Watson: Corn-based ethanol isn’t the answer


Photo: Tessa Callender/Iowa State Daily

Mark Deaton, junior in chemical engineering, takes samples of the E. coli strain from a water bath Wednesday, Sept. 21, in the new Biorenewables Research Laboratory. The fermentation process of the E. coli eats the sugars in the bio-oil and produces ethanol, aiding in the lab’s renewable biofuel quest. 

Scott Watson

As the needle on the world’s fossil fuel reserve gauge borders on “E,” we are forced to search for alternatives. It’s not a question of if but when we can no longer coast on fumes and must resort to alternative means of powering our cars and heating our homes. The unadulterated truth is that the world has a very limited time left to continue its consumption of fossil fuels.

Whether the global gas tank runs dry in 10 years or 50 is irrelevant; it will still catch us off guard and scrambling to react, unless we do something now. The problem is that we don’t have the infrastructure in place to support a more sustainable fuel alternative.

Ethanol has been regarded by many as a savior to our dependence on foreign oils. Growing our fuel right here at home is certainly a desirable solution; we could cut back imports of foreign oils, stop deep-sea oil drilling and discontinue the controversial, newest method of obtaining oil, fracking. Ethanol provides an elegantly beautiful alternative to the ugliness accompanying petroleum-based fuels.

Currently, ethanol in America is corn-based, and we are damn good at growing corn — we’re the best in the world. It is the most readily available crop at our disposal, and it fits in well with other agricultural industries. America has built itself around corn; we know how to handle, store and transport the stuff efficiently. Unfortunately, it is for those reasons that we continue to produce an uneconomic, inefficient and simply inferior product to our preceding fuel source.

The list of negatives produced by corn-based ethanol is insurmountable, ranging everywhere from requiring billions of dollars in government subsidies and driving food prices up to simply poor engine performance. Ethanol is mixed in varying percentages, making better and worse products in different ways. Ethanol with a higher percentage of gasoline is more efficient, but it is much more environmentally hazardous than pure gasoline. A lower percentage of gasoline in ethanol is more environmentally friendly, but it is terribly inefficient. We cannot settle on corn-based ethanol as our sole means of replacing fossil fuels merely due to convenience.

There are several alternatives at our disposal, waiting only for the government go-ahead and some financial backing. The holy grail of alternative fuels may be a matter of years away from implementation in the oil industry. Cellulosic ethanol, comprised not of kernels of corn but the organic matter from which it grows, is the future of second-generation biofuels.

Cellulosic ethanol is the perfect boon to our fossil fuel shortage. It has a lower cost of production, is environmentally and economically sustainable and boasts all the performance of petroleum fuels. Imagine no longer needing to import Arabian and Russian oils, but instead growing it right here in Iowa, as a byproduct of another major industry. It’s almost too good to be true.

For the time being, cellulosic ethanol is out of reach. We do not have the industry required to convert the organic mass into ethanol, nor to store and transport it. Our infrastructure was created for corn conversions; it will take years and a lot of money to get the wheels on this bio-fueled industry rolling.

More alternatives still are available to us in the near future. Possibilities in sugar cane ethanol and biobutanol provide reasonable replacements to corn-based ethanol. Sugar cane ethanol can be produced even today, but as sugar cane does not grow naturally in America — with the exception of perhaps Hawaii — it would only switch our dependence to another region of the world instead of eliminating it.

Biobutanol is created from corn, sugar beets, organic matter and other feedstocks making it a nearly immediate and relatively easy conversion for American ethanol industries. Biobutanol differs from corn-based ethanol in several ways. It mixes a smaller proportion of the feedstocks to make the ethanol, while still producing more energy, fewer emissions and allowing us all the flexibilities of producing our own fuel. However, biobutanol should be seen mostly as a stepping stone to another fuel source, as America cannot grow enough corn to fuel and feed itself.

The hog’s squeals are in the tunnel; there’s no escaping the fact that the world is quickly running out of petroleum-based fuels. We need to do something about this crisis now. Corn-based ethanol has proven to not be the answer we were searching for, but by looking into its possibilities, we opened the door to better ideas. The order and manner in which we convert fuel sources is yet to be determined, but America has been taking the appropriate steps in finding a petroleum replacement.

Still, there should be an increasing sense of urgency. The longer we wait, the more we damage the environment and see money, fuel and time wasted pointlessly.