Ethanol As Fuel – The Future Of Travel Or A Very Bad Idea?


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I was talking with my wife the other day and the subject of using corn as fuel for transportation came up. She brought up an interesting point that I guess I really had not thought of…why in the world would we grow food only to use it to get around? With all the starving and malnourished people in this world, is it terribly irresponsible to use a perfectly good food source just so we can drive our cars?

Yes, I think it is. If we have the ability to grow enough corn to power our vehicles, should we not be growing enough to try to feed everyone? If we have the means to produce that much corn, why aren’t we doing so now? Is it not our obligation to help feed those that need feeding? The very idea of using food as fuel has me stumped. Do you know how much corn you would have to grow in order to travel by car? I didn’t, until I found the answer online at How Stuff Works:

In order to drive a Toyota Camry across the country from New York to Los Angeles, you would need to grow about a half an acre of corn…for that one trip.

How does that make any sense to anyone? While I completely understand the need to develop alternative fuels in order to get ourselves off the gasoline pump, I cannot back growing perfectly good corn in order to do so. I am tired of hearing Bush and other politicians talk about ethanol as being the savior of the planet. There has to be something else that we can turn to. What are your thoughts on this? Am I way off the mark here and missing something? If you have an idea or a comment, I would love to hear it.

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  1. The real issue with Ethanol is not that we would be using food to power cars, while that is a moral issue, most of the corn we grow today is actually used, even if most of it is used to create processed food, and an increase in demand for corn (giving it away) would raise food prices, which obviously wouldn’t sit well with Americans who pay billions in taxes to subsidize corn. But rather that is actually takes more than 1 gallon of oil in the form of fertilizer and genetically modified corn, farm machines, transport, processing etc. to make one gallon of ethanol, and then on top of it, the one gallon of ethanol has less energy in it! Finally, new studies have revealed that ethanol actually lets off more pollution then gasoline anyway.

    Ethanol is not an energy solution for America, especially while we continue to create it in a wasteful manner. (There are ways of creating ethanol from waste which is pursued in other countries and does not require more fossil fuels then the ethanol contains, but of course those sources of ethanol have embargoes put on them at the behest of the American corn lobby).

  2. you are entirely correct, corn ethanol is a terrible idea. Another point agains them is the energy balance, think about all of the energy that is put into growing/harvesting/processing corn for ethanol and compare that to the amout of energy that ethanol will release.

    Look into cellulosic ethanol, which uses wastes from the sugar cane refining process, or corn waste, or pulp and paper waste. Companies such as Celunol and Mascoma are pioneering this field.

  3. I agree and I should have mentioned it in the post, thanks for that. It takes 140 gallons of fossil fuel to plant, grow and harvest an acre of corn!

  4. I think you are missing several things.

    !. About 80% of all grains grown in the USA are going to feed animals that are then eaten by humans. If we were to stop doing this we would be able to grow enough for both the purposes.
    2. Corn is not the only crop that can be used to make Biofuels.
    There are non food crops such as switch grass that can be used.
    3.There is plenty more room to grow crops. These places are called lawns. If you are not already familiar with them you should check out Food Not Lawns.

  5. Janus

    I am not missing them, I just did not cover them because the main story is that we are considering growing corn for fuel. Our wonderful President has deemed it the fuel of the future, and it is just not plausible. I agree if we stopped feeding animals, we could grow enough, but that is never going to happen. And yes, there are other sources to use for ethanol, but corn is the #1 most talked about. And while you can grow food/fuel on your lawn, the issue is not that we don’t have enough land, but rather we are thinking of doing it at all. Getting ourselves off fossil fuels should not result in the growth of a food product in order to continue our ridiculous car culture. No one is saying we can’t do it; rather I just find it quite silly and irresponsible to do it…

  6. Actually, pretty much the entire scientific community agrees that corn as a source of ethanol is a boondoggle. The way forward right now is cellulosic biomass from poplar and switchgrass. There are currently technical challenges, but it’s far more realistic than corn. Not to be a Bush defender, but if you go back and listen to his State of the Union, he specfically mentions wood chips (= poplar) and switch grass. Basically, you cook down and ferment the cellulose form the cell walls.

  7. Oh nickel, you watched it? I’m sorry..I just cannot stand hearing his voice for that long! 😉 But again, I agree that there are other ways…but moving from one fossil fuel to another “earth product” is definitely not moving forward in my book, because eventually we will run out of that as well. And growing anything so we can drive cars like we already do really bothers me, when there are people starving everywhere and we don’t deem it necessary to grow food for them…but will consider it for our cars.

    The grass argument is a better one than corn, but still…to grow things you need fossil fuels to maintain them, cultivate, fertilize, etc..

  8. I’ve friends involved in a project in GA to increase the efficiency of ethanol conversion from grasses. The EPA is involved in the project. The upshot is I’ve been reading this work and staying up on ethanol production in general.

    A comment by a researcher in Texas goes right to the point. Namely, ethanol production will be regional and dependent on the biomass which is surplus in a particular area. In Texas it may be sorghum. In the Midwest, corn. In the Southeast grasses. In the Northwest and Southeast left over forest material from logging or paper mills. Heck, they’re even looking into left over materials from beer and into peanut production.

    The end result is there’s a lot of biomass materials which are currently discarded in a host of agricultural and industrial processes which can be converted into sugars and, later, ethanol. This makes these same processes less polluting. Corn is actually one of the less effective of the source materials for alcohol production, as currently only the corn kernels are the only part of the plant being used, because they are where the sugar and starches are packed. Though there are experiments to use the rest of the plant.

    The use of corn as a mainstay of the new technologies is a reflection of technology adoption in general. It is an existing technology using a known process. Just as early cars looked more like wagons than later cars. Early alcohol fuel production looks like industrial and foodstuff alcohol production. As the technology is developed, fuel alcohol production will diverge into new sources and new, more efficient (real cheaper and more politically palatable) processes. There’s too much pressure on the existing use of foodstuffs to make them long the central biomass of choice. Our current production of ethanol via corn looks a lot like earlier alcohol production. Because of this the corn/alcohol industry has an existing lobby in Washington.

    Using new biomass sources requires tweaking bacteria and enzyme production to allow increased production of sugars or alcohol. As we switch to alternate sources of biomass, different regions will focus alcohol production on what ever constitutes excess biomass in their area, and there should be little need to concentrate on foodstuffs. The danger is the existing ecological establishment will misread the dangers of using existing foodstuffs and existing processes, connect them with Republican support, and reject the whole technology as ecologically and politically unwise. What we need to do is support the development of the technology and use of biomass which uses surplus biomass from existing industrial and agri-business, making existing processes more effective and less polluting.

    There are certainly some potential ecological problems and unknowns in the new technologies and the use of new biomass sources; but, there’s more problems being solved than not. Not least of these problems is a movement away the scarce resource of oil as an energy basis, the production of green house gases, etc. My guess is alcohol production will be only one aspect of the new energy economy, but it’s one which has current political backing, mainly because it’s production and Washington contacts have their center squarely in Republican strongholds and in big agri-business; and, the Republican party NEEDS to improve their track record in terms of environmental track record to remain politically viable. This new direction reeks of strange bedfellows, but one takes allies where ever they’re to be found. The good news is there’s political and economic backing to support the development of a new source of energy.

  9. Fossil fuels aren’t needed to cultivate, produce fertilizer, etc., not with alternate fuels like alcohol. If alcohol is used as an alternative fuel, then there’s no reason tractors can’t run on alcohol, not gas. As for fertilizer production, all one needs is a means of injecting energy to isolate nitrogen, phosphates, etc. The source of energy doesn’t matter. Alcohol could be a source, just as hydrocarbons are now. The ultimate energy source for both is the sun and photosynthesis.

    I don’t get the grow foodstuffs first argument. It’s faulty. Since the introduction of the agricultural revolution, the problem has never been one of food production. It’s been one of distribution. Think about Russia in the ’50s-’80s as one of the clearest examples. There was plenty of food being produced. There wasn’t an infrastructure to distribute the food. The same is true today. The world produces a surplus of foodstuffs. This isn’t a choice of producing food for the starving, but maintaining an infrastructure and economy affluent enough to maintain both food production and distribution.

  10. One of the reasons alcohol production is attractive as an alternative to gas is the infrastructure for distributing a similar form of liquid fuel is already in place, and the technological base for the current transportation fleet using liquid fuel is (by in large) already in place.

  11. David, I agree that this “replace petroleum fuels and our troubles are over” mentality is maddening. The current energy policy is one in which alternative fuels have been grudgingly embraced, but there has been no mention of reduced consumption.

  12. Reduced consumption could spread the inevitable out for quite a while, its just too bad no one is willing to do it.

  13. I’ve read reports of the Mexican government having to fix the price of corn because farmers are selling their corn for ethanol rather than tortillas. For many Mexican families, tortillas are the main source of nourishment and calcium (added in the mix). A rise in the price of tortillas resulting from rising corn prices hurts these families that are barely getting by.

  14. i completetly agree with you sir.evrything has its unique use.i believe corn should be relished for its nutrition and ability to satisfy our taste buds,not for the production of ethanol.

  15. This isn’t a matter of reducing consumption, but allowing the market to move toward a better, cheaper fuel source. For such a move to take place quickly, it’ll need consumption or perceived political need to drive the market.

    Will using alcohol instead of gasoline solve all problems? Don’t be silly. Every technological change produces it’s own set of new problems. For instance, burning alcohol causes different problem gases to be produced, including ozone. Look at studies coming out of South America, which has moved to alcohol much faster than the US, for examples. The use of foodstuffs to produce fuel will drive up the price for foodstuffs. For example, the use of core to produce alcohol drives up the price of tortillas and everything else currently being produced with corn.

    The problem with using corn isn’t we are taking food out of the proverbial mouths of babes. The problem with corn cum alcohol is we’re subsidizing the budding industry to the tune of 50 cents per gallon, creating an artificial market for corn as a means of creating the industrial infrastructure necessary for large scale production of alcohol.

    The fact we’re building this infrastructure in Republican strongholds is distasteful to my democratic heart, but I’m relieved the infrastructure is being created. I suspect a few generations down the way, the fact we used such an industrially useful and limited resource as fossil fuel as our central energy source will be considered the height of shortsightedness.

    In this discussion, I don’t want the baby thrown out with the bath water. Just because corn cum fuel isn’t a long term, workable panacea and is grudgingly embraced by the current administration doesn’t mean the notion of biomass being made into alcohol as an alternate fuel is a bad idea. It’s also shortsighted to let where an ideas comes from or who supports it determine the worth of an idea. Look at the payoffs:

    1. Biomass alcohol is renewable.
    2. There’s existing infrastructure for distribution.
    3. Existing cars are easily converted to run on alcohol or a mix.
    4. It solves a real-politics problem of being dependent on OPEC for the first world’s main energy source.
    5. Someone, at last, is doing something about using fossil fuels.
    6. There’s good science suggesting alcohol can be used as a workable fuel source for fuel cells, eliminating many of the emerging set of problems with alcohol combustion, and working around the problem of creating a distribution network for hydrogen.

    In short, alcohol as an alternative fuel solves more problems than it introduces without demanding huge changes in the current industrial and economic infrastructure. As I said in my original post, corn as the source of biomass for the production of alcohol is inefficient, uses a product for which there’s high demand elsewhere, and comes with a higher level of moral ambiguity than the market will support when cheaper, less morally ambiguous biomass begins to be used on an industrial scale.

    In living an ethical life, let’s no loose sight of long term, long range good just because we don’t like a particular set of our current fellow travelers. I think the ethical question of subsidizing corn as an alcohol source is much, more complex than “Should I use X amount of corn to travel distance Y?” There’s a larger good here which muddies the ethical waters.

  16. Corn-based ethanol is having a huge effect on livestock operations. Do you realize that the main source of grain on a feedlot is corn? This is forcing feedlots to pay less for cattle from the ranchers, in order to make up the money lost in corn prices. Thus, as a result, meat, eggs, dairy products, etc., are going to skyrocket in price. If you think corn is a good solution, do a little bit of research and see where your food comes from. Besides, that is only one of the many problems associated with corn being used as a source of fuel. Think about the consequences. They outweigh the positive factors.

  17. I did not say it was a good idea Emily, at all. I realize it is NOT the future and we need to figure something else out. Thanks for the comment!

  18. David,
    I’m sorry for the confusion. The comment was not directed toward you, but rather some of the other people, including Stephen Brandon.

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