More and more, ethanol gas is being presented as the alternative fuel for cars that will help us overcome the inevitability of oil depletion. Ethanol does not increase atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and emits less particulate pollution than traditional petroleum-based gasoline. The biomass used to produce ethanol is a renewable energy source. But, there are many debates surrounding the environmental friendliness of ethanol and the production viability, mostly due to the use of fossil fuels in the production process and the need to cultivate more land than is currently farmed.
So, can ethanol bio fuel really be the energy of tomorrow?
Ethanol fuel is a gasoline alternative manufactured from agricultural crops such as sugar cane, sugar beets, switch grass, barley and corn. These organic materials are considered to be renewable resources because they can be regenerated by natural processes at a rate similar to its consumption (unlike non-renewable resources such as fossil fuels which take thousands of years to regenerate), and are therefore considered to be a renewable energy. Ethanol fuel can be used by all gasoline vehicles in the United States in concentrations of up to 10%. Former gasoline or flex fuel vehicles can run on an ethanol fuel blend of up to 85% denatured ethanol fuel and gasoline, also known as E85 gas. Thus, the use of ethanol can reduce the use of gasoline and fossil fuel imports.
Despite these advantages, experts point out that bio fuels like ethanol are far from being a complete solution, and may actually create more issues than they solve. It is important to consider the complete life cycle of ethanol, and look beyond the immediate greenhouse gas reductions from vehicle emissions simply due to using fewer fossil fuels.
The major black spot of ethanol fuel is that its manufacturing requires large amounts of land to be cultivated and harvested. Using these lands to produce bio fuels and not food inevitably contributes to the global food crisis. According to a recent article in the Guardian, “Bio fuels have forced global food prices up by 75% – far more than previously estimated – according to a confidential World Bank report obtained by the Guardian.” Furthermore, ethanol production may be contributing to major environmental issues, such as deforestation in the Brazilian rainforest, habitat destruction and fertilizer runoff. Fabio Feldman, an environmental activist and former member of Brazil’s Parliament and Congress, notes that ethanol production in Brazil has had serious environmental consequences. “Some of the sugarcane plantations used to make ethanol are the size of European countries; these large monocultures have replaced important ecosystems. If you see the size of these plantations in the state of Sao Paolo, they are oceans of sugar cane. To harvest them, you have to burn the plantations, which creates a serious air pollution problem in the city.”
Moreover and in spite of its leading role in biofuel industry, Brazil remains the 4th largest source of carbon pollution, mainly caused by deforestation, itself linked to ethanol production.
Another major drawback is that producing ethanol may actually require more energy than it can generate. Farmers are using large amounts of fossil fuels to grow crops such as corn, mainly used for Ethanol, which decreases the value of the energy made from those crops. After factoring in the energy needed to grow crops and then convert them into bio fuels, Cornell University researcher David Pimental concluded that the production of ethanol from corn required 29% more energy than the end product itself generates. Moreover, the cost of producing ethanol is significantly higher than the cost of producing fuels from petroleum.
This is why “there is just no energy benefit to using plant biomass for liquid fuel,” said Pimental.
Atmospheric scientists at Stanford University showed if E85 fuel decreases emissions of 2 carcinogens emitted by fossil fuels (benzene and butadiene), at the same time, it will increase emissions of 2 other carcinogens that are particularly toxic: formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. Therefore, according to the authors, there would be no health advantages. Moreover, E85 would increase the risk of air pollution deaths compared to gasoline by 9% in cities such as Los Angeles. Ozone levels would be considerably increased, thereby increasing photochemical smog and aggravating other medical problems like asthma. Thus, the negative effects of E85 fuel may be the same, if not worse than fossil fuels.
So where does the future of bio fuel stand?
Probably in the second generation of ethanol: cellulosic ethanol, produced from wood, grasses, or the non-edible parts of plants. It allows the development of products hitherto rarely used and the same time, producing lignocellulosic ethanol offers greater greenhouse gas emissions savings than those obtained by first generation bio fuels. It can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by around 90% when compared with fossil petroleum; in contrast first generation green fuels were found to offer savings of 20-70%.
Once this new Ethanol technology reaches maturity, it will have to demonstrate that it can work at a larger scale. As bio fuels become commercially available and earth-friendly, consumers are more likely to adopt them!