yield of corn based ethanol is only 1.1 to 1.5 times the amount of energy it takes to produce it. This simply means that it requires 1 gallon of fuel to produce 1.1 – 1.5 gallons of ethanol. A huge amount of land would have to be cleared, for crop production, to make a significant impact on the amount of fossil fuels that we currently use. This could have a negative impact on our environment; as we clear forest land and convert it to farmland. We must continue to explore higher yielding forms of ethanol, as well other forms of renewable energy.

Discussion

An increasingly important issue, the whole world faces today, is the reliance on fossil fuels as an energy source. These fossil fuels include: coal, natural gas, and most importantly, petroleum. While petroleum and coal are in fact biologically based; it took millions of years for it to form. This energy is not considered renewable because of the time it takes for the energy to build up. In order for us to maintain our transportation needs; there must be a drastic change in the sources of energy used to power our vehicles. Over the past few years, the use of ethanol has received lots of support and its use continues to grow. Many supporters of ethanol state that ethanol not only reduces our dependence on foreign oil, but provides jobs for Americans. One possible solution to this problem is for the United States to reduce its dependence on petroleum by becoming more dependent on renewable energy sources such as biofuels.

The most common biofuel used today is ethanol, which is produced by the fermentation of certain plants. In the United States most ethanol is currently produced from corn. Other countries, such as Brazil, use sugarcane. There are a number of advantages to using ethanol as a source of renewable energy. Ethanol burns cleaner than petroleum based products, such as gasoline. This lowers the C02 emissions, which reduces the amount of greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. Ethanol is consider a renewable energy source because it is plant based and can easily be grown by farmers. Ethanol can also be produced locally; reducing our dependence on foreign oil. There are also some drawbacks to using ethanol. One of the major drawbacks is that it is derived from food crops such as corn.

As the world population continues to grow, the demand for food will also continue to increase. There are also environmental concerns to using ethanol. To substantially offset the amount of fossil fuels we currently use would require a huge amount on farmland. This may require additional forest land to be cleared, which could have a negative impact on the environment. Another disadvantage to ethanol is that it cannot be used in older vehicles; as it will damage internal components. To stimulate the industry in the United States, federal tax credits have been extended to biofuel producers, which make them even more competitive with fossil fuels.

Environmental groups support the use of ethanol; as it reduces the amount of harmful greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere. The enthusiastic support of ethanol is not motivated purely by the desire to save fossil fuels. Much of the support it receives is from the influence of the ethanol industry and farmers that profit from corn production. For ethanol to become a viable alternative fuel for America; we need to look at different crops such as sugarcane that produce a higher yield. Additionally, we need to continue to look for other alternative energy sources that will not compete for food crops.

References
Ethanol – A Renewable Energy Source (n.d.). Retrieved 22 July 2011, from http://www. extraordinaryroadtrip.org/research-library/technology/ethanol/advantages.asp Ethanol Fuel History (March 2009). Retrieved 22 July 2011, from http://www.fuel-testers.com

/ethanol_fuel_history.html
Miller, T., Spoolman, S. (2009). Sustaining the Earth, 10e. Belmont, CA: Brooks/Cole


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