Share facts or photos of intriguing scientific phenomena.

Corn Ethanol

Corn Ethanol

In a bid to reduce its dependence on oil imported from the Middle East, the US administration has resorted to development of corn ethanol in its own backyard. Is the production of corn-based ethanol a smart move?
Abhijit Naik
The comments made by the former US Vice-President, Al Gore hinting that the governments support for the development of corn-based ethanol in the United States was not a good idea, has irked the proponents of corn ethanol and brought this issue to the debating table yet again. The United States has been subsidizing corn production and using it for the production of ethanol since quite some time now. Those in its support claim that the same can be used as a replacement for gasoline, wherein it acts as a fuel by itself, or along with gasoline, wherein it helps gasoline burn more efficiently.

Corn Ethanol

Yet another touted replacement for fossil fuels, ethanol is basically produced by industrial fermentation, chemical distilling, and distillation of plant matter. In the United States, the most widely used plant for production of ethanol is corn―the product of which is known as corn ethanol. There are two methods by which it is processed: dry milling and wet milling, which differ from each other on the basis of how the grain is treated in the initial stages of production. More importantly, the products of each of these two processes are utilized differently. Ethanol is more often used as an oxygenate to gasoline in vehicles. It is also used as a biofuel in E85 flex-fuel vehicles. It is this use of corn ethanol, which has bought it in the spotlight for all good and bad reasons.


One of the most important points on the basis of which the proponents of corn ethanol are riding, is the fact that it doesn't pollute the environment like various fossil fuels do. It also boasts of adding to the efficiency of gasoline by acting as a agent of oxygenation, thus resulting in less of harmful emissions. You don't have to resort to an expensive hybrid vehicle, as adding corn ethanol to gasoline in your vehicle will help you reduce emissions by a significant extent. When it comes to the United States, the abundant availability of corn (maize) within the country is the biggest advantage. Corn harvesting is a relatively easy task, as it takes mere six months to grow corn which is suitable for production of ethanol. On the economic front, the proponents of this alternative fuel argue that it will reduce America's dependence on oil imports from the Middle East, which is the most promising advantage of them all.


While all the advantages seem quite promising, there are some aspects which need to be given a serious thought before giving it a clean chit. The critics are of the opinion that the proponents don't take into consideration the tremendous amount of electricity used for ethanol processing. They state that the amount of coal burned to produce this electricity results in emissions of harmful greenhouse gases and one has to be taken into consideration this factor when trying to determine whether the use of ethanol is really a viable option or not. They also argue that the environmental damage caused by use of ethanol is more than the same caused by fossil fuels.

Similarly, the chemicals used in fertilizers and pesticides, which are used for growing corn, are also quite harmful for the environment. They further state that the use of biofuels increases the price of grains and affects our food stores. On the economic front, corn ethanol is bad for business, which is evident from the fact that the rise in the price of corn triggers a rise in price of all the other commodities related to it. The price of corn per bushel has increased from $2 a bushel in 2006 to $5 in 2009, and the domino effect of this has been pretty obvious.

When the above mentioned pros and cons are weighed against each other, the end results are quite conflicting and thus, add to the dilemma. At the end of the day, if the environmental damage caused by corn ethanol is more than (or same as) that by fossil fuels, there is no point in investing in the same and putting our food stores at risk.