Produced from plants, which are renewable, rather than from petroleum, which isn't, biofuels are already making a difference in fuel prices and our reliance on foreign crude. Ethanol, which is produced by fermentation of the sugars in corn or other grains, is actually high-octane ethyl alcohol. Especially in E85 form, it's been in the news a lot lately. A blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, E85 has been heavily promoted by automakers, especially General Motors.
Among ethanol's positive attributes are these:
Ethanol is a renewable domestic resource
Fossil fuels, such as petroleum and natural gas, were formed over millions of years. Once extracted from the Earth, the commonly held view is they are not replaced. Biofuels, in contrast, are renewable. In fields where corn or other grains (such as wheat or barley) are raised to be used as "feedstocks" to manufacture ethanol, new crops soon will grow. An acre of corn can yield up to 300 gallons of ethanol per growing season, and with care that land can be productive for decades. Ethanol is domestically produced, thus reducing dependence on fossil fuels from foreign sources in volatile parts of the world.
Ethanol helps reduce greenhouse gases and other emissions
Because ethanol has high oxygen content (about 35 percent), it burns more fully and cleanly than gasoline. Therefore, fewer smog-forming emissions result. Corn-based ethanol can curtail greenhouse-gas emissions by 29 percent, and cellulosic ethanol yields even more dramatic reduction.
Cellulosic ethanol, the next step, stems from variety of sources
According to many ethanol proponents, corn is simply a stepping stone. Soon an evolution into cellulosic feedstocks is expected. Every plant contains cellulose, and in the production of ethanol the whole plant can be used, not just the grain. Most cellulosic research focuses on switchgrass, which is hardy and contains high cellulose levels. Per-acre yield might more than double that of corn-based ethanol.
Prairie grasses grow rapidly, whether in swamps or plains or along streams or shores. Resisting many diseases and pests, such grasses function in poor soil and are less affected by flooding or drought that typical food crops. Cellulosic ethanol can even come from discarded materials, including wood waste, agricultural byproducts -- even garbage or old neckties.
Cellulosic etrhanol will be cheaper than corn-based ethanol -- or gasoline
Cellulosic biomass costs less to grow than corn. Development companies, notably Coskata -- now a GM partner -- claim they can manufacture ethanol for $1 a gallon, using various feedstocks. Employing microorganisms, the process uses less than a gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol. Other processes need 3 gallons or more. For every energy unit used in production, the resulting ethanol can generate up to 7.7 times that much (versus 1.3 times for grain-based ethanol).
Concern about corn-based ethanol's impact on food prices is exaggerated
Critics charge that converting corn to fuel has caused global food shortages and soaring prices. Ethanol advocates disagree. A GM spokesperson points out that according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, biofuels have less than 3 percent impact on food prices. Besides, as cellulosic ethanol becomes readily available, corn will be a declining part of the equation.
Millions of flex-fuel vehicles are already on the road
Seven million flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on either E85 or gasoline, are running on American highways. They've been around since the 1990s. In 2008, some 31 car/truck models, marketed by five automakers, are flex-fuel. J.D. Power and Associates reports that 47 percent of new-car buyers in 2007 were considering a flex-fuel vehicle. Gas stations in most states already sell reformulated gasoline, which contains 5 to 10 percent ethanol. By 2013, all gasoline will have 10 percent, and a 20-percent blend is being considered. By mid-2008, almost 1,600 U.S. service stations dispensed E85.
No change needed in driver behavior
Flex-fuel vehicles operate seamlessly just like conventional gasoline-powered vehicles. A sensor determines the exact mix of ethanol and gasoline entering the engine, and a computer adjusts settings to yield greatest efficiency.
Little change in vehicle technology required
The cost to convert a conventional gasoline-powered vehicle into a flex-fuel vehicle that can operate on E85 is minimal compared to other alternative technologies like gasoline-electric hybrids, plug-in hybrids and fuel cells. This means the cost to the consumer should be less as well.
That's half the story. Here's the other:
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