The price of gasoline continues to rise as political unrest and natural disasters affect the extraction, refinement, and transportation of crude oil. Scientists tell us the world’s supply of fossil fuels may be burned up in a matter of forty years. So the question becomes, “What else can we use?”
One contender is the alcohol, ethanol. Ethanol burns, thus enabling it to drive a combustion engine. A vehicle could be manufactured to run entirely on ethanol, or a mixture of traditional gasoline and ethanol can be used. In fact, most cars can run on up to a 15% ethanol mixture with no noticeable effect on engine performance.
People view ethanol as a good alternative to gasoline because it is renewable. This alcohol is made through the fermentation of foods from plants, such as corn or wheat. More plants can be grown to turn into ethanol for burning in cars. Using ethanol in this way is also proposed as beneficial to local farmer because the selling price of their crops will rise. Also, ethanol burns more cleanly than gasoline. Thus, many people feel that ethanol or ethanol blend gasoline would produce fewer emissions and so be better for our environment.
The government of Canada supports the use of ethanol blend gasoline. Most of the gas stations have gasoline blended with ethanol and the country has seen a rise in crop prices that corresponds to the increase in use of ethanol as a gasoline additive.
However, the use of ethanol as a fuel for vehicles does not only have positive effects. There are issues and costs that are greatly minimized or ignored all together by the advocates of ethanol fuel. Ethanol cannot be used without the addition of gasoline in vehicles in northern climates as it cannot be ignited in cold weather. Alcohol also corrodes many conventional automobile parts made of materials such as plastic, lead, and aluminum. Cars using an ethanol blend should ideally have these parts replaced.
Additionally, the benefit to farmers is not as great as it appears at first glance. Although crop farmers have an increase in profit, dairy, beef, and pork producers all have to buy feed that is now much more costly. Some livestock farmers have had to give up the family farm because they could no longer afford to feed their animals. The cost to consumers who fill their tanks with a blend is increased as well, due to the fact that ethanol is not as efficient a fuel as gasoline. Fuel mileage decreases from 1% – 4% on 10% blends, depending on the car and the weather. Typically, the greater the alcohol content, the faster the fuel burns.
This fact also casts doubt on the theory that using ethanol fuel would reduce emissions. Since more fuel is burned when using an ethanol blend gasoline, more research is needed in order to determine if there are really less emissions when ethanol is used in a vehicle (rather than comparing ethanol and gasoline by burning them in a laboratory). The use of the term ‘green’ is conjunction with ethanol is also somewhat of a misnomer since the burning of any material, including ethanol, produces carbon dioxide, which is thought to contribute to the greenhouse effect.
Although ethanol fuel for cars appears to have many environmental and economic benefits, there are too many drawbacks to burning our food supply in vehicles. Our search for alternative power sources must continue, as ethanol is most certainly not the ideal answer to our current energy and environmental crisis.