Ethanol Fuel: How America Should Proceed

I have been interested in ethanol as a motor fuel for years. I came to the conclusion that much of the myth about the so-called inefficiency of ethanol as a motor fuel has been planted by the oil industry.

Technically, ethanol makes an excellent fuel — one that is superior to gasoline in many ways. Is it far less toxic, less explosive and less volatile than gasoline. It does not form sticky goo when stored for a long time. When spilled, it can simply be flushed away with water. If spilled into waterways or ground water, it will easily disperse. It is biodegradable. Ethanol does not require toxic additives to prevent “gunking”, or to increase the fuel’s octane rating (a measure for the fuel’s resistance to premature detonation).

Engines specifically designed to burn ethanol can achieve much higher compression ratios than gasoline engines. This can minimize one disadvantage of ethanol: its energetic density is less than that of gasoline, which means that an engine will burn more ethanol to achieve the same power output of a gasoline engine. However, an engine designed to burn ethanol runs a lot cleaner and cooler than a gasoline engine with the same power output.

Unfortunately, the inefficient way by which ethanol is handled in the U.S. is just plain stupid. It is the result of foul politics and lobbyism. Today, almost all ethanol is made from corn. It is true: this is not efficient. But it does not have to be that way.

Instead, three things should happen:

1. Enact the “flex fuel act”

This legislation would require that new motor vehicles must be able to burn gasoline, ethanol or methanol (or any mix of any of the three). It would be simple and cheap to make new car “flex fuel” capable. The costs would be about $100 per new car. As a result of the act, millions of motorists would soon be able to freely choose the type of fuel they wish to put into their cars. The monopoly held by the oil companies would slowly become degraded, since consumers will have other choices.

The oil industry does not like the idea one bit. One form or another has been meandering around Washington for a long time, but the oil industry has been lobbying against it like mad. According to oil lobbyists, armageddon would be certain if the act went into law. Dirty air would get dirtier. Babies would die. (Not withstanding the fact that such a law has been a great success in Brazil, which now runs most of its cars on ethanol).


2. Give consumers a choice

The U.S. should begin to phase out the blending of ethanol into gasoline, but instead offer (almost) pure ethanol at separate pumps at gas stations. This too, requires legislation. (Drivers of flex-fuel vehicles could choose their preferred fuel on a day-to-day basis).


3. Allow fair competition

The U.S. should end its punitive tariffs for imported ethanol and sugar, and end its protectionist policies for domestic (but not competitive) growers of sugar cane and sugar beet. These are designed to keep Brazil’s very large ethanol industry out of the U.S. market.


4. Fund research into ethanol production

The U.S. should massively fund research to find new commercial ways to make ethanol from biowaste. This can, but does not necessarily involve genetic manipulation. For instance, termites have bacteria in their gut which allow them to break down (and turn into sugar) even cellulose. In other words, nature already knows ways to break down very tough molecules, and turn them into sugar.

Brazil is a good example for how a successful conversion to ethanol fuel should be managed. The U.S. cannot grow much sugar cane, but it can import ethanol during the early stages of the conversion program, and then gradually switch to domestic ethanol production from biowaste and cellulose from fast growing grasses, once these technologies become commercially feasible.

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Journalist and media professional currently based in Los Angeles, California. Focusing on science and technology.