How much will Ethanol really help our energy situation?

With tensions high in the Middle East, the strive toward energy independence has become more important than ever for the United States. Ethanol has come to the forefront of the alternative energy subject as a replacement for traditional gasoline. For those of us with Iowan pride, it’s even easier to get excited about ethanol after learning that Iowa is the national leader in ethanol. Unfortunately, with the current technology, ethanol can’t be the answer to all our problems for future energy use. The process used to make ethanol is one of the issues surrounding the feasibility of ethanol as a fuel for the future. Ethanol is an alcohol, made primarily from corn grain. Corn is used because it is a low cost source of starch and it can be easily converted into glucose. After being made into glucose, the sugars are fermented and distilled and ethanol is made. Critics of this process say that more fossil energy is used to produce a gallon of ethanol than energy is released when it is burned. When considering the fertilizer used to grow the corn, the energy used to transport it (ethanol is too corrosive to travel by pipelines, it needs to be transported by truck or rail), and the electricity to distill into alcohol, this is a valid point. However, most current studies have shown a positive balance in energy. With technology constantly evolving, I believe this energy balance will only become more and more positive. The real problem lies in the amount of corn used to produce ethanol, and the amount of corn needed to displace the nation’s reliance on petroleum. Ethanol only made up about 2% of gasoline production in 2005, according to the Energy Information Agency. But it took up around 15% of all the corn used, according to an estimate by the USDA. Using these numbers, if 100% of the corn crop was devoted to ethanol production, only 13% of gasoline consumption would be satisfied. This would leave no corn left to feed livestock, meaning everybody would have to become vegetarians- something that will never happen in the Big Mac capitol of the world. Based on this data, it is clear that ethanol can never stand on its own as a fuel source. Not only does it use up an outrageous amount of corn, it has a couple of other drawbacks as well. Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, meaning it gets fewer miles per gallon (about a 2%-3% decrease in mpg). Yet another problem is the aforementioned transportation issue, and the added energy use and expense that comes from it. Cellulosic ethanol, made from cellulose (found in the cell wall of plants), is being touted as the ethanol of the future. Cellulosic ethanol can be produced from a variety of sources in fields and forests, like cornstalks, wheat straw, grasses, trees, and wood chips. It has a better energy balance and is more plentiful. However, it is estimated that we could only produce enough cellulosic ethanol to displace 30% of petroleum consumption. In the future, it is likely that ethanol is only part of the answer to solving our addiction to oil. Many alternative sources, such as wind, nuclear, solar, and geothermal power should be emphasized and developed. Another key to solving our energy problem is being more conservative with our energy use. It would help a great deal if we weren’t so wasteful, but that’s another article.