The world is oil-mad. The global energy drive has taken on the vestiges of a quest: nations wage war for access to other nations’ oil reserves, while economic feuds break out over pricing and delivery schedules. World leaders hustle to ensure that the growing energy demands of their people are met. The notion that as demand for oil increases, the reserves of the finite supply of the commodity decrease escapes few — especially those subjected to higher gasoline and heating prices.
The drive to find a suitable alternative to petroleum and petroleum’s primary derivative, gasoline, have led to many possible solutions. One of the most promising is the conversion of sugar into ethanol or grain alcohol. Besides being the world’s most consumed drug, ethanol is also an oxidizer.
Oxidizers are chemical agents that can and do accept electrons from other agents. In the case of hydrocarbons, such as ethanol, this receiving of electrons frees oxygen atoms, which increases flammability. While ethanol itself is relatively energy-sparse, with an energy convertibility less than liquefied natural gas, when it is combined in small quantities with gasoline — such as E10, which is a blend of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline — the energy-density drop is negligible. This allows gasoline refiners to produce a fuel that releases fewer emissions and is safer for the environment — at least superficially.
A deeper look at ethanol, however, reveals the weaknesses of this “green” technology. A recently leaked draft of a report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change condemns the use of crops-derived biofuels as a replacement for gasoline and diesel.
The leaked information represents a reversal from the panel’s 2007 findings, which were read as a green light for large-scale biofuel production. The new report, which is under embargo until March 31, seeks to add pressure to the call for world leaders to abandon the promotion of biofuel for transportation purposes.
The cost of corn
Infrastructure is the primary concern regarding the use of biofuel. In the United States, corn is the biomass used to make ethanol. In 2012, 27.3 percent of all of corn grown in the U.S. was used to make ethanol. With global food prices at a near historic high and with hunger spiking both in the U.S. and abroad, many see committing large amounts of arable land and water to making a fuel additive as the height of wastefulness.
With much of the contiguous U.S. subjected to regular droughts, the commitment of the water these additional corn crops demand proposes a hardship many of the Great Plains and Western states cannot absorb, especially when combined with the drain on water resources in these states due to hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The drive to find new areas to plant corn has led to protected wild areas, including endangered swamplands, which has pushed many species of flora and fauna closer to extinction.
“In terms of the environmental perspective, we witnessed an enormous expansion in terms of corn production since the ethanol mandate has ramped up since 2007, when Congress increased the mandates,” Alex Rindler, a policy associate for the Environmental Working Group, told MintPress News.
“That expansion has been occurring more and more on lands that really shouldn’t be used for growing crops, such as marginal lands and grasslands,” Rindler said. “By using these lands, you are releasing more carbon into the air, you are intensifying the use of fertilizers — which have their own challenges when it comes to air and water quality — and you are destroying wildlife habitat.”
The extensive deforestation also decreases the plant cover that helps to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The leaked U.N. report argues that any benefits to ethanol use “may be offset partly or entirely for decades or centuries by emissions from the resulting indirect land-use changes.”
In regards to corn demand due to ethanol production, the report added, “Resulting increases in demand for corn contribute to higher corn prices and may indirectly increase incidence of malnutrition in vulnerable populations.”
Since 2007, legislation in the U.S. has mandated that a growing quantity of “renewable” biofuels — from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons in 2022 — be mixed with the nation’s gasoline supply. In 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency implemented rules that established the mix at 14 billion gallons corn ethanol and 2.75 billion gallons “advanced” ethanol, which is made of corn husks and wood scraps.
Many have argued that the problem at hand is not necessarily the use of ethanol, but what biomass is used to make the ethanol. Of all the commonly-grown grasses and vegetable crops, corn has one of the lowest energy-to-mass ratios. While a corn kernel is mostly starch, the “cob” or “ear” of the cornstalk is the only part of the plant that can be consumed, compared to a mostly-consumable grass such as sugar cane.
Other vegetables like soybean, sugar beet and sugar cane yield higher energy-to-mass ratios, meaning that less of the plant is needed to produce the same amount of energy. Brazil, for example, produces its ethanol from sugar derived from sugar beets and sugar cane. The U.S. and Europe have both considered the cultivation of wild switchgrass — also a mostly-consumable biomass stock — for ethanol production.
Another possibility is algae cultivation.
“At the OriginOil lab we have identified certain strains of algae, such as euglena, that are high-starch and can be easily fermented into alcohol,” Riggs Eckelberry, the CEO of OriginOil, Inc., told MintPress. “In addition, many algae don’t require fresh water, reducing the impact on our precious water supply. Finally, the CO2 uptake of algae is very high — almost two tons of CO2 for every ton of algae produced — so that’s a net benefit when offsetting fossil fuels.”
However, moving away from corn ethanol will be an arduous task. Many of the nation’s corn growers are heavily vested in ethanol production as a means to utilize government-subsidized surplus corn. While corn ethanol is more expensive to produce, more difficult to handle than straight gasoline and noticeably reduces automotive performance, significant corporate interests in Washington help to keep corn ethanol in the spotlight as an energy solution.
“Corporate interests would likely shift to other sources, but they are inherently conservative, slow adopters,” Eckelberry added.
Significant shifts away from corn would likely entail a change to the crop subsidy system and a cost-analysis that proves that it is more profitable to pursue a biomass source other than corn and that the profit margin would justify the cost to change the existing infrastructure.