Problems With Ethanol

Problems With Ethanol

As world demand for available, cleaner energy sources increases, several candidates nudge to the front of the line of worthy successors to dirty-burning, petroleum based fuels. One such candidate is ethanol. However, there are non-trivial problems that arise in nearly all aspects of the ethanol supply and use chain. Supplying greater global demand for ethanol presents a dilemma for landowners and farmers, not to mention governments. Ethanol comes from a crop and producing it in large volumes requires enormous areas of arable land turned over to the ethanol crop production. Governments are already concerned about the ability to provide sufficient food for future generations without large parts of farmland turned over to producing crop that isn’t for direct human consumption. Incentivizing ethanol crop production while large portions of the world’s population starve will be controversial.

Certain by-products of ethanol combustion have been linked to particular forms of cancer. The concentration of so-called aldehydes produced during ethanol combustion increases in proportion to ethanol concentration. Greater fuel efficiency is achieved through burning higher volumes of ethanol, so a very real challenge exists in gaining the greatest efficiency without compromising public health. At the moment, aldehyde emissions can be controlled using catalytic converters for fuel concentrations of about 30% ethanol. For the end user, the driver, converting to ethanol as a primary fuel source presents several problems. Not all gas stations offer ethanol, so depending on location, it might mean an individual driving an ethanol burning vehicles must drive extra mileage to fuel the vehicle. Although these circumstances are set to change as ethanol use continues to increase, for many it makes a mockery of the notion that switching to ethanol will reduce their pollution footprint. Also, current ethanol burning engines are not as efficient as their gasoline burning counterparts, so relying solely on ethanol will require more visits to the gas station for the same mileage. When ethanol is made available more widely, certain aspects of safety need to be introduced and adhered to. A few times per year, we see a gas stations blown sky high due to carelessness from forecourt users or freak accidents like fume ignition through static. Ethanol is far richer in octane content, and therefore a good deal more flammable, than standard gasoline. Handling ethanol requires increased awareness and safety standards.

Other chemical properties of ethanol warrant increased public safety and also present engineers certain challenges in implementing its safe and efficient use in standard vehicles. Ethanol is highly corrosive, and over time id capable of dissolving just about anything with which it comes in to contact. In order to preserve the efficiency and integrity of car engines and supporting parts, it remains imperative to maintain a very clean fuel system. Ethanol will quickly dissolve most impurities entering the fuel system, introducing them to, and ultimately contaminating, the car engine system. This will impact engine efficiency and life. Similarly, ethanol can absorb water, which can dramatically reduce its fuel efficiency. For those wishing to convert their current vehicle to burn ethanol blended above E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline) then there are non-trivial costs involved. Although currently in the $1000 range, these costs may drop as demand increases. Though many future ethanol users will drive cars manufactured to burn ethanol.

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