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For a time, ethanol was billed as the solution to our fossil fuel addiction.  It’s renewable, it emits less CO2, and it’s made from common crops.  What could be better, right?

If only it were that easy.


It's in just about everything we eat, and now it's in our fuel, too!

Let’s start with the good stuff.  Ethanol is commonly made from corn, but researchers are working to produce it from other plants, like switchgrass.  That means ethanol is made right here in the good old US of A, which reduces our dependence on foreign oil.  Since it’s made of plants, which take in CO2 from the atmosphere, it helps reduce greenhouse gases.  And burning ethanol itself reduces less air pollution and greenhouse  gases than burning gasoline.  Pretty slick.

But alas, the course of searching for cleaner cars never did run smooth.  Ethanol has some pretty major downfalls.

  • It’s not widely available outside the Midwest.  To make ethanol more accessible, you have to transport it, which might not be the cheapest or most environmentally friendly answer.
  • Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, meaning fewer miles to the gallon.
  • Prices fluctuate depending on crop prices.
  • While the plants that go into ethanol do take in carbon dioxide, the equipment used to produce and process those plants emit CO2, and the specific balance of these two processes is unclear.
  • Some researches believe that ethanol takes more energy to produce than can be obtained from the fuel itself, although this has been refuted in a UC Berkeley study.

So what is the verdict?  While we may not be as excited about ethanol as we used to be, it is certainly still a part of the renewable fuel solution.  Many gas stations sell gasoline that contains about 10% ethanol.  And researchers are working hard to produce commercial ethanol made from cellulosic materials like corncobs and other inedible plant parts.  This is one technology that seems here to stay, at least for now.

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August 2020