Ethanol Fuel Pros and Cons

What is the value of ethanol as a dependable fuel source? Can it really help us to solve the issue of global warming? If it can, then why is it still not produced globally? All these questions will be answered, as we consider the impact of ethanol as a fuel, and its pros and cons.
The use of ethanol as a fuel was first seen in Henry Ford's 'Ford Model T' automobile from the year 1908 onwards, but it was later replaced by petroleum and gasoline. It regained popularity towards the late 20th century, and its production gained momentum in various countries. It was first used by Henry Ford in its pure anhydrous form, whereas nowadays, it is mostly used as a fuel additive. Although, it does seem to have a good chance of being used as an alternative energy source, there is still a raging debate on the importance of its as a fuel, and the associated pros and cons.

Facts about Ethanol as a Fuel
  • This compound is known by other names like ethyl hydrate, ethyl hydroxide, fermentation alcohol, molasses alcohol, and spirit.
  • The molecular formula of ethanol is C2H5OH, and the empirical formula is C2H6O.
  • In its normal physical state, it is a clear colorless liquid, sometimes with a mild odor, is highly volatile, and burns with an almost invisible and smokeless blue flame.
  • At present, its production for large-scale use as a biofuel is done by the process of microbial fermentation of plant sugars, which is followed by distillation and dehydration. The plant materials used are sugarcane, corn, bagasse, sunflower, cassava, and other biomass sources.
  • Earlier, it was produced using ethylene, where addition of water converts ethylene to ethyl alcohol in the presence of an acid catalyst. The ethylene used in this method was a byproduct of the petroleum purification process.
  • It is added to the fuel in varying percentages with a new fuel mixture called E85, that contains up to 85% ethanol as compared to gasoline.
  • Ethanol or ethyl alcohol is actually the intoxicating substance, which is commonly found in alcoholic beverages.
  • It is a renewable energy source, as it uses sunlight or solar energy to produce the raw materials, which can then be used to produce ethanol. There also are some companies, which are working to bypass the steps of harvesting plant crops, and then fermenting them, by using algae that directly produce ethanol when exposed to the sun. Hence, these methods could be used to create a sustainable energy source.
  • Ethanol as a fuel additive in small percentages along with gasoline, has helped to reduce the emissions of various toxic volatile gases and particulate matter.
  • There are many detractors of the ethanol industry, who argue that there are a number of problems that overshadow its benefits. They say that reduction in the fuel efficiency of engines occurs due to the use of this fuel. Its application also leads to long term corrosion of engines, permanently damaging the vehicle.
  • There also have been instances of fuel problems for boaters, who say that switching to ethanol causes fiberglass fuel tank corrosion, blocking of the filters, and increased contamination.
  • Researchers are still divided on the claims of reduced emission levels in cars, while some argue that ethanol, especially the varieties with a higher ratio of ethanol to gasoline such as E85, are even more polluting than gasoline fuel.
  • The price is also a cause of concern, as it can be more expensive than ordinary fuel.
  • A number of scientists also question the use of food crops to create fuel, when a majority of the world population, especially in undeveloped countries, still faces a shortage of food.
In search of an efficient and renewable source of energy, to sustain and drive our fuel dependent world, ethanol does show a fair amount of promise as an alternative. It has made us realize that plant, biomass, or other waste material can be used to produce sustainable energy. The research on finding alternative methods of producing ethanol or other such fuels should continue. Maybe in future, we could also redesign engines and machines to run efficiently on renewable fuels such as ethanol, thus reducing our dependence on non-renewable sources of energy.