Ethanol production

US ethanol production by year

While rising food costs may not necessarily be the end of ethanol, another factor may be a more significant - and absolute – boundary for biofuels. The issue lies in the potential infeasibility of widespread production, particularly when requiring that the production also be economical and cost effective when compared with alternatives.

Problems and Concerns Edit

  An important fact regarding ethanol is that, due to differences in energy density, 1.5 gallons of ethanol are required to provide as much energy as 1 gallon of gasoline. This then directly translates into a need for increased amounts of ethanol to perform the same function as gasoline currently does in the United States. While more than 130 billion gallons of gasoline were used in 2011, almost 200 billion gallons of ethanol would be needed to replace it.

 In 2011, production of ethanol in the United States reached 13.9 billion gallons; a far cry from replacing gasoline, or even from the 36 billion gallons per year expected by 2022.[1] With even this small scale use resulting in rapidly accelerating corn, soybean and general food prices, it is clear that this economical boundary is difficult to cross for biofuels.

While the economical boundary is a serious problem, there is another, more defined barrier; a physical one. If soybeans were to be used to produce enough ethanol to replace gasoline in the United States, more than half of the US land mass would need to be farming soybeans. For corn, a total of 546 million acres would be needed to do a similar swap.[2] On an international scale, the United Kingdom would require almost five times its total arable land just to produce enough ethanol for its current gasoline uses.

In addition to these problems, corn ethanol requires a good deal of input energy to create. Putting this fact in series with the lower energy density of ethanol makes many believe that ethanol may have as little as a 25% energy gain. Because of this low energy gain, combined with the high energy input necessary for ethanol creation – much of which comes from fossil fuels – some believe that up to five gallons of corn ethanol must be created to match the fossil energy in a single gallon of gasoline. Now, the previously more attainable number of 200 billion gallons of ethanol per year is replaced by the completely insurmountable goal of 650 billion gallons of ethanol production per year. While food costs may not be prohibitive, these economic and physical barriers make it clear that neither soybeans nor corn are the future of ethanol.

Solutions and Alternate Ethanol Sources Edit

Luckily, there are other, more promising sources for future production of biofuel, though many of them will require significant research before they can see widespread use. As mentioned before, cellulosic ethanol is one of the primary candidates. With genetic engineering or further technology development, switchgrass would create much more ethanol than corn by land volume. In addition, further logging could be approved to use woodchips in ethanol production. With crop yields already increasing year to year, it is easy to see a situation in which ethanol begins to provide an appreciable amount of the energy currently provided by gasoline.

In addition to dedicated cellulosic crops, the technology could also utilize corn stalks and leaves, as well as sugarcane waste, to produce ethanol. Currently, these wastes are left on the field to retain nutrients, but as with other cellulosic ethanol sources, these may then be used instead of recycled. However, this would require farmers to supply more organic matter to their crops to replace these lost nutrients, or to cycle crops, something not currently done with most corn farms. Without further research, it’s impossible to say for sure whether using this waste would be more or less cost effective than allowing it to fertilize the field for the next growing season.

Although these more traditional farm crops tend to dominate the ethanol discussion, another promising candidate has more recently materialized in the form of algae. Algae possess a number of benefits over the other sources mentioned in this article. First, and most significantly, algae can create thousands of times more ethanol per year than a corn or soybean farm of similar size. In fact, the U.S. Energy Department has estimated that if algae were used to produce enough biofuel to replace all of the gasoline that the U.S. uses annually, the total land area needed would only total 15,000 square miles, or 9.6 million acres; an area only slightly larger than the state of Maryland.[3]

While even a farm of that radically reduced size may seem unmanageable, algae’s unique growing environment allows much more widespread growth than corn or soybeans. Whereas much of the arable land in the United States is too dry to grow corn, algae can be used even in completely infertile land. Businesses are considering its use as a carbon emissions reducer, allowing the emissions to travel through an algae containing lake or other body of water allows the algae to directly affect the vented gases while simultaneously providing energy in the form of ethanol. Small scale algae farms of this sort could quickly reduce the needed acreage for production.

In addition to smaller farms, the fact that non-arable land can be used in algae production cannot be overlooked. Provided a proper amount of water and other nutrients is provided to the containers, algae will grow in a desert just as it will on high-nutrient farmland. This allows previously unused or unusable land to be the location for farms, rather than requiring the vastly more valuable and limited farmland be purchased.

Most importantly, there don’t seem to be any questions regarding this source’s viability. Research has already shown the idea to be feasible; further development will only increase its cost effectiveness and decrease the land area needed for production. According to Matt Caspari, CEO of Aurora Biofuels, “It’s just a question of cost, because no large-scale facilities have been built yet.”

Conclusion and Discussion Edit

While switchgrass and other cellulosic ethanol sources may provide supplementary biofuel volume when the technology is improved, it seems difficult to argue against algae as the primary source in the future, if ethanol were to be adopted as a gasoline replacement. Further research in this area will rapidly improve these sources, as happens with most viable technologies.

Currently, ethanol is subsidized by the U.S. government at a rate of $0.51/gallon of ethanol. With a gallon consistently costing less than three dollars to, sometimes dropping lower to $2.50, this is certainly a significant benefit for producers of ethanol. However, this is inherently unstable as ethanol production increases.[4] By 2022, assuming the goal of 36 billion gallons per year is met, this subsidy would result in a total payout of 18.36 billion dollars; only slightly lower than the 18.7 billion dollar budget given to NASA in 2012. While the subsidy has its place in promoting growth, it comes at the cost of capital which could be better used in other areas of the budget.

While ethanol producers still have the ability to rely on the government subsidy to maintain cost-effectiveness, there may be less focus on increasing the economy of ethanol, with most consideration going towards volume in order to take advantage of this defined payout. The deadline of 2022 also promotes this plan, as production of ethanol must more than double before that fiscal year’s completion. With the United States currently at levels of13.9 billion gallons per year and an annual growth rate of only 5% from 2010-2011, there is still a good deal of growth and acceleration necessary to meet the requirements set in 2007. Current construction is expected to raise the production capacity of the US to 15 billion gallons per year; a significant increase.

Even with disappointing growth statistics, most of this new construction and ethanol production is still based in corn and soybean ethanol. Most of the anticipated growth will instead be based in the cellulosic or algae based ethanol production. Because these were new technologies, the expected growth for these fields was foreseen to be delayed. While traditional ethanol sources maintain an enormous majority of all new production, advancements in more progressive technologies are expected to create a huge new market and source of ethanol, filling the rest of the balance of the expected 36 billion gallons per year.

So far, the continuous rise of ethanol has served to reduce the impact of foreign oil reliance. While it has also been responsible for a statistically significant rise in food prices, this particularly side effect is not expected to be permanent or excessive. With more advanced technologies coming to the forefront, the majority of the economic effects from ethanol seem to be positive, particularly in the United States and other farm-rich countries. The United States is particularly benefitted by the already vast amount of domestic oil production within the country, allowing us to use increased ethanol production solely to reduce reliance on imports, which would in turn help stabilize fuel prices and help make the transition towards ethanol as a main fuel smooth.

References Edit

  1. (2012, Feb 10). Retrieved from
  2. Wallander, S., Claassen, R., & Nickerson, C. (2011). The ethanol decade. Retrieved from
  3. Hartman, E. (2008, January 06). The washington post. Retrieved from
  4. Editorial. (2007, September 19). The high costs of ethanol . Retrieved from

Picture References Edit

Ethanol production