Corn Ethanol / by kevin murray

I eat corn and most people eat some sort of corn product or utilize it in everyday things; for instance, high-fructose syrup which you will find in many sodas is corn based, yogurts, gum, salad dressing, toothpaste, and even perfume all utilize corn.  Corn is used extensively in livestock feed, it is a food staple throughout the world, and the United States is the largest producer and exporter of corn in the world.


With over 850 million people worldwide suffering from undernourishment, it is surprising that corn is now also being utilized as a fuel.  This would imply that corn ethanol is so sufficient, so cost-efficient, so abundant, and in such high supply, that utilizing it as a fuel is the most efficient thing and the most practical use of corn and that this therefore is the right thing for the United States to do.  The facts, however, don't support this thesis.


First, putting aside the obvious fact that corn is a wonderful and efficient food item with a multitude of uses, when one considers corn ethanol as a fuel, you must first rate this ethanol in comparison to the gold standard which is oil.  Is corn as efficient with BTUs as oil?  For instance, using E85, which is a blend of 85% ethanol and 15%, Oak Ridge National Laboratory reported that "…25-30% tank loss in mileage due to the lower energy density of E85."  So clearly, E85 ethanol is not as efficient as oil. 


The next question to ask is how much energy does corn ethanol use in order to produce its fuel energy in comparison to oil.  While experts have weighed in on both sides of the equation,, states: " …that energy conversion efficiency of gasoline is higher: roughly 1 unit of fossil fuel energy to create 4 units of gasoline compared whereas 1 unit of fossil fuel energy to create 1.3 units of ethanol."

I don't think that there is any doubt that oil is a much more efficient unit of energy.  However, surprisingly, the Model T which was first brought out in 1908 could initially run on gasoline, kerosene, or ethanol.  Henry Ford said "There's enough alcohol in one year's yield of an acre of potatoes to drive the machinery necessary to cultivate the fields for one hundred years,"   and Ford believed that alcohol as a fuel was the fuel of the future, but history to date, has proven him wrong.


This leads to a further question, is it possible that corn ethanol is on the right track as an alternative fuel but it itself is not the most efficient renewal fuel to develop?  That answer would appear to be yes.  Putting aside the usual political shenanigans, the agricultural subsidies for votes, the lobbying, dirty money, cronyism, and other nonsense, there are plenty of other possibilities, limited only by our own imaginations and dreams.  For instance, former Secretary of Energy Samuel Bodman, said, "cost competitive, energy responsible cellulosic ethanol made from switchgrass or from forestry waste like sawdust and wood chips… …. contains more net energy and emits significantly fewer greenhouse gases than ethanol made from corn."


Perhaps the great Henry Ford was a visionary and was right about alcohol (ethanol is a type of alcohol), and we just have gone about it the wrong way.