Blended Ethanol: Bad or Terrible?

Posted: February 16, 2022

Biofuels are increasing in popularity as they are championed as “renewable fuels” since they can be grown and manufactured much faster than a plant can be buried and converted into hydrocarbons. While today the emphasis lies in 2nd generation biofuels and algae sequestering, the history of biofuels extends further back than you might expect. While some people consider these technologies cutting edge, the roots of plant ethanol (no pun intended) are more than a century old. This periodical will educate on the history of biofuels and analyze the efficacy of modern policies.

Crash Course in History – Ethanol

Ethanol has been utilized for almost an entire millennia as the basic fermentation of distillation of plants was discovered to produce a volatile gas that could be burned for light. It wasn’t until 1826 that American inventor Samuel Morey found a way to utilize ethanol in his design for an internal combustion engine. In 1876, Nicolaus Otto invented the modern 4 cylinder engine that would establish the idea for Henry Ford’s Model T. Both of which were powered by ethanol. Eventually, its use declined as hydrocarbons were able to be refined into gasoline much faster and cheaper than corn ethanol.

Samuel Morey - Wikipedia
Nicolaus Otto | Learnodo Newtonic
Nicolaus Otto

It wasn’t until 1970 that corn ethanol would return to the internal combustion engine. In the 1970’s the US chose to back Israel in their conflict with Arabic countries. OPEC retaliated by imposing an embargo on the US that initially cause panic and prices to skyrocket. This combined with the environmental concerns of using leaded gasoline caused the revitalized interest in blending ethanol into fuel. The idea was to cut fuel with ethanol so that existing stocks go a little further. Corn was in great supply, so it became the go-to feedstock. Since then, other international conflicts, supply shortages, and cries for greener fuels have supported the demand for this archaic combustion component despite its many downsides.

The Drawbacks

Many people will immediately point out the decreased engine efficiencies and potential clogging when utilizing ethanol fuels. This is true, but issues run deeper when you analyze the “greenness” of the blending component. A recent report from the National Academy of Sciences has once again ignited the debate over the environmental benefits of ethanol as they remain unclear. The report highlighted the environmental costs of converting a field that produces plants (corn) for fuel ethanol. It increases the demand for fertilizer which requires a lot of energy and ammonia to produce. It increases the amount of fuel needed to run machinery that can till, plant, and harvest the grain. It increases the amount of water quality degradants. This is all before even considering how much carbon is stored in the root systems of natural grasslands before it is tilled up in order to plant corn. All of these factors contribute to a significant amount of carbon being spewed into the atmosphere. These associated emissions put ethanol on par with gasoline at best or at least 24% higher in emissions at worst. It is a colossal waste of food, energy, fuel, wildlife, and time to prioritize the production of ethanol just to blend it into fuel.

A Bolivian forest that has been cleared to plant sugarcane (2016). Sugarcane as a biofuel feedstock has become more popular causing increased demand for arable land.

Why Is It Still Used?

Why is ethanol still used if it can be argued as an environmentally detrimental engine destroyer? Because of millions of dollars from lobby groups. The height of the spending was in 2010, but even 2012 shows that pro-ethanol groups coughed up plenty.

A table from – Political Footprint of Corn Ethanol Lobby (2013)

The corn ethanol industry essentially spent $61,000 per day to lobby before Congress. This is because the demand for corn ethanol artificially inflates the demand for corn to a point where it is justified for these groups to spend so much as they are making more from the government subsidizing this activity. If the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) program was to be repealed, the price of corn would plummet as there would be a vast oversupply of the special grain within the US. This is only one of the large stakeholders in a diverse battle, as the American Bakers Association has pleaded with the Biden administration to end corn ethanol subsidies.

“While many factors play into commodity price volatility, taking food crop acreage and turning it into fuel crop acreage may lead to tighter food supplies, higher grocery bills for Americans, and a dependence for food commodities from foreign countries – a potential serious food security concern.”

-Rasma Zvaners, ABA Policy Director

Whicher way you feel about it, there is no denying that corn ethanol is a waste of resources and more detrimental than positive to the environment. After all, a fuel type this old was already superseded by oil and gas in the early 1900s, so why are we working backward in time?


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