Alternative alternative fuels

By Alexa Jones


As our attention shifts to the Iowa caucus and Alabama farmland’s employment void after new immigration laws, it is only fitting that the subject of corn should come up.  However I am not here to lament on our apathy towards bloating cows’ rumens or to scream “down with capitalism!” at the prospect of land clearing, but rather to cast a spotlight on another evil imposter: ethanol.

My only beef with this yellow vegetable is that is so heavily funded.

Once the government heavily subsidizes something, it seems impossible to turn to any other alternatives. This is due to the fact that alternative energy research tends to follow the federal money. .

Have we forgotten that we can tap chemically stored electricity, as in the case with battery-powered cars, biomass material such as algae fuel, or emission-less hydrogen, to name a few?  Now it is not so much a matter of choosing between the conventional fossil fuels – petroleum, coal, propane and natural gas – or nothing, so why do Solyndra and Rick Perry’s moratorium on all environmental regulations make the front page instead of the wind turbines in Denmark?

Well, maybe it’s because ethanol’s not a resource that requires drilling; in fact ethanol fuel is just the byproduct of fermented corn. But the paradox of ethanol is that while it was originally intended to decrease the need for carbon sequestration, University of California-Berkeley professor Tad Patzek claims it actually takes up to six times more energy to produce than the finished product contains.

In ethanol cycle farming, to yield one hectare of corn takes 5,800,000 kilowatt-hours of solar energy, 191 kilowatt-hours of electricity, 51 gallons of fossil fuels, 1,300 pounds of fertilizer and 5,300 gallons of water – a process which leads to field water runoff of nitrogen and pesticides. For ethanol production, or the resources needed to obtain a gallon of ethanol, 37 gallons of water are needed, 1.1 kilowatt-hours of fossil fuel energy (the fermentation, waste water, carbon dioxide, gluten, and heat are by-products), and 12 gallons of wastewater, all for a 14-18 percent decrease in carbon dioxide emissions.

Ethanol today is used as a gasoline additive, meaning it has to be mixed with fossil fuels in order for it to be effective, so the higher octane rating, or the argument that gas is burned more evenly and there is less engine knocking for the car, is weakened.

We have a finite amount of oil and if the next generation is to be sustained, this would be inadequate.  If you look at how biofuels came about, the initial idea was to have the cleanest burning fuel.  Rudolf Diesel had envisioned vegetable oil as the most probable fuel source for his engine (he even demonstrated his pressure-ignited diesel engine with peanut oil) and Henry Ford had expected his Model T to run on ethanol.  Only when petroleum came into the picture – the cheapest and most energy-dense liquid for supply, price and efficiency – did such discussion end.

Now, after the Clean Air Act has regulated the emission standards for pollutants like sulfur dioxides, carbon monoxide, ozone, and nitrogen oxides, and the Arab oil embargo has driven oil prices up from $14 a barrel in 1979 to $35 a barrel in 1981, biofuels and ethanol are all the rage again.

Yet while it has its pitfalls, ethanol has still given us the insight to challenge what it means to be ‘energy secure’ and experiment with alternative resources while we still have the time to. Presently, the only question that remains is: do we have the resources and the cooperation to sustain our demanding society indefinitely? We could turn to Wayne Keith of Springville, Ala. for inspiration. He runs his Dodge truck on a gasification process of debris, which includes wood, paper, manure, or anything combustible, who reported, “When gasoline hit $1.75, I bailed out.” If we all strive to become independent from gas, the answer to that question is yes.

Alexa Jones is a Collegian columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]