Ethanol Fuels - Hype or realistic Alternative?

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Ethanol Fuels - Hype or realistic Alternative?

The main reason why ethanol and other alcohol fuels are attracting such attention from governments and car manufacturers is the fact that they can be used to fuel existing vehicles without any significant retrofit.

In addition, ethanol, which is commercially used as car fuel, is considered a renewable energy source as it is mostly derived from plant feedstock. Ethanol is also a high-octane fuel, it is non-polluting and its price is comparable to gasoline. But, like all other alternative fuels, ethanol is not ideal replacement to petrol, just slightly better one.

What is the Problem?

Ethanol is mostly derived from plant feedstock

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol is commonly produced by converting carbon-based plant material through a number of chemical processes into viable fuel for vehicles. It is considered renewable, because plants can be regrown, and the sun, needed for photosynthesis, is considered inexhaustible.

Common crops used for the production of ethanol are corn, sugar cane, barley, sugar beet and many others. The critics of using food crops to manufacture vehicle fuel claim that it is a poor use of food crops in the hungry world, and that it is waste to convert arable land to grow crops for fuel. The true potential lies in the possibility of using cellulose part of plants, normally a waste, to make ethanol.

Another alternative to using food crops to make alcohol fuels is bio-ethanol made from algae. This interesting process, being developed by Algenol, proposes to let algae grow in the sunlight and produce alcohol. Alcohol is then harvested without destroying algae. The company claims that this process can produce 6,000 gallons of ethanol per acre per year. Currently, corn yields only 400 gallons per acre.

Ethanol-Gasoline Blend

To reduce the use of fossil based fuels, many countries created laws that make it mandatory for cars to use mixtures of ethanol and gasoline. Since 1993, a US federal law requires that cars run on mixtures of 22 and 25 percents ethanol. All American light-duty vehicles are designed and built to run normally on gasoline-ethanol blend of 10 percents. More than 90 percent of all gas sold in the 2010 in the U.S. was mixed with ethanol.

Starting with the 1999 models, a large number of manufacturers are producing vehicles that can run on any ethanol-gasoline mix, up to pure ethanol. It is evident that they have high confidence in the viability of replacing petrol with ethanol as a fuel.


Ethanol burns fairly cleanly, especially when compared to gasoline. It produces no particulates and the product of its burning is water and carbon dioxide, with some aldehydes. To produce the same energy as gasoline, ethanol produces 19 percents more carbon dioxide, an important greenhouse gas.

Stanford University scientists found that high percentage ethanol fuel mix (E85) would increase the potential risk of pollution deaths by nine percents compared to gasoline in large urban areas. In addition, burning high percentage of ethanol would increase photochemical smog, increasing problems to asthma sufferers.

Scientists disagree on the carbon dioxide emission from alcohol fuels, but it is estimated that alcohol run cars produce 22 percents less carbon dioxide than those run on gasoline. The figure is even better with ethanol produced from sugar cane - a 56 percents reduction.

For ethanol to become a viable gasoline replacement, there is still a need for much research, especially in using agricultural waste to produce ethanol. But, its use in a blend with gasoline is a step in right direction.

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Ethanol and other alcohol fuels can be used to fuel existing vehicles without any significant retrofit