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Ethanol and Other Fuel Alternatives

Updated on January 23, 2017

The Ethanol Debate

The high price of gas had intensified the search for alternative fuel resources to help lessen our dependence on fossil fuels. Methods such as carpooling, mass transit, and hybrid cars would not, by themselves, solve the problem.

As the debate went on for ethanol and alternative fuels, President Bush had backed federal funding for continued research, a decade ago, and Congress had calculated the best way to implement it.

One alternative that had received a great deal of attention was ethanol. There was some debate about the efficiency of ethanol. One side felt the energy costs to produce ethanol outweighed the benefits. These opponents stated producing and running tractors, the production costs and even the energy consumed by workers including food, transportation and police protection had raised the costs. The worker cost wasn't usually figured in comparisons like this. The naysayers also didn't take into account the added value of ethanol byproducts, which could be used in cattle feed.

The analysis was based on the technology in use at the time, which included old processing plants. There was a reason to believe ethanol production will become more efficient, possibly at a faster rate than the mature petroleum industry. The newest plants incorporate technology to streamline the process and save energy and money.

"There are a lot of new technologies", said Hosein Shapouri, an agricultural economist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. "It's going to continue to improve the yield, and also lower the energy."

Follow This Infographic on the Ethanol Effect on Gasoline

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The Biofuel Conference

Besides bushels of corn, researchers were looking for other energy efficient methods to produce ethanol. They're researching sugar cane and switchgrass. There were three more challenges they had to face: the fuel had yet to prove its market viability for cars without subsidies; the high price of natural gas may have forced some plants to switch to coal, harming their environmental profile; and the cost to revamp fuel stations for ethanol blends was steep.

A decade ago, when President Bush suggested instead of corn, we could use switchgrass, many laughed. Back then, Governor Brad Henry of Okahoma, held a biofuel conference in Norman, Oklahoma. He said, Oklahoma was "well positioned to establish a biorefinery sector with abundant native grasses, that are excellent feedstocks for cellosic ethanol and winter-hardy canola", as reported on He also said, "it would be a superior oil seed crop for biodiesel, have significant research commitments to biofuel feedstocks, as well as biobased and thermochemical processing, and have five operating petroleum refineries, a well developed product pipeline and their central location at the crossroads of two interstate highways."

This Image Shows Information on the 1st Ethanol Biofinery Plant That Took Place a few Years Ago

The Biofinery Plant

Conference participants were informed of the latest developments in the biofuel industry: The Oklahoma Biofuels Initiative, the ongoing Oklahoma biomass resource stock, and the Noble Foundation's development of a dedicated crop. Also it detailed a biorefinery construction in Oklahoma, the Federal and state initiatives were to have policy reviews, expert testimony, program design to meet specific state or community goals, resource assessments and cost data, training and education and clearinghouse information on other states' expertise, and petroleum and automotive industries' commitment to alternative fuels, including the impacts and advances in feedstock conversion technology. Biomass was an organic matter used as a fuel, especially in a power station for the generation of electricity. A biorefinery was a facility that integratesd biomass conversion processes and equipment to produce fuels, power, and value-added chemicals from biomass; the biorefinery concept was analogous to today's petroleum refinery, which produced multiple fuels and products from petroleum.

One more resource for ethanol was trash. According to an August 5th, a decade ago, a WBIR news report by WBIR in Knoxville, Tennessee, a company in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, planned to convert garbage into gas. The process took carbon-based trash and turned it into gas, then the micro-organisms from a natural bacteria convert the gas into ethanol in 60 seconds.

BRI Energy, an Arkanasas-based company, awaited a company loan guarantee provided for in the 2005 Energy bill to build an ethanol planet in Oak Ridge. According to an online article on, BRI President Bill Bruce explained, "that it would help the environment of the Tennessee Valley here, just by getting rid of 80% of the waste in nine counties."

The plant would processed as much as 3,000 tons of trash a day, waste that was now buried in nine area landfills. This process would recycle landfills except for glass and metal.

However, an ethanol mix would help the environment by enabling engines to burn cleaner.

Construction of the plant had created about 300 jobs and placed an abandoned building back on the tax rolls was approximately one year.

Fuel Costs

The following were comparisons of gasoline and various alternative fuel costs and consumption for travel from New York to Oregon.

Using gasoline, the trip would require 91 gallons. If the price of gas was $2.34, and the car got 33 mpg, the cost would be $212.70. It takes four-and-a-half barrels of crude oil to produce the necessary gasoline.

The cost of ethanol would be about $425 as it gets 17 miles to a gallon at a cost of $2.41 per gallon. The production for the 176 gallons of ethanol requires 53 bushels of corn and a half barrel of crude oil.

Another very expensive alternative was methanol, which has a low BTU, (British Thermal Unit), which meant 35% fewer miles per gallon, compared to gasoline. The trip to Oregon would require 18, 190 accumulated feet of natural gas and a half barrel of crude oil, for a cost of $619, as you would need 214 gallons of methanol. It would cost you about $2.89 a gallon, and your car would get about 14 miles per gallons.

Bio-diesel was one of the cheapest methods, if you were able to spend the time and effort, locating sourced for used vegetable oil. If you had to purchase used vegetable oil, the cost would run about $3.40 a gallon. The cost of the necessary 68.2 gallons of oil was $183.

Another even cheaper fuel source is compressed natural gas, but it has the same drawback as the bio-diesel: lack of sources. There were few places you can stop and refill your tank. If you were able to, it would take 10,650 accumulated feet of natural gas to make the 88 gallons needed. At 34 miles per gallon and a cost of $1.25 per gallon, it would cost only $110.

The most inexpensive mode would now be by an electric car. Even if gas cost $3.66 a gallon, it would only cost $60.00, as you would get 202 mpg for the 16.4 gallons of needed gas. For every 100 miles, you would need 20 kilowatts an hour, but would do better in traffic, because of regenerative braking. The battery pack would have a total capacity of 26.5 kph. It would take about a ton of coal to generate enough energy for the trip.

At the other extreme, at a cost of approximately $804, is a hydrogen fuel cell. The trip would need 16,000 accumulated feet of hydrogen. Compressed hydrogen costs four times as much as gasoline, so at 41 mpg, the cost would be $11.00 a gallon for the necessary 73 gallons. The Department of Energy projects the cost to be below $2 a gallon of gas by 2012. New technology will double vehicle range by raising tank pressure to 10,000 psi. Until the technology and availability improves, hydrogen fuel cells would be by far the most expensive way to travel from coast to coast.

The debate continued as to which alternative offers the best option for the future, but as that summer's gas prices demonstrated, we must stay focused and redouble our efforts to lessen our dependency on oil.

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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks say Yes for stopping by and commenting. I agree with you.

    • Say Yes To Life profile image

      Yoleen Lucas 2 years ago from Big Island of Hawaii

      In 2007, when I first attended snowboard camp, a pro gave me a movie he made called, "Wheels on Meals". It was about how he altered his van to run on corn oil instead of gas. He drove from New York to Colorado on a little over $8! He did it by stopping at McDonalds along the way and asking rhem for their used cooking oil, which they gladly gave him. He said his van smelled like french fries, but the trip was cheap!

      When I went to camp in 2010, one of theit transports operated on corn oil. Because it was unused, the bus just smelled like oil.

      I think it's a fabulous idea myself.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks Mary for stopping by and commenting on my hub. Glad you gave it some thought.

    • mary615 profile image

      Mary Hyatt 2 years ago from Florida

      You certainly explained the use of Ethanol which I've never really understood. I'm all for any alternative to gasoline!

      Voted UP, etc. and shared.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks Jonas!

    • Jonas Rodrigo profile image

      Jonas Rodrigo 2 years ago

      This is a great idea, Kristen.

    • emge profile image

      Madan 2 years ago from Abu Dhabi

      Excellent suggestions for alternate fuel. Its gaining importance now, but not yet much used in the East

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Morning Mary. Good for you to support it, even if you don't use it. Thanks for the visit.

    • aesta1 profile image

      Mary Norton 2 years ago from Ontario, Canada

      There was a time when we used ethanol but with the change in car, we no longer do so. However, we do support the use of alternative fuels.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks for stopping by.

    • Akriti Mattu profile image

      Akriti Mattu 2 years ago from Shimla, India

      Nice post

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure, Sandeep.

    • sandeep15r profile image

      Sandeep Rathore 2 years ago from New Delhi

      Thanks for such an informative hub.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Blond logic, it's always good to see you. Thanks for the update on the ethanol and biofuel debate, though my article is a bit dated. Thanks for the share and vote and stopping by with your comments.

    • Blond Logic profile image

      Mary Wickison 2 years ago from Brazil


      Interesting article. I live in Brazil where ethanol is widely available and a large percentage of the cars use it. LPG is also available although in fewer locations. In our VW van we use to have LPG installed but removed it as the weight of carrying the tank and the distance to the nearest refilling location (about 50km) was prohibitive.

      One of the problems with running a car on just alcohol or ethanol is the rubber seals begin to dry out. Often when people go to the gas station they will put in some gasoline and the rest alcohol.

      Ethanol here is made from sugar cane. It can also be made from duckweed which is even better because that grows so quickly. Plus the advantage of duckweed, it frees up land which can be used to grow food crops. (I have written a hub about duckweed).

      When Obama visited Brazil, he was looking at doing a 'deal' about bio-fuels here as we have been using it and producing it for some time.

      Voted up and shared.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Thanks for checking out my old article Chris on ethanol and alternative fuels. I agree with you on the debate on ethanol.

    • cam8510 profile image

      Chris Mills 2 years ago from Missoula, Montana at least until March 2018

      Ethanol is no magic bullet for the energy issue. But it should be a part of the solution. It has strengths as well as weaknesses. Great article on the subject.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 2 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Good ideas Poetryman. Thanks for stopping by.

    • poetryman6969 profile image

      poetryman6969 2 years ago

      Even Al Gore admits that corn based ethanol was a bad idea. I would still go nuclear myself. For the moment the world will live on fossil fuels no matter how much the politically correct might wish otherwise. One say to see this is take your favorite alternative energy--my is solar--and take an honest look at how much petroleum is used to create it. In my case, creating photovoltaic cells takes a lot of energy and lot of specialized chemicals and processes that are all fossil fuel based.

      I think we should do more biofuels to help clean up the environment and so we don't waste stuff like all the acorns that fall from my tree every year. But I have yet to see any honest or clear eyed examinations that say that biofuels will ever do more than supplement energy from other sources.