Converting vegetables such as corn and beets into ethanol, which can be used in normally oil-burning vehicles as a source of fuel, is one of the many ‘new’ ideas brought forward by scientists as an economically and environmentally sound solution to pressing national and global concerns. Although it has been brought forward as a ‘new’ innovation, though, the idea to use vegetable oil for fuel is more than a century old. In 1897, Rudolf Fiesel was quoted as saying “The use of vegetable oils for engine fuels may seem insignificant today. But such oils may become, in the course of time, as important as petroleum and the coal products of the present time” (Boles, 2005). Promising future alternatives to crude oil, vegetable oil can be substituted for diesel fuel while ethanol is an effective gas additive. While it doesn’t replace gasoline, ethanol is a type of alcohol that can be made using crops such as sugar beets, wheat or corn that boosts octane levels and substantially reduces toxic carbon monoxide emissions and should be encouraged by governments as a means of reducing the effects of global warming.
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Because ethanol is not necessarily less expensive to produce than gasoline, it would not be cost competitive without government incentives, but proponents of the alternative fuel point to other reasons to produce and utilize it. “It could be profitable for farmers to grow bio-fuels [at a time of high oil prices]. The market for bio-fuels such as ethanol is driven by the need for security of the energy supply and the recognition that greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming,” said Margaret Beckett, environment secretary (cited in Harvey, 2005). Ethanol has been demonstrated to have a less severe impact on the environment than standard gasoline as it releases carbon dioxide (CO2) when burned rather than carbon monoxide, thus making it less hazardous. Because the ethanol molecule contains oxygen, the engine has a greater ability to combust the fuel, which also results in fewer emissions. The advantage of this form of alternative energy is that most vehicles currently on the road run well with as much as 10 percent of low-emissions ethanol mixed in with their fuel, which also has a beneficial side effect of improving engine performance.
From an economic point of view, ethanol is good for the development of disadvantaged rural areas because it promotes more agriculture and manufacturing industries which creates additional jobs. “Furthermore it can help to reduce the dependence on oil imports and it may be regarded as a means to promote advances in biotechnology, particularly if one thinks of all the research that is going on in the biomass-to-ethanol sector. Ethanol has been promoted because it has a positive net energy balance that means that the energy contained in a ton of ethanol is greater than the energy required to produce this ton” (Berg, 2004). In the UK, where this type of fuel has been researched to a somewhat greater extent than in the US, a recent report commissioned by the Department of Transport entitled “Fuelling Road Transport” showed that “bio-fuels produced on 24 percent of the agricultural land in the UK could satisfy all the UK transport fuelling needs by 2020 and become the primary source of renewable hydrogen in the future” (British Biogen, 2003).
Better for the environment and ultimately for the economy, ethanol is an intelligent alternative to fossil fuel, but its earth-friendly properties and processes remain little known. “Ethanol is the most widely used biofuel today. Ethanol is an alcohol, and most is made using a process similar to brewing beer where starch crops are converted into sugars, the sugars are fermented into ethanol, and then the ethanol is distilled into its final form.” (“What is Bioethanol?”, 2005). Produced by the biological fermentation of carbohydrates derived from plant material, ethanol has been made since ancient times by the fermentation of sugars. All beverage ethanol and more than half of industrial ethanol is still made by using simple sugars as the raw material (ESRU, 2003). The main sources of sugar required to produce ethanol come from common crops also used for human consumption, meaning its source materials are not dependent upon a single source even as they remain useful for a variety of purposes and processes. “These crops are grown specifically for energy use and include corn, maize and wheat crops, waste straw, willow and popular trees, sawdust, reed canary grass, cord grasses, jerusalem artichoke, myscanthus and sorghum plants. Ethanol or ethyl alcohol is a clear colourless liquid, it is biodegradable, low in toxicity and causes little environmental pollution if spilt. Ethanol burns to produce carbon dioxide and water. Ethanol is a high octane fuel and has replaced lead as an octane enhancer in petrol. By blending ethanol with gasoline we can also oxygenate the fuel mixture so it burns more completely and reduces polluting emissions” (“What is Bioethanol”, 2005). With a few modifications, converted ‘flexible fuel’ (flex-fuel) vehicles can run on up to 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent petrol blends. (“What is Bioethanol”, 2005).
Government initiatives to encourage the production and consumption of ethanol-burning vehicles have also proven to be effective. A new generation of alcohol-powered cars entered production in Brazil in 2003, after the government decided that cars capable of burning ethanol should be taxed at 14 percent, instead of 16 percent for their exclusively gasoline-powered counterparts. These “flex-fuel” cars are equally efficient with pure alcohol, pure gasoline, or any blend of the two. “When the fuel tank is filled, a special computer chip analyses the mixture and adjusts the motor according to how much ethanol and how much petrol it contains” (Plummer, 2005). According to Anfavia, the Brazilian motor manufacturer’s association, 866,267 flex-fuel cars were sold in Brazil in 2005 taking 53.6 percent of the Brazilian market that year as compared to just 328,379 the year before (“More Brazil Cars Run on Alcohol”, 2006). Jean-Martin Folz, Chief Executive Officer of Peugeot-Citroën, sees a growing role for bio-fuels, which help run most of Brazil’s 20 million cars (Gow, 2005). The Brazilian Alcohol Fuel Programme produces alcohol to power the four million Brazilian cars on pure bio-ethanol in addition to the remaining 9 million cars on gasoline blended with ethanol (Batley, 1996). The cars that use a mixture are powered by 25 percent ethanol and 75 percent gasoline. “Bio-fuels are 20 percent cheaper for consumers,” according to Johannes Lackmann, president of the German Renewable Trade Association (Gow, 2005). “Ethanol accounts for 20 percent of the country’s liquid fuel needs and has accounted for a significant savings in fossil fuel imports and Brazil’s foreign debt” (Batley 1996). In countries such as Brazil and Sweden, many cars run on 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline (Harvey, 2005). When mixed in high volumes with low volumes of gasoline, a potent yet environmentally-friendly fuel, known as E85, is created. Saab is currently offering a mid-priced model in the UK that utilizes this fuel. Ford, Volkswagen, and Toyota are joining other auto manufactures in producing flex-fuel cars. The engines in these new ‘bio-cars’ automatically adjust for the blend of fuel so, if no ethanol is available, the customer can simply run on gasoline at any time and in any mixture.
Reducing the demand for alternatively powered vehicles in the US is the lack of availability of ethanol service stations. Not surprisingly, as most service stations within the US are operated by the oil industry and persuading them to take bio-ethanol is a very difficult venture, at the moment, bio-ethanol blended with gasoline is available in the US at a very limited number of outlets. However, in some European countries, diesels now account for more than 50 percent of new car sales. Malcolm Shepherd, Managing Director of Green Spirit points out that ethanol production use is not a pollution panacea nor can the UK eliminate its dependency on foreign oil via sugar beet plantations, but advises the nation take appropriate steps towards these goals. “If the UK diverted the entire national wheat crop to bio-ethanol, it would replace just 20 percent of demand,” he said. “I’m not suggesting for a moment that we can possibly substitute all petrol because we use massive amounts. None of these energy questions can be addressed by a single policy. But we’ve got to look at the alternatives. This is one of them” (Boles 2005). British Sugar has confirmed that work has now begun on the UK’s first bioethanol production facility at Wissington, near Downham Market, Norfolk. “We are delighted to get this project underway. The team has been presented with numerous challenges along the way, political and economic, and they have successfully met them all. Site preparation work has already begun and I expect to have this plant in production early in 2007. This is the UK’s first bio-ethanol production facility; the beginning of an exciting new industry, and is a clear demonstration of our innovative approach to the changing business environment in which we operate,” said British Sugar CEO, Mark Carr (cited in Smith, 2005). The plant is designed to produce 70 million litres of bioethanol each year, utilising all of the UK’s previously exported beet sugar (Smith, 2005). “The highest ethanol yields may be realized with sugar beets, particularly if calculations are based on the rather high yields that may be achieved in the EU’s leading producer, France” (Berg, 2004). The US will similarly not be able to replace all oil consumption with ethanol, but the demand could be made more manageable and begin to introduce more environmentally-friendly options to American car buyers.
As has been mentioned, ethanol used as a fuel affects the atmosphere in a positive way. “With fossil fuel combustion, carbon dioxide emissions from passenger vehicles, buses, and trucks have reached levels that are considered problematic for stabilizing our climate and avoiding average ground temperature levels unprecedented in human history” (Edinger & Kaul, 2003). However, a wholesale switch to E85 would facilitate the need to increase production of domestic sugar and grain related crops on a large scale basis, thus increasing groundwater pollution due to fertilizers, the use of scarce water supplies and introducing competition with food production. Critics of ethanol point out that by diverting crops to fuel, we’re using up valuable human foodstuffs every time we make ethanol. “We’re importing bioethanol from Brazil and palm oil from Asia,” said David Turley, a scientist involved in a recent study conducted on growing biofuel products in the UK. “But there [are] always swings and roundabouts. If we start to expand the area of these crops in the UK, there are potentially problems with loss of diversity in farmland, and on the balance we’re likely to see a detrimental effect on birds” (“UK Study”, 2005). Others question the logic of taking already scarce supplies of food out of the market for fuel use in a world where many people are starving. The rising demand for grain, sugar beet or any other plant used to produce bio-fuels is pushing raw material prices higher and the need is not just coming from biofuel producers. “There’s simply not enough foodstuff available and not enough land to grow it on … E85 is good for raising awareness of bio-fuels, but on a worldwide basis it is a red herring. Eighty-five percent is not the solution … the way it has been positioned as a solution to UK motoring is naïve” (Madslien, 2006). Critics of ethanol also claim that there is not enough land available in the UK for the growing of energy crops and that the UK would be forced to import the crops to produce it. Deficient purity is another concern regarding the use of bioethanol. Produced from a fermentation process, bioethanol still contains a significant quantity of water at the end of this process, which must be removed. The fractional distillation process works by boiling the water and ethanol mixture. “Since ethanol has a lower boiling point (78.3C) compared to that of water (100C), the ethanol turns into the vapor state before the water and can be condensed and separated. For blending with gasoline, purities of 99.5 to 99.9 percent are required, depending on temperature, to avoid separation. These purities are produced using additional industrial processes. Ethanol in water cannot be purified beyond 96 percent by distillation (“Alcohol Fuel”, n.d.).
The US has very limited ethanol production and is a relative straggler in taking up bio-fuels. “Critics often ask why bio-fuels must be supported by the state. If fuel ethanol is such a great product, so they say, then it surely will gain market share without any government help. This argument is very much dependent on the assumption that the energy markets that we look at work perfectly. In the energy market, and in fact, in almost any market, these conditions are insufficiently met and, therefore, an active policy approach may be justified” (Berg, 2004). Estimates vary on the cost effectiveness of ethanol versus crude oil. This factor varies, of course, with the costs of oil. Some suggest the cost of ethanol production would drop exponentially with increase of demand making ethanol a stand-alone industry while others see the need for government intervention at the onset and throughout the production process. “The opportunity costs for ethanol production from, for example sugar crops like cane or beet, is the return otherwise achievable if these feedstock were used to produce sugar. So, if policy makers decide that ethanol is a desirable good, they have to find ways to bridge the gap between the cost of ethanol and that of gasoline and they have to make ethanol production more attractive as compared to the manufacture of, say, sugar” (Berg, 2004). Government support may be in the form of agricultural subsidies or tax concessions on this type of fuel. Under the former category, actions such as “feedstock price support (which results in prices below the going market rate), capital cost support (in the form of cheap loans and debt cancellations) and income tax concessions” (Berg, 2004). On the other side, “excise tax concessions which make the product cheaper than would have been the case otherwise, so-called captive or mandated markets which ensure sufficient demand for the product, price guarantees and direct price support measures” (Berg, 2004).
There is growing consensus that fuel ethanol may serve a multitude of goals that are socially desirable. There are various ways to achieve that so it is prudent to distinguish where subsidization may occur between the various stages in the production and marketing process. Public demand of the product will direct its future. At present, possibly hostile countries control the tap to oil; the life-blood of our transportation and industrial machines. “The idea of using renewable energies for fuel production also derives from regarding the mobility sector as a closed system within the global atmosphere” (Edinger & Kaul, 2003). Environment concerns will fuel the success of this alternative fuel as the economic aspects are not conducive to private business interests. If oil prices continue to climb, interest in ethanol as a fuel alternative will rise and governments will be more likely to expand their ethanol incentives. Though by some estimations, ethanol is four to five times more expensive to produce than oil is to import. It’s a matter of priority. Brazil still offers tax reductions for ethanol over gasoline, but profits from exports of the product while creating jobs in its production, saves consumers money at the pump and is far less dependent on the whims of a foreign government. Ethanol is win-win-win-win for those governments far-sighted enough to appreciate its usefulness.
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