Ask the TA: Chemistry Help
Using Ethanol as an alternative source of fuel is not a good idea. In fact, it is one of the worst ideas that I have ever heard of. I've written reports for classes and given seminars on why its a bad idea, you can check out the key facts below. If you want a more complete picture of things, and don't mind reading scientific language, you can take a look at a report I put together recently by clicking here.
Why even consider it?
You hear constantly on the news that the US is addicted to foreign oil - its true - and its only going to get worse. Currently, there are about 600 million cars on the planet. That number will increase to 1.2 billion by the year 2020. People on average drive around 20,000 miles each year, and the average car gets 20 miles per gallon. Put all these numbers together, and you realize that by the year 2020, we will be consuming 1.2 trillion gallons of gas every year. I don't know how much oil is left in the world, but its going to run out eventually - so we started looking at alternatives.
Ethanol seems like a good idea if you listen to the farmers sales pitch. It's cleaner burning, it's renewable, and we can make it here in the US. So why is it such a bad idea?
Not really. True, the actual process of burning the ethanol to make our cars go is cleaner than burning gas. Here's what they don't tell you - it takes more energy to make a gallon of ethanol than you can get out of it. Want some numbers? 1 gallon of ethanol contains 76,000 BTU's of energy. Making that gallon requires 98,000 BTU's of energy - 29% more! Now this wouldn't be a problem if the energy being used was from a clean source like wind, solar, or nuclear power - but its not - most energy in the US still comes from unclean sources like coal power plants.
*I have to mention that not everybody agrees on how much energy it takes to produce ethanol. The USDA put out a report that says it takes slightly less energy to produce ethanol than you get out of it. The scientific community seems to have agreed that the higher number of 98,000 is more correct.
With gas prices well over $3/gallon throughout the US (as of March, 2008) and ethanol prices remaining right around $3/gallon, it's tempting. That $3/gallon ethanol is deceptive. First, ethanol contains less energy than gas - meaning you can't drive as far on a gallon of ethanol. You also have to take into consideration the government subsidies being used to make ethanol. If you crunch all the numbers, that $3/gallon ethanol is actually costing you $7.15/gallon.
Ah - this is my favorite one. Yes, growing
corn, or cellulose, or soy beans is a renewable process.
Unfortunately, even if we used all US farmland to make ethanol - we
would only cover about 10% of our oil needs. Well hey, if
we're not growing food, lots of people will die and our demand for oil
will decrease! So if you're ok with starving millions of
people, ethanol could work as a fuel - if you're semi-normal like the
rest of us, you should be able to see that ethanol as a fuel
alternative will never work.
Disagree? Agree? Want more information? Send me an email.
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