What is Ethanol?

With the rise of alternative energy sources, ethanol has arisen to become one of the key focal points in the biofuel industry. Despite this growing popularity though, few people understand exactly what ethanol is, or how it could serve as a viable fuel alternative moving forward. In order to help address some common misconceptions, this guide will look at everything there is to know about this fascinating energy source. 

The Basics

Before delving into the intricacies of ethanol use, it's important to understand what it is and how it is developed. In its most basic form, ethanol is derived from plant materials, such as corn and sugar. Previously, oil companies would mix a small amount of ethanol into their fuel blends, in a mixture that was referred to as gasohol. Since this mixture can run effectively in any engine, it helped to reduce the environmental impact of the fuel, while also avoiding any major sacrifice in quality. 

With recent advances though, an even better mixture has been developed. At 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, E85 has effectively reversed the properties of gasohol. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy has even gone so far as to praise E85 for its ability to significantly reduce carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide emissions. And, with gasoline supplies slowly diminishing, there has been an even greater push for ethanol mixtures that push the boundaries of how much gasoline is actually required. 

The Conversion Process

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In order for plant materials to transform into ethanol, it must undergo a specific process. Ethanol is not naturally occurring in the environment, which means plants need to be fermented and distilled in order to create it. Of course, ethanol has been a component of human society for a very long time, as it can even be found in alcoholic beverages. 

As previously mentioned, the key to rapidly developing ethanol is to use crops that are high in sugar. Once crops have been gathered to be processed, they are ground up and refined. The refined sugar that is gathered is then left to ferment into carbon dioxide and ethanol, with yeast added to speed up the process. Up until this point, it is basically the same process used to create alcoholic beverages. After the ethanol has been gathered, it is then distilled and purified before it is ready to be used as a biofuel

The relative simplicity of the development process helps to make ethanol production considerably cheaper than many other fuel sources. Since ethanol is a cleaner fuel source, it doesn't add harmful particulates to the air when it's burned. Instead, burning ethanol just creates water and a smaller amount of carbon dioxide than other fuel sources. 

An Eco-Friendly Energy Source

Although farming corn purely for fuel could be expensive and potentially wasteful, there are alternatives. Methods have been developed for extracting ethanol from the cellulose of plant waste products. Referred to as cellulosic ethanol, this type of ethanol can be developed from a wider variety of plant materials, including switch grass. Unlike corn, switch grass can be grown easily and affordably, ensuring that a steady supply of cellulosic ethanol can be consistently developed. 

In addition to traditional plant materials like switch grass, cellulosic ethanol can also be derived from certain recyclables, such as old newspapers. This helps to not only control the price of ethanol, but also to reduce pollution and unnecessary waste from other sources. And, perhaps most importantly, it ensures that ethanol doesn't need to take up resources that would otherwise go to growing more important vegetation. 

Taking Advantage of Ethanol

As it stands, there are actually many vehicles already on the market that take advantage of ethanol in one form or another. Aside from the aforementioned gasohol, there are plenty of vehicles that are described as "flex-fuel vehicles." These vehicles are specifically designed to run on gasoline, ethanol, or some mixture of the two. Interestingly enough, these types of vehicles have become so popular that some people aren't even aware that they're driving one.

In order to discover whether a vehicle has been designed with ethanol in mind, there is typically a little sticker that can be found on the inside of the fuel door, or a notification in the owner's manual for the vehicle. Of course, a car dealership can also provide information on which vehicles are flex-fuel vehicles and which aren't. 

Aside from its environmental impact, ethanol fuel is also a cost effective alternative to rising gasoline prices. It also helps to level the playing field between growing and developed countries, which typically don't have the resources to control their own fossil fuel supply. By focusing on ethanol production, countries can develop new employment opportunities while simultaneously reducing the potential for military or economic conflict with other parts of the world.

Expanding Production

More than 90 production plants have already been established for ethanol, with at least another thirty planned, as well as several expansions. And government regulations in certain states have also made a greater push for ethanol to replace traditional fuel sources. Since ethanol can potentially be just as effective as gasoline, it's not a matter of if it will replace gasoline fully, but rather when.