From reduced carbon emissions to agricultural benefits, what are the possible benefits and negatives ethanol production might have on the world.
By: Rodrigo Erthal
Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, is a chemical substance, known for being used as a fuel and solvent. The substance is colourless, flammable and volatile. It has these properties because it is a type of alcohol. It is produced by the fermentation of sugars and starches. These substances are generally corn, sugar cane, or wheat, along with yeast or bacteria.
Ethanol has two main uses, the first being its presence in alcoholic beverages, including but not limited to beer, wine, and distilled spirits. The consumption of these said beverages can lead to relaxation of the human body. However, excessive consumption can lead to health problems.
The second use, and the focus of the article will be the biofuel version of the alcohol. This fuel is popular in countries that produce it in large amounts, the two main ones being the United States and Brazil. It is an alternative for the more traditional fossil fuels such as gasoline and diesel. Ethanol has some advantages over these fossil fuels, the main one being that ethanol is renewable. Since it is made from plant-based materials that can be repeatedly harvested, this makes it, in theory, infinitely renewable, while the regular fossil fuels are not renewable and will end at some point in the future. Ethanol also produces less greenhouse gases emissions, which in result will reduce the impact of climate change in the world.
In 2020, the two biggest producers of biofuel amounted to 81% of the 110 billion litres of gallons produced, according to the Renewable Fuels Associations and the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The United States delivered about 55 billion litres of the fuel, while Brazil amounted to approximately 34 billion litres. The other significant producers of the material include the European Union, China, and Canada. However, their production levels are far lower than the two largest producers.
Ethanol usage has been going on since the 1970s, but has risen in recent years. To drive the usage of ethanol, it became common to incorporate it with gasoline, various blends such as E10 (10% Ethanol, 90% gasoline), E15 (15% Ethanol, 85% gasoline), and E85 (85% Ethanol, 15% gasoline) exist. These blends can be used in flex-cars which accept both gasoline and ethanol as fuel to serve as a cheaper alternative than just gas. In Brazil, the usage of ethanol is more popular with many cars having their only possibility using ethanol as fuel.
Ethanol can have both positive and negative impacts in the future. These will depend on the way that it is produced and used by the population. The positive impacts for the biofuel are that it reduces greenhouse gas emissions when compared to the traditional fossil fuels method, by using crops that are grown sustainably resulting in the net reduction of carbon emissions. It can also promote energy security by reducing the dependence on fossil fuels, mainly the imported ones. This is of most importance for countries that don't have a large enough oil reserve for future usage. Also, the production of ethanol can provide economic benefits to rural communities, especially the ones that rely on agriculture. The production of ethanol will create new jobs, a higher demand for crops and a new way for farmers to earn money. Finally the price point of ethanol is much cheaper than the gasoline price, as the source is renewable and cheaper to produce. Depending on the car you drive, using ethanol will be a much cheaper alternative than gasoline.
The negatives of ethanol can also be a dealbreaker. The first one is that its production can lead to competition for food crops. As the fuel is made from agricultural goods, its production can lead to price increases in the crops used and reduce food security. This is mainly an issue in countries that already have low food sources and not enough economic drive to sustain this new market. Secondly, the creation of the alcohol may result in land use change, especially if new crops are planted to meet the demand that the production has created. Depending on the area it is being produced, this will cause deforestation and loss of diversity in the area. The production of said crops also requires massive amounts of water, mostly in areas where water is scarce. This may lead into more scarcity and impact everyone and everything in the area near the production.
Overall the impacts that ethanol will have on the future will depend on the way that its production and usage are managed. Biofuel can be a useful tool for the future and a great alternative for the depleting fossil fuels. It will create a good transition from the more polluting forms of fuel to a more sustainable energy system, such as electric vehicles, hydrogen powered cars, and also maybe water powered transportation. However, it is essential to consider the potential impacts it might have on other important areas for human development, in order to reduce the negative effects it might have.