When you fill up at the gas station there may be a symbol or sign stating that the gasoline has 10% Ethanol content, known as E10. Most cars and trucks in the U.S. can operate on this blend so it is widely distributed.  But what is it?

Ethanol fuel is ethyl alcohol, the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages, but most often used as a fuel additive. Ethanol is also known as a biofuel because it is made from any crop or plant that contains large amounts of sugar or components that can be converted to sugar.

In the U.S., most production of Ethanol comes from renewable resources like starch, mostly from corn grown in the Midwest. Other sources can come from by-products of other renewable resources in forestry operations such as sawdust, wood chips and branches.

It seems to be here to stay as the global Ethanol market was valued at $57,650 million in 2017 with a compound annual growth rate of over 5%.

North America is the largest producer and consumer of Ethanol and a growing awareness is expected to drive the market.

Is Ethanol environmentally friendly?

Let’s look at the pros and cons of producing biofuels, like Ethanol, versus petroleum. There are many variables to consider and each study reveals different aspects of the process. For our purpose, we will give generalized conclusions.

Pros of producing Ethanol

  • The U.S. government has given strong political support for corn-based ethanol which is why it has endured so long on the market.
  • It is nontoxic and biodegradable, unlike gasoline. It breaks down into harmless substances (until chemical denaturants are added).
  • Mixtures burn cleaner and have higher octane levels than pure gasoline.
  • There is a movement to produce Ethanol using methods that use less energy with cellulosic biomass, which requires less cultivation, fertilizer, and pesticides. Cellulose feedstock includes things like grasses, fast growing trees, sawdust and wastepaper.
  • Fossil fuels are a finite resource, where biofuels are renewable.
  • Relatively low-cost, less pollution, and availability compared to unblended gasoline.
  • Helps economy of local farming communities.
  • Produces less CO2 emissions and same or lower levels of hydrocarbon and oxides of nitrogen emissions.
  • Growing domestically reduces our dependence on foreign oil.
  • Can replace the need for shale oil extraction and construction of pipelines.

Cons of producing Ethanol

  • A study completed by the University of Michigan reports that crops used to make biofuels only absorb 37% of the carbon that is later released into the atmosphere.
  • Corn-based biofuels are worse when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions in contrast to biofuels created from things like switchgrass, wood chips and municipal waste.
  • It takes a lot of energy to produce a gallon of Ethanol from corn.
  • Producing the 14 billion gallons of Ethanol used by Americans each year requires millions of acres of farmland and takes away from food crops.
  • Ethanol has higher evaporative emissions that contribute to ground ozone and smog. This is reduced through extra processing of the gasoline.
  • Corn and soybeans grown for biofuels require large amounts of fertilizers and herbicides. Industrial corn farms are considered more environmentally hazardous in general.
  • Some authorities say that to produce enough biofuels to enable widespread use could mean converting most of the world’s forest and open spaces to farmland.
  • A Cornell University study found that making biofuels from corn requires 29% more energy than ethanol can generate.

The story is not over.  Much research is underway to make Ethanol and other biofuels more efficient and environmentally safe using cellulose feedstocks. Responsibly producing fuel from a renewable resource just might be a solution to foreign sources of oil. At least until the electric vehicle market catches up.