In an effort to find a viable alternative to foreign oil, many politicians and environmental groups have been heavily promoting the advantages of ethanol fuel. Ethanol is a primarily plant-based fuel which can be produced from such sources as sugar cane, corn, waste paper and grains like wheat or sorghum.
This organic origin is one of the advantages of ethanol fuel most heavily touted by its proponents, who strongly believe drivers would be better served by a dependence on domestic farmers than dependence on foreign oil producers and big oil companies. While ethanol does have a number of advantages over other alternative fuels and the gasoline it would replace, there are also some disadvantages to consider before making a large-scale switch at the pumps.
One of the advantages of ethanol fuel is its organic origins. In Brazil, the world's largest producer of ethanol at this writing, used sugar cane is processed to create a form of alcohol, much like the distilling process used to create mash-based alcoholic spirits. In the United States, ethanol is primarily derived from corn. Since corn and sugar cane are both renewable resources grown by domestic farmers, a connection to the land is often touted as one of the main advantages of ethanol fuel.
This connection to the land could also be viewed as a disadvantage, however. In order to produce enough corn or grain or sugar cane to meet the demands of the ethanol industry, farmers may have to restrict how much of their crop will be available for other uses. This often means higher prices for animal feed, flour, corn, grains and many products derived from those raw materials. Even if all the available farmland in the United States were converted to corn fields for ethanol production, it still would only meet a small percentage of the country's total energy needs. Corn production can be very labor intensive, and the corn crops could still be vulnerable to bad weather, droughts or insect damage.
Ethanol does burn cleaner than gasoline, which is another one of the advantages of ethanol fuel heavily promoted by its proponents. Cars capable of using E85 ethanol, an 85/15 percent blend of ethanol to gasoline, do create fewer toxic emissions. Ethanol does not contain significant amounts of toxic materials such as lead and benzene. By lowering the amount of greenhouse gases and ozone created by car exhaust, the use of ethanol is believed to be a much better alternative to gasoline.
Although ethanol does reduce the toxicity of car exhaust, it can also be very corrosive. Ethanol can absorb water and dirt very easily, and if those contaminants are not filtered out successfully, they can cause damage and corrosion inside the engine block. Fuel efficiency is also a consideration when considering the advantages of ethanol fuel. Ethanol, at least in its present form, does not appear to provide the same fuel efficiency as gasoline. Drivers would need more ethanol to drive the same distance, and ethanol prices are expected to be higher than gasoline prices when and if it is implemented on a national scale. Drivers of ethanol-powered cars may also have to drive further distances to find a specialized gas station which offers E85 ethanol.
Another one of the advantages of ethanol fuel is the reduced dependence on imported oil. While ethanol may never fully replace petroleum oil as the United State's main source of energy, it can reduce the total amount of oil the country would need to import. Critics suggest that a future dependence on commercial corn would only replace oil-rich sheiks with savvy American farmers, but at least the domestic economy would benefit significantly. All of the peripheral industries connected with farming, such as transportation and food processing, would benefit from the economic demands of ethanol production.
This theoretical economic growth associated with ethanol production could have its downside, however. The soil used to grow corn and other grains may become depleted of minerals and other organic nutrients if it is overworked. The amount of additional energy needed to transport and process the corn could result in a neutral or even negative return on the energy produced by the ethanol. Essentially, it would cost more to produce ethanol than the country would ever see in savings over imported oil. The entire amount of ethanol produced would have to be used to meet a percentage of the domestic demand for fuel. Ethanol would not become a profitable source of income from exportation to other countries.
The debate over the disadvantages or advantages of ethanol fuel could rage on for years, although many people in positions of power are beginning to actively endorse the increased production of domestic ethanol. Many farmers are also increasing the amount of farmland dedicated to corn production, and more ethanol refining plants are seeking permission to start construction of new facilities. While other alternative fuels such as hydrogen and solar power remain largely in the research phase, ethanol appears poised to be the first one to be implemented on a national scale.