There is a lot of talk these days of bio fuels and other non petroleum fuels – indeed it has been possible to buy fuels with a mix of petrol and ethanol – typically called E85 (with 15% ethanol added) for years. However, there are two types of ethanol used in vehicles, sugar cane based as used in Brazil and other countries, and corn based as used by the USA amongst others.
It is important to discuss the options because there is a raging debate about whether corn and sugar cane should be redirected from food production and there is a long standing concern about the vast amount of water needed to make certain ethanols – and water will be the next major frontier of battle as the worlds population grows and our usage of water for non human consumption continues to grow.
Ethanol in General
Ethanol is a pleasure product known to man for 1,000s of years. It is the basis of alcohol! Although traces of alcohol have been found in pre-historic pots, it was the early Arabs who figured out distillation – in fact the word Alcohol is derived from an Arabic one. And like many technologies, it is not a new fuel – ethanol was used by many early cars including Ford’s Model T. As with many fuels, it was dropped by consumers because the Governments of the day taxed it out of the market and cheaper petrol was the substitute.
There are some inherent problems using ethanol as a fuel. For a start, it produces less power than a similar amount of petrol. It also produces more ground level ozone that causes global warming – either we spew out ozone or carbon monoxide! However, the ozone could be converted before being sent to the exhaust.
What constitutes the two types of ethanol? We’ll start with sugar and then discuss corn.
Sugar based Ethanol
Ethanol is produced from sugar cane and has been used extensively in Brazil as a fuel source for the past 35 odd years. In fact Brazil seem to be way out front in the usage of ethanol than anywhere else. Sugar cane was originally found in South Asia but humans spread it to Europe where it then got transported and planted by the Spaniards in South America.
Sugar cane was (and is) a valuable food source with products such as molasses and syrups that are used in cooking. In some countries the molasses are used to make ethanol, but in Brazil, they extract the fluids from the biomass. The fluids are split into sucrose and water. The sucrose is distilled into ethanol and to make it more efficient, they use the biomass pulp to make electricity that is used in the distillation process. The water found in the plants can also be reused.
Corn based Ethanol
In the US, ethanol is made from corn, which provides a growing market for ethanol mixed with gasoline. The main arguments for not using corn as a base for ethanol is that corn is an important food source and that it uses a lot of water both in growing and in refining to get converted into a fuel. With water being a critical resource for the survival of the human race, there are concerns that using 2 million gallons of water a day to make ethanol is a waste. Factor in the gas to power the refining and distillery and it all adds up to a lot of valuable resources to produce a fuel that will get used up pretty quickly.
The problem ethanol has is that corn based ethanol uses vast resources to produce and sugar cane ethanol cannot be produced in the volumes needed across the world unless Governments help farmers and land owners change from other crops to sugar cane. Of course, this is only possible in countries that have the right geological and meteorological environments.
If corn is used to create ethanol then there could be food shortages or increases in the cost of basic foods in the first world and we may see the cost of bourbon and other alcohol based products rise substantially!
The food v fuel debate will rage on for years to come and will probably get decided over the issue of water. For example, a couple of years ago in Australia we started to experience drought conditions that still affect some areas today. One area was faced with the prospect of providing drinking water to the townspeople or diverting it to a local mine. The dilemma: give the water to the people and they lose their jobs as the mine closes due to no water to operate the mine – or give the water to the mine and people move away because there is no cheap drinking water! It’s a classic case of game theory! This type of decision will affect the production of corn-based ethanol in the future.
The other issue facing the world is that if we charge headlong into the widespread use of ethanol, we have to build the delivery infrastructure throughout the world. This is a cost that needs to be factored into the overall cost of producing the fuel in the first place. Would anyone even bother – would there be a strong business case to do it?
So, is there an answer? I don’t think so until as I said earlier, Governments start to see sense (or votes) in looking at the best options. It will almost certainly be a hybrid strategy – not just petrol/electric hybrids but a mix of fuels derived from different crops, carbon fuels, electricity and even solar generated power.