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The “cheap gas” that will replace high-priced petroleum?

High gas prices have been a thorn in the side of all drivers for the last few years, as they continue to steadily rise. That is why alternative fuels such as ethanol have gained so much attention during the same period. Some believe that it can be the savior of America’s energy policy, while others see it as a fad that is made popular by subsidized corporate backers.

There is a lot of misinformation out there about ethanol. The reality of its role as a viable alternative to petroleum-based gasoline is a lot more complex. Though currently not as common available or used as gasoline, it could become a prominent part of the U.S. and world fuel supply in the coming years.

What is ethanol?
Ethanol is a fuel derived from plants. In the United States, the primary plant that is used is corn. The process of making corn into fuel involves grounding it into a fine powder, adding water and then heating it. Then an enzyme is added to convert the mixture into sugars which are then fermented with yeast. The resulting is a liquid that is about 10% alcohol. Through distillation, the alcohol is separated and used as ethanol fuel.

Why the buzz about ethanol?
Ethanol has a number of advantages over gasoline. Firstly, it is a renewable resource and it burns much cleaner. Secondly, it can be produced domestically, cutting our dependence on foreign oil. Brazil has had great success in reducing foreign imports to almost nothing by the use of domestically produced ethanol.

Drawbacks?
One of the main drawbacks to ethanol production in the U.S. is the reliance on corn. Brazil’s decades-old program, one of the first of its kind and most successful, relies on sugarcane. Since the U.S. is a large producer of corn and does not have the capability to significantly grow sugarcane, corn-based ethanol is what the U.S. produces. Not only does corn-based ethanol create significantly less energy than sugarcane when compared to the effort required to produce it, but it is also much more costly.

Another drawback to corn-based ethanol is the impact it has on the food market. The fuel supply and the food supply compete for the same resource, driving up prices and straining supply.

Solutions
With the number of drawbacks that the U.S. ethanol industry has had, there is great hope in the future. Technology is advancing to the point where we will not be relying on corn for our ethanol, but rather bio-waste. From the leftovers of food to such things as plastic bags, using material that would otherwise end up in a landfill to produce ethanol fuel will have a major positive impact on the market.