Ethanol: Worse Than Conventional Fuel?

Ethanol was pitched as the new hope for alternative fuels in America, but what if it’s actually worse than conventional gasoline? That’s exactly what a new government-funded study is saying in an analysis of cellulostic ethanol — fuel made from byproducts like the leftovers from growing corn.

The study suggests that while ethanol might cut emissions in the long term, in the short term, it actually produces 7 percent more emissions than gasoline. That means it can’t meet the emissions targets and goals set by the 2002 CAFE Standards along with the Obama Administration and government officials to reduce American contributions to global climate change.

What’s the problem with ethanol? There are two issues of concern, and the first involves the material used. Traditionally, when corn and other crops were harvested, the stalks, leaves and other byproducts were left on the fields and plowed back into the soil to enrich it. This also trapped carbon. By removing these materials to make ethanol, fuel producers are actually releasing trapped carbon, and they’re degrading the quality of the soil, which is an issue of growing concern across the agricultural sector, where unsustainable farming practices are wreaking havoc on farmland.

There’s another concern, though, which involves the clearing of land for ethanol production. When forests and other natural regions are slashed and burned to create room for crops used to produce ethanol, that releases substantial atmospheric carbon. Ethanol production methods compound the problem by failing to trap carbon in the soil, creating a vicious cycle that contributes to growing emissions. When more and more crops are diverted to ethanol production, land has to be cleared elsewhere to make room for growing food to feed people, and the problem compounds itself.

The federal government, which has invested billions in the production and promotion of ethanol, isn’t happy with the study, and is already trying to counter the findings. So are industry and trade lobbyists, who are in no hurry to see the ethanol industry disappear right before their eyes. If additional studies support these findings, they fear that the government’s support for ethanol will wane, making it much more difficult to continue to develop the industry.

However, that might not necessarily be the case. The research shows that existing sources of feedstock for biofuels are poorly chosen, but it doesn’t necessarily say anything about ethanol itself. If the industry can find better sources of feedstock — like materials that are currently going to landfills — it could potentially develop an ethanol that is every bit as green as was originally promised.

What this study does indicate is that it’s time to do some careful thinking about the sources of feedstock for ethanol and their long-term implications. It’s also critical to consider the big picture when looking at biofuels and other alternative fuels — people need to consider every step of production, transport and use to get a complete understanding of whether a fuel is really more efficient and environmentally beneficial.

Photo credit: Don Graham.

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Carrie-Anne Brown
Carrie-Anne Brown7 months ago

thanks for sharing

Warren Webber
Warren Webber10 months ago

Live long and prosper!

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompsonabout a year ago

Ethanol weakens the octane.

Charles Morissette
Charles Morissetteabout a year ago

Ethanol is retarded - you're not solving the problem of burning fuel, you're merely increasing the supply of it.

Why do you think most of the wanted alternatives are emission free or extremely low? (fusion, fission, solar, wind, water, etc).

Panchali Yapa
Panchali Yapa1 years ago

Thank you

Anne F.
Anne F.1 years ago

corn is an expensive crop. We need to increase energy efficiency, not just try to produce more fuel that we can waste

Carol P.
Carol P.1 years ago

Ethanol is not a sustainable fuel. It is still burning carbon, just newly formed carbon instead of ancient carbon.

ERIKA SOMLAI1 years ago


Gerald L.
Gerald L.1 years ago

Nitrous oxide; Graham et al. (2008) reported that the nitrous oxide emission (N2O), strong greenhouse gas, tends to increase with increasing ethanol content.

E10 emissions - AMF - Advanced Motor Fuels‎
Ethanol/gasoline blends have been used for decades in some countries. ..... Australian study (2008) observed that vehicles emitted artifacts, remnants of .... ( 2006), addition of 10% ethanol into gasoline increased acetaldehyde emissions by ...

Aldehydes and ethanol; Acetaldehyde emission increases substantially when ethanol containing fuels are compared to gasoline. Formaldehyde emission increases also when ethanol is used as low level blending component for gasoline. (Environment Australia 2008, Graham 2008, Durbin 2006, Aakko-Saksa et al. 2011).

Ozone forming potential; AFDC (2009) summarized that when tailpipe and evaporative emissions with E10 are considered, ozone forming potential of exhaust is increasing when compared to gasoline. This is due to increased evaporative emissions, acetaldehyde emissions and NOx emissions.

The major drawback of adding ethanol into gasoline is an increase in volatile organic compounds and acetaldehyde emissions. Acetaldehyde is classified as an air toxic, a substance which has a defined cancer potency factor, and it also contributes to ozone forming potential. Catalyst can efficiently remove aldehyde emissions, but it is not operating properly e.g.

Nils Anders Lunde