North America’s ethanol industry will never reach its full potential without active support from motorists. Garnering this support will require both education and making ethanol cost-competitive. Unfortunately, the mainstream media has a propensity for reporting negative news. In the case of fuel ethanol, this often means planting doubts about farming methods, net energy balance, and fuel economy.
I’d like to set the record straight. There have been many technological advances making fuel ethanol more affordable and renewable. It’s not just biorefineries becoming more efficient. Advances in farming, biorefining, and vehicle design are all important.
Farming is the first step for today’s ethanol production process. Annual row crops such as field corn usually require fossil fuel-derived fertilizers, pesticides, and tractor fuel. Yet even row cropping is getting more efficient. Energy input per unit of farm production peaked in the 1970’s and has steadily declined since then thanks to improved crop varieties and agronomic practices. That’s one reason most studies using recent data show a positive net energy balance for ethanol, while many studies using older data do not. Cellulosic ethanol production could prompt a big jump in farming efficiency. Perennial crops such as switchgrass can reduce soil erosion and improve worn out soils even while providing ethanol feedstock. Crops with simple sugars such as Jerusalem artichoke and sweet sorghum could produce large ethanol yields in temperate climates without the need for cellulosic processing.
Biorefining comes next. Biorefinery efficiency continues to improve thanks to advances such as cogeneration and computer controlled processes. Also, ethanol is generally made from the starch portion of the corn kernel, leaving most nutrients as high quality animal feed. The next generation of biorefineries will convert plentiful cellulosic materials into ethanol. Demonstration facilities are already producing, and full-scale production is not far off. Ethanol transportation can also become more efficient. Cellulosic ethanol technology will encourage construction of biorefineries close to end users, taking advantage of various feedstocks in different regions. Rail improvements, dedicated ethanol pipelines, and blending with biobutanol could make ethanol easier to move as well.
The third stage of a sustainable ethanol system is perhaps the most overlooked: vehicle design. Ethanol’s high octane rating allows an engine design that produces more power and torque, usually by adding turbochargers and direct injection. A smaller engine can do the job of a much larger conventional one, boosting fuel economy significantly. These engines could work alone or with electric motors.
Ethanol optimization is more important than it first seems. If most flex-fuel vehicles were designed to deliver better fuel economy, it would improve ethanol’s net energy balance just as surely as reducing petroleum inputs in the farming or biorefining stages. When improvements are fully implemented in all stages of the ethanol system (farming, biorefining, and vehicles), the overall gain in efficiency will be enough to make arguments about whether ethanol has a positive net energy balance seem ridiculous.
Studies by the EPA and American Coalition for Ethanol demonstrate that low level ethanol blends deliver competitive fuel economy in some vehicles already on the roads of North America. The same cannot be said for E85 (85% ethanol). When using E85 in North America’s flex-fuel vehicles, fuel economy generally drops in line with ethanol’s lower energy density. This makes ethanol look bad. Many motorists have no knowledge of ethanol’s lower energy density. They try E85 in their flex-fuel vehicles expecting to save money. After all, they probably paid less per gallon for E85. When they figure out E85 hurts their fuel economy, they understandably might feel betrayed or cheated. They might be permanently turned off to ethanol. That’s why education is important, but it is also why engine optimization for ethanol is doubly important. It will allow motorists to know they are actually saving money when they purchase E85 at a lower price per gallon. Most of us give lip service to helping farmers, the environment, and the economy, but cost is a powerful motivator. A motorist who knows she is driving an ethanol-optimized vehicle will more surely seek out E85 and maybe even lobby for its introduction in new areas.
Automakers are beginning to announce the introduction of ethanol-optimized vehicles in North America. Automakers, ethanol producers, farmers, politicians, and consumer groups should work together to see that as many vehicles as possible are made not just flex-fuel, but ethanol-optimized flex-fuel. Along with education, ethanol optimization is perhaps the best way to encourage stronger public support for ethanol fuel. I believe most motorists will support the idea of fuel ethanol when they learn about the new technologies and processes being implemented and when they know they can save money by using ethanol.
Jeffrey Goettemoeller is a plant scientist, former seminarian, and coauthor of Sustainable Ethanol: Biofuels, Biorefineries, Cellulosic Biomass, Flex-Fuel Vehicles, and Sustainable Farming for Energy Independence, published in September 2007. He wrote the book with his brother, Adrian, a geologist and environmental scientist. Both brothers reside in northwest Missouri.