Ethanol production imitates effort to combat pollution


When Henry Ford built his first motor car in 1896 – the quadricycle as Ford called it – it was designed to run on pure ethanol. Though Ford’s innovations influenced the entire U.S. economy and infrastructure, his ethanol design never caught on. Gasoline proved cheaper and easier to burn and has been our favorite fuel for the last century.

Now, 112 years later, what is old is new again. Ethanol production is climbing in the U.S. and around the globe. The trend will likely continue; Congress recently set benchmarks to increase our production of ethanol and wean the United States from foreign oil, requiring 7.5 billion gallons of ethanol and biodiesel to be used in our fuel by the year 2012.

Ethanol enjoys a reputation as a clean-burning fuel (the U.S. Department of Energy reports it emits 22 percent less greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline when burned), but the production process is hardly green. Many ethanol plants use natural gas or coal to create the steam that distills the corn sugars into alcohol. The resulting fossil-fuel emissions diminish the positive effects of burning the cleaner ethanol.

An October 2007 article in National Geographic reported that for every unit of fossil fuel energy needed to produce corn ethanol, only 1.3 units of ethanol output were generated. Compare that with sugarcane ethanol produced in Brazil (ethyl alcohol produced from stalks of giant, tropical sugarcane plants) cranked out at a ratio of eight units of fuel for every unit of input. Biodiesel made from canola oil or soybeans has a ratio of 2.5 to 1.

The production numbers portray ethanol as slightly advantageous to the environment, but the bigger picture is not so rosy. Unlike oil, the U.S. hasn’t built pipelines to transport ethanol. The millions of gallons of ethanol produced in the Midwest must be delivered by train, truck or boat – which means more fossil fuels are burned and temperature-raising carbons enter the atmosphere. Increasing corn production to make more ethanol might also be harmful for the environment.

“Corn requires large doses of herbicide and nitrogen fertilizer and can cause more soil erosion than any other crop,” wrote Joel Bourne, the National Geographic article’s author. “Producing corn ethanol consumes just about as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces.”

It might seem ethanol’s future is dim, but the outlook for biofuels in general and ethanol production is positive. The efficiency with which corn is converted into ethanol has improved dramatically in the last decade; similar advancements can be expected in the next 10 years.

Alexander Graham Bell called ethanol a “beautifully clean and efficient fuel that can be produced from vegetable matter of almost any kind, even garbage of our city.”

He was right, and the promising research of converting any biomass like corn stalks, saw dust and algae into alcohol for fuel is enough to keep our ethanol hopes afloat.

Joe Vossen is a senior in political science. Please send comments to