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Ethanol: Why Not?

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Topics:  Ethanol
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Ethanol: Why Not?

Bill Crittenden

This article is an essay submitted for English 101 at William Rainey Harper College

The next time you see a Ford Taurus or Ford Ranger at the gas station, take a closer look at it.  There will be a logo on either the front fender of the Taurus or the tailgate of the Ranger.  It looks like a road going off in the distance, but it branches off, with a green leaf on the end of the branch.  This is to signify that those vehicles are flexible fuel behicles.  They can run on either gasoline or ethanol.

The increased use of ethanol by motorists in the United States would have a major impact in several areas.  First of all, it would be easy to implement.  Second, it would reduce the amount of crude oil bought from overseas sources.  It would shift the source of the fuel to the United States.  It would also help to preserve our environment.

Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, a motor fuel produced from natural products. Corn is the most common source for production in the United States, and ethanol is manufactured by processing and grinding the corn starch.  This converts the starch into a sugar, which turns into alcohol when it reacts with yeast.  The alcohol is distilled to remove any water.  Corn is mainly used because it is common and cheap to buy, and the natural starch used is abundant in corn.  Ethanol can be produced from oats, barley, wheat, sugar beets, potatoes, milo, cassava, sugar cane, cellulose or anything with the right natural sugars or starch in abundance (Science and Technology Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh 162).

The reason it would be easy to implement is that the technology already exists, and the infrastructure would be similar to gasoline's.  The technology exists to make cars that run on either ethanol or gasoline, as illustrated by the example above.  My 2001 Chevrolet S-10 is a flexible fuel vehicle, as are millions of others on the roads.  The Environmental Protection Agency mandates that certain percentages of new cars and new trucks sold in the U.S. be capable of running on E-85 ethanol.

These vehicles also are capable of running on gasoline. One of the major concerns of environmentally-friendly electric vehicles is a question of where to get power when you can't find a charging station.  In ethanol's case, if you can't find any, buy a tank of gasoline.

Ethanol is also a liquid fuel, very similar in properties to gasoline.  To carry gasoline at a filling station would require little more than is required to add diesel fuel or a different grade of unleaded.  A separate storage tank and pump is all that is needed.  Many stations could even replace their mid-grade gasoline with ethanol by changing little more than the instructions on the pump.

Ethanol will never completely replace gasoline. Most flexible fuel cars and trucks are low-performance types, like the four-cylinder Ranger, Cavalier and S-10, and Taurus family car.  Also old cars cannot be easily converted to the fuel.  85% ethanol fuel still contains some gasoline in the other 15%.  Our country will never be completely independent of gasoline. Our country can, however, reduce the amount that we import dramatically. The less oil we buy from overseas means less American dollars headed out of the country.  This will give us the ability to conduct foreign policy as we see fit, not as how OPEC sees fit.

The current crisis in the middle east is a good example.  George W. Bush basically declares war on terrorism. He says that we will not negotiate with terrorists, and we will help anyone fighting terrorism.  At first Bush is in full support of Israel's fight against their terrorist aggressors.  Soon after Saddam Hussein declares a halt on imports, and the Saudi Arabian Prince Said visits Bush's Texas ranch.  Before the prince even leaves, Bush calls for a withdrawal of Isreali forces and a beginning of negotiations with Yasser Arafat.

Without OPEC dangling oil in front of us like a carrot, we could do what was right, without the pressure from other countries. Russia is not a part of OPEC, and our own domestic supplies are not subject to their politics. We may, by increasing the use of ethanol, be able to reduce crude oil usage to the point where oil embargo threats by OPEC wouldn't mean a thing to American consumers.

Some people are worried that the agricultural giant Archer-Daniels Midland would simply replace OPEC as the monopoly of the fuel industry.  Despite ADM's influence on the agricultural business, especially in post-production (turning corn into ethanol) it weould never stand as a monopoly in the United States. The U.S. has many laws meant to prevent monopolies from existing, and breaks them up if they do occur.  The one and only reason we cannot do anything about OPEC is because it is an international organization, not an American company.  There is also the continuing presence of oil.  If ADM sets the price of ethanol too high, owners of flexible fuel vehicles can fill their cars with gasoline.

In Minnesota, where ethanol has been given serious consideration by the state legislature, wholesale prices of ethanol are 8 cents cheaper than 87-octane gasoline.  Ethanol costs are competitive, but only because of the federal subsidies of the ethanol business.  Left on its own to compete against oil, ethanol would likely be too expensive for most to buy when they can choose gasoline.  But oil has also had its own subsidies.  According to the General Accounting Office, between the late 1960's and today at least $120 billion has gone to the oil industry (Madden).

As we have seen in the past, however, many consumers are willing to pay a little extra to help the environment.  Ethanol does help the environment.  Most 87-octane gasoline already contains 10% ethanol to reduce tailpipe emissions.  Ethanol is an oxygenated fuel, meaning that the fuel itself contains oxygen.  This makes the fuel a little less effective on a gas-mileage basis, since there is less hydrogen and carbon per gallon.  This also makes the fuel burn more completely, reducing drastically the unburned hydrocarbon emissions, including carbon monoxide.

Ethanol may not be the fuel of the future, the one that ends all pollution and makes everyone happy. But it can be the fuel of the present, helping the United States end its dependence on foreign oil while reducing emissions by cars and trucks.  It already exists, cars are already ready for it, all it needs is a little push to get going.

Madden, Tobias C. Under the Influence. Jan. 2001.

Science and Technology Department of the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh. 1997. The Handy Science Answer Book. Visible Ink Press: Canton, MI.

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