There has been a lot of discussion these days regarding ethanol as an alternative fuel. I’m not too familiar with the topic, but I know ethanol can come from corn, and I love agriculture. So what is the truth about ethanol? I decided to find out the basics.

I’m not going to lecture you on my beliefs or opinions. Instead, I invite you to consider the research I have done in order to be a better-educated citizen. (It is voting season, after all).  Here’s the deal on what it is:

Ethanol is a clear, colorless chemical compound made from sugars that are found in crops such as corn, sugar beets and sugar cane. The key element is fermentation (defined as the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms). I recommend checking out this video for a better explanation of the process.

One of the cool things about ethanol is that it biodegrades fairly quickly. It’s a non-toxic (harmless), renewable fuel. In fact, by adding just a little bit to gasoline, carbon monoxide emissions are reduced and the engine runs more smoothly.

So if ethanol is so great, why haven’t we been using it since day one? Let’s look at the historical background:

Back in the 1400’s, ethanol existed for use as Moonshine Whiskey. People used it to fuel lamps in the mid 1800’s. However, people switched over to kerosene and methane when Congress started taxing it to cover Civil War funding.

In 1906, after the tax had been lifted, Henry Ford declared ethanol would be the “fuel of the future.” For the rest of the century, production varied a lot due to war supplies needed by government. Foreign oil was also relatively cheap at the time, so farmers mostly exported their grain to feed other countries – instead of  using the corn to make ethanol.

As time has progressed, and oil prices are rising (incase you haven’t noticed), corn ethanol has received more attention. Many people see it as a way for our country to be less dependent on foreign oil.  Confidence has been so high that in the past decade that United States ethanol production was up $9 billion between 2000 and 2009.

Farmers have shifted crop acreage to allow for a greater ratio of corn over soybeans. The increase in demand for corn has partly been a response to bioenergy policies. As you can see, opportunities for ethanol are so great that farmers have adjusted cropping patterns.

Opposition to the ethanol fuel alternative will argue it takes just as much energy to produce the ethanol as it does to directly import oil from other countries. My response is that 1) ethanol production creates jobs – locally, and 2) we are better off to create something ourselves than be as dependent on others as we are currently.

Ethanol production will only become more efficient. I compare it to the famous quote by former IBM chairman Thomas Watson in 1941:  “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

Obviously, that prediction proved completely wrong. Had computers never improved, Watson may have been correct. Computers wouldn’t be nearly as common if they still weighed 1.5 tons. This could be the optimist in me speaking, but with all the technological advances happening I only predict ethanol production to make more and more sense with time.

Henry Ford thought it was a good idea. What about you?

Natalie Edwards
Illinois State University student




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