What is Ethanol?

G. Wiesen

Ethanol is the active form of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages. It is created when plants high in sugar or starch and yeast are allowed to ferment. The process of fermentation is when sugars in a plant such as corn or wheat are eaten by certain types of yeast which release ethanol and carbon dioxide (CO2). After this process occurs, the ethanol that remains is highly flammable and can be added to gasoline to create a very powerful fuel source that usually creates less airborne particulates when it is burned than other forms of gasoline.

Corn is typically used to make ethanol.
Corn is typically used to make ethanol.

The fuel known as ethanol gasoline is considered a biofuel since it is created at a fundamental level by the growing of plants through sunlight and photosynthesis. It is also considered a renewable energy source because new crops of corn or sugar cane can be grown each year and harvested anew. There is some research to indicate that the use of this gasoline can greatly reduce the amount of air pollution created by cars and other vehicles throughout the world.

Ethanol.
Ethanol.

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Ethanol for use in fuel is produced similarly to how it is made for consumption in alcoholic beverages. The plant material used is typically corn or sugar cane and it is exposed to certain types of yeast bacteria which begin fermentation. The resulting product is then distilled to remove some of the water from the mixture. Dehydration eliminates more water to create a much more volatile chemical that can be mixed with gasoline. The resulting mixture burns quite efficiently to move the piston of an internal combustion engine found within a motor vehicle.

A man filling up his gas tank. Ethanol is used as a fuel additive in many countries.
A man filling up his gas tank. Ethanol is used as a fuel additive in many countries.

There is some debate and concern, however, about the use of so much food to create fuel for vehicles. Some people have discussed how the use of corn and sugar cane to create biofuel instead of using the corn or the land to grow food to feed people may be ignoring growing issues about insufficient resources to support the planet’s population. Concern has been growing, especially among poorer nations, regarding the increasing prices of corn across the world.

One benefit of using ethanol gasoline is that the process only uses the starch portion of corn. The remaining high-protein portion can be easily used to make feed for livestock. There is also concern, however, over the amount of land being used to grow the plants having a negative impact on the environment. Some research has indicated that the land-use changes of so much more corn being grown could produce more greenhouse gases than would be made by the vehicles that benefit from the ethanol gasoline if they continued to use traditional gasoline.

Ethanol can be made from sugar cane.
Ethanol can be made from sugar cane.

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