Sunday, April 12, 2009

Ethanol Production: Analysing the Forces at work

"Corn or Ethanol? Food or Fuel?"
An extremely inane and cliched rhetoric one would say. But going by the hype surrounding this alternative fuel derived primarily from corn and sugarcane, one could not be faulted to presume something is seriously wrong within the corridors of the policy-makers.
Indeed, how could a food crop derived bio fuel take precedence as an optimal fuel choice? Unless the governments are so taken up with the rocketing requirements of gasoline, that they are blinded to some of the ground realities ..... notwithstanding the far-reaching effects on food crop availability and prices?

However, with U.S featuring as the largest producer and importer of corn (followed closely by China, Brazil and Mexico), and of course, the rapidly escalating gas prices ..... it is evident that corn-based ethanol become the focus of policy makers as the most viable alternative fuel.

The obvious advantages of ethanol as an alternative fuel are that it burns cleaner than gas, is renewable, has the upper of being a non-fossil fuel as also being bio-degradable. Added to that, it can be domestically produced, keeping investments within the community ..... the reason why ethanol production from corn is being favoured by many of the farming communities in the U.S., Canada, Africa and South America.

This year, ethanol production has reached record highs all over. According to reports released by the CBO (Congressional Budget Office of the U.S.), roughly one-quarter of corn grown in the United States is now being used to produce ethanol with overall consumption exceeding 9 billion gallons last year. The exact figures for ethanol production in 2008, are not yet known. However, in 2007, U.S. produced 7 billion gallons of ethanol-blended gasoline, as E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) or E10 (10% ethanol 90% gasoline), which most gasoline cars can use without engine conversion. Brazil produced 4 billion gallons with a higher perecentage mix of ethanol, ranging from 24% to 100% ethanol.

The reason that ethanol is speedily gaining importance in the world fuel scenario are however multifold, not all of them apparent or computed. These are also the factors that are driving the ethanol market.

Firstly, the clean chit given to ethanol by the various institutions backed by the heavily subsidized corporates. Thus ethanol has been promoted as a highly efficient fuel with a positive energy balance of 125%, as compared to 85% for gasoline, making ethanol production "by far the most efficient method of producing liquid transportation fuels"(American Coalition for Ethanol) Another theory attempts to justify diverting of corn to ethanol production on the grounds that each BTU (British Thermal Unit, an energy measure) that produces a BTU of gasoline can actually produce 8 BTUs of ethanol(U.S. Department of Agriculture). According to the Institute of Local Self-Reliance in the U.S., "the amount of energy contained in a gallon of ethanol is more than twice the energy used to grow the corn and convert it to ethanol".

Second, the approval of ethanol blends by leading car manufacturers in the world in their warranty coverage and the recommendations of ethanol as a fuel by Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors. This has been the equivalent of issuing a certificate to ethanol as the best alternative to gasoline!

Third, the U.S. Energy Bill of 2005 that targeted ethanol production of 7.5 billion gallons by 2012, aiming at U.S being the world's largest producer of ethanol and ethanol blends. This has effected various pro-active policy measures amongst some of the farming States of U.S. to encourage ethanol production, besides setting a precedence for other corn-growing economies to switch over to ethanol. Countries in Latin America, Asia and Africa are the next emergent ethanol producers, with Mozambique already heavily in the fray.

Fourth, climate change concerns have also addressed the need for alternative and cleaner fuel sources. As ethanol has undoubtedly topped the list as the most energy-efficient, clean burning, cheaply made and readily available alternative option to energy, building up ethanol production to meet the demands of an expanding fuel-devouring polity has become paramount.

Fifth, tax incentives to attract entrepreneurship to ethanol production in many nations and states of U.S. have successfully increased ethanol production manifold. This has to be a domino effect of the U.S. energy policies, which have definitely stressed the need for increased production of ethanol and ethanol belnds and their applications.

Sixth, while the production of ethanol and ethanol blends were always simplistic, further improvement in technologies have promoted ethanol as a 'backyard fuel' that can be easily produced locally. As refinery processes for creating ethanol from corn improve in efficiency, costs of production too are falling. Lower costs have also added to proliferation in ethanol prodcution and ethanol based applications.

Seventh, rising concern over increasing fuel demands on one hand and high oil prices on the other. This has driven fuel policy makers to desperately look for alternative and cheaper solutions, perhaps even at the cost of future concerns over corn as a food crop. After all, U.S. alone has guzzled over 140 billion gallons of gas last year. Thus national energy security considerations have driven governments to depend upon such cheaper and safer fuel options like ethanol.

Eighth, a recent development, that has highlighted the importance of ethanol as a fuel alternative, even amongst the staunchest and most conservative of the green economic stalwarts. The replacement of a gasoline additive called MTBE (Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether) with ethanol and ethanol derived ETBE oxygenator. With this, the octane rating of the petrol goes up by three full points, without the use of other harmful additives, while also 'oxygenating' the fuel by enabling a more complete burn.

Albeit, the hype has been focused on the replacement of the polluting fossil-derived MTBE by a safer cleaner alternative and most recently, the discovery that MTBE contaminates groundwater. With the recent controversies surrounding polluted rivers and groundwater contamination, this has been a significant landmark theory in promotion of ethanol production from food crops, leaving the eco warriors and food crisis stalwarts stumped for a suitable answer.

No comments:

Post a Comment