BIO-FOOLED?: Ethanol brewed from corn, like at the plant pictured here in South Dakota, displaces foreign oil, but at a significant social, economic and environmental cost. Image: © iStockphoto.com / Jim Parkin
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The thundering rumble and whine of race cars whizzing around NASCAR tracks across the U.S. boast engines burning a new fuel this year: ethanol. Given the sport's roots in running corn whiskey among other products during Prohibition in the 1920s, it might be viewed as coming full circle. After all, ethanol as fuel is just a 200-proof version of the drinking variety—albeit blended with more traditional petroleum-based gasoline.
But NASCAR is hardly alone: U.S. IndyCar has run exclusively on ethanol at times since 2007. Of course, ethanol made from fermented corn starch plays a more prosaic role in the U.S. these days, making up some 10 percent of national passenger vehicle fuel. In fact, in 2010 the U.S. took roughly 40 percent of the national corn crop that grows on some 30 million hectares of prime farmland and turned it into roughly 50 billion liters of the alcohol fuel. That's up from roughly 190 million liters a year in 1979 and just 13.6 billion liters as recently as 2005.
And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved plans to blend ethanol at levels of 15 percent into the nation's fuel supply (the current amount is 10 percent)—a move that has drawn either criticism or praise from legislators, depending on what part of they country they hail from. Those in states without a massive corn crop point to the wasted subsidies—at least 10.6 cents per liter in federal and state subsidies and tax credits since 1978—whereas those in corn country point to foreign oil imports avoided. Regardless, the U.S. Congress is currently debating whether the time to end subsidies for ethanol from corn—subsidies that have been in place since the 1970s—has finally come.
"We're helping to moderate gas prices and move this nation away from its dependence on imported oil," argues Robert Dinneen, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, a lobbying group for the ethanol industry. "We make 13.5 billion gallons, 10 percent of the motor fuel supply. If you take that off the market, gas prices go through the roof."
Simply put, biofuels are among the most imminent renewable alternatives to the dominant role of oil in providing liquid transportation fuels. In fact, ethanol fermented from sugar or starch is the only alternative fuel currently available on a large scale—more than 80 billion liters of the alcohol fuel are made globally. Biofuels may be the only solution on offer when it comes to an aggressive, short-term approach to reducing greenhouse gas emissions from burning fossil fuels in vehicles. And that's why the U.S. government has set a goal of producing a variety of biofuels—including roughly the same amount of corn ethanol as brewed annually today—that will amount to a 136-billion-liter total biofuel output in the U.S. alone—by 2022.
Alcoholic (energy) bliss
Making ethanol is one of humanity's oldest technological tricks, because it also enables one of humanity's oldest recreational drugs. Ethanol residues have been found in pottery dating back 9,000 years, indicating people were fermenting sugars with yeast since before recorded history. And it's been a fuel since the dawn of the automobile age—early Ford Model Ts ran on it until it became clear that cheap oil produced a better, less expensive fuel known as gasoline.
"Fermenting is still the most efficient way of producing the [ethanol] molecule," says Jeremy Shears, global manager of innovation in the biodomain for oil company Shell. "We have 2,000 years experience doing it. It's a low-temperature, low-pressure system."
Fermentation may be one of the oldest biological technologies, but that doesn't mean it comes cheap. Enzymes to turn the starch in corn, say, into the sugars that specialized yeast can then digest into ethanol cost 1 cent or less per liter, according to Novozymes, which makes more than 50 percent of the world's supply of those enzymes. Those prices continue to come down as the company and others improve the fermentation process to make those enzymes, but the end result, ethanol, remains more expensive than petroleum-derived gasoline.