Ethanol – why do we keep making that stuff?

This post is a bit different from my previous posts.  It’s not about writing, it’s not about my current shitty job.  It’s about ethanol.  Specifically, it’s the ethanol that is made to blend with gasoline for the purpose of making your car’s tailpipe a bit cleaner.

In the US, the current standard is 10% ethanol (in California, as I am seeing it’s only about 5.7%).  In any other country, I don’t know the specifics of ethanol blends.  It may be something that doesn’t even happen, or it may be higher.  The ethanol that is in a normal fuel blend has been approved to run on normal engines, and the Ethanol Lobby is (obviously) pushing for even higher percentages to be approved for normal everyday vehicles.

In my current position as The Guy You Pay For Gas, I get occasional comments from customers about how the ethanol ‘gums up’ the engine and that they get noticeably lower mileage when they use it versus regular 100% gasoline.  These comments are anecdotal, and may be the product of someone who has confirmation bias against ethanol itself.

But there is a grain of truth to at least some of what they are saying.  Ethanol has a lower energy density per unit of volume than you would get from gasoline.  Simply put: your car’s motion depends on the amount of heat you get from your fuel.  One gallon of gasoline releases more heat when it burns than one gallon of ethanol does.  A gallon of gasoline with 10% ethanol burns with about 98% of the energy as one gallon of pure gasoline.  And E85 (the blend that only specially designed engines can burn, that contains up to 85% ethanol) burns with only about 72% of the efficiency.  That’s just a fact of chemistry.  Nothing can change that.

It’s not a big deal though, right?  We use ethanol because of the friendliness to the environment.  It reduces the emissions that come out of your car’s tailpipe.  That is a fact.  But what isn’t being said is how clean is the actual process of making ethanol.  For years, I was in the unique position of being an engineer in a fuel-ethanol producing facility.  One of the biggest in the world in terms of volume of ethanol produced.  (No, I’m not going to name the company, nor am I going to spew any trade secrets)

The way ethanol is made is by fermentation.  It’s exactly the same way you’d make whiskey or vodka.  You ferment something, then distill it afterwards to concentrate the ethanol.  There are many base materials to make ethanol from, though.  In South America, sugar cane is where they typically start.  In the US, we have corn.  There’s also a promising process where switchgrass or any other plant matter can be used by breaking down the cellulose as the base material.  That’s still a bit in the future though.  Right now, Corn is King.

The ethanol that you burn in your car releases carbon.  That very carbon was taken out of the air by the corn plant and put into the kernel in the form of corn starch.  That starch is broken down and fermented into ethanol, which you burn.  It’s put back into the air.  In the end, there’s a net-zero carbon footprint if you only look at that.  There is much more to the process.  Fossil fuels are used by farmers to cultivate and harvest the corn.  The farmers might use bio-diesel in their tractors and combines, but it’s definitely not all of them.  The fertilizer is sometimes petroleum based and all fertilizer is manufactured by burning fossil fuels.

But the big thing is the ethanol plants themselves.  At the plant where I worked, all energy came from coal.  Yes, the ethanol is made by burning coal.  It’s a very efficient coal power plant, I must say.  But it’s still burning coal.  Some ethanol plants get their energy from natural gas.  I would venture to say that the majority of all ethanol plants run on either one or the other.  So in the end, the ethanol you burn is only environmentally friendly if you are wearing blinders and plugging your ears. (There are some smaller plants that are being built that are run on the burning of waste plant matter.  That is much, much closer to being carbon neutral than coal or natural gas, but it’s not nearly as cost effective.  Coal and natural gas is still plentiful and cheap here in the US.)

So what do we do?  Stop driving?  Not gonna happen.  Stop making ethanol?  Nope.  There’s a government mandate, and the companies that make the ethanol benefit from that mandate and the enormous corn subsidies that perpetuate the monoculture of corn.  Electric cars?  I will go so far as to say: Yes.  That is the answer.  Especially if the electricity can be made renewably.  You’ve probably heard of Elon Musk and his Tesla Motors car company.  He is making an entire infrastructure for electric cars all across the US, where all the electricity is made with solar power, and the cars can fill up for free (or a fee if it’s a competitors electric car).  100% clean fuel.  There are still drawbacks right now, like the charging time and battery capacity.  But those are constantly being improved.  And I would think that money going to subsidize corn could be better spent on R&D for better batteries.

There’s so much to be said about this.  This is one blog post in an ocean of expert opinions.  I just thought I’d give you the point of view from someone who has been intimately involved with this subject.  Please, if you have any questions, feel free to ask me in the comments.  I’d be more than happy to answer them for you, if I’m able.  I don’t know everything, and I very well might be wrong about this whole thing.  But I’m pretty sure I’m right.

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