Is ethanol the way to go?

By Arif Abdillah and Stephanie Nieuwenhuisen, 28th of january 2015

Chapter I : Introduction

Fossil fuel has been the main fuel for transportation purposes. The use of fossil fuels are the main reason for global warming. The vast impact of global warming due to fossil fuel demands an alternative kind of energy.

The environmental aspect

One of those alternative energy resources is Ethanol. It is renewable and it’s an almost 100% carbon neutral fuel. The carbon dioxide that it releases through burning the equal amount of fossil fuel, is less than that of fossil fuels, and also the growth of raw material helps reduce the carbon footprint. It seems a perfect solution for an alternative energy. However, this is not the full story of Ethanol as a fuel.

The production of ethanol uses a lot of energy. The raw material (for example corn or wheat) has to grow, separated and distilled into fuel, and transported to the selling point. It demands a lot of corn and wheat, the soil can get over fertilised, forests will be cut down for farming purposes, a lot of water will be used.(1)

The social aspect

The demand and supply theory suggests that if the demand for ethanol is rising, it will make the price of raw materials also rise. The problem is that those two commodities are needed to feed people. Food is already a problem in some developing countries.  They increased the amount of farming land for producing ethanol, but many people question if it might be better to use this land they have ‘created’ to feed these third-world countries.

The economical aspect

It is one thing to produce ethanol for fuel at a lab scale. It is another thing to bring ethanol to market proved to be slower and more costly than expected.

With aforementioned background, a question arises, “Is ethanol a sustainable product?”

To answer this question we analyse from the perspective of University of Michigan sustainability assessment 2002 namely environmental, economic and social or 3 Ps: People, Profit and Planet(2).

Chapter II: Environmental/Planet

In one hand ethanol is deemed as an environmentally sustainable alternative of fossil fuel. However it also has potentials to create the detrimental effect.

Growing corn requires a large amount of insecticides, which harmful for the soil on its own. (3)

The increase of manufacturing high nitrogen synthetic fertilizer is a terrible pollutant. It takes soil nutrients, kills micro-organism, shrimps, crabs, algae and earth worms.(4)

We can take an example on how the demand of ethanol creates problem in Brazil. In 1995 Brazil starting to develop the largest fuel ethanol program in the world based on sugar cane and soybeans. Unfortunately Brazil is cutting almost a million acres of tropical forest per year to produce biofuel from this crop. They consequently ship high amounts of this ethanol to Europe. This process resulted even 50% higher emitted carbon rather than using fossil fuels.(5)

In the US, the production takes a lot of electricity that comes from coal power plants. It also requires a large amount of water for this cycle to be conducted.(6) IPCC also provides that there should be a deeper consideration in applying ethanol as an alternative fuels as it might creates higher number of emission rather than fossil fuel.(7)

The use of ethanol as an alternative fuel should take a couple of key points in account : the impact of big farm towards soil, the energy it needs to grow the material and the carbon footprint of the agricultural process. Looking at above mentioned points it is still a grey area at least in environmental perspective on whether the use of ethanol is the way to go as an alternative fossil fuel.

Chapter III : Social/People

If the demand for ethanol rises, the fight between crops for food versus crop for fuel will arise. According to supply and demand theory, the price of a commodity will increase if demand increase, and the supply stays in the same rate.

The World Bank provides that the large increase in biofuels production in the United State and Europe are the main reason behind steep rise in global food price.(8)

In 2000, over 90% of the U.S corn crop went to feed people and livestock. In 2013 however, 40% went to produce ethanol 45% for livestock and 15% was for food and beverage.(9)

Furthermore in 2014 the U.S use almost 5 billion bushels of corn to produce around 13 billions gallons of ethanol fuel. The grain required to fill a 25-gallon gas tank with ethanol can feed one person for a year.(10)

Based on abovementioned explanation it can be concluded that if ethanol becomes a mainstream fossil fuel alternative, crops (corn and/or wheat) will have a higher demand and it will create tension between crop for food and crop for fuel.

Chapter IV : Economic/Profit

In 2008, shell was working on ten different biofuel projects. However it has now shut most of them down and none of them are ready for commercialization. Matthew Tipper shell’s vice president for alternative energy further comment that producing fuels at a lab scale and a demonstration scale is one thing, however bringing biofuels to market proved to be slower and more costly than expected.(11)

Ofcourse, Shell is not the only company that is developing ethanol as an alternative fuel. However this indicates that viability/profitability of ethanol is important for companies or governments to continue the project. Nevertheless, without profitability a design might not be feasible, no matter how environmentally and socially successful such a product is.

Chapter V : Conclusion

Based on the research we did, our conclusion is that ethanol still doesn’t environmentally, socially and economically satisfy out needs. Looking at the potential of ethanol to be a zero emission alternative fuel, the development and research should not stop.

The question is not whether Ethanol production should stop, but rather what improvement the production of ethanol should take.

10830537_873081929423044_6743471166680962559_o 10911241_873081899423047_7132910904518020413_o 10951011_873118249419412_1604369839_o 15_0128_interviews The sustainability of Ethanol Fuel in the United States, Dan Wesolowski MIT 2005

2 “Sustainability assessment and reporting for the university of Michigan’s ann Arbor Campus Sandra I Rodrigues, Matthew S. Roman, Samantha C. Sturhahn & Elizabeth H terry”;


“Biofuels have direct, fuel-cycle GHG emissions that are typicallyIPCC in its report provides that : “30–90% lower per kilometer travelled than those for gasoline or diesel fuels. However, since for some biofuels, indirect emissions—including from land use change—can lead to greater total emissions than when using petroleum products, policy support needs to be considered on a case by case basis (see Chapter 11.13 and, for example, Lapola et al., 2010; Plevin et al., 2010; Wang et al., 2011; Creutzig et al., 2012a).”

8  Donald Mitchell, Policy research working paper 4682, a note on rising food prices, The world bank Development Prospect Group, July2008, Last accessed 27 January 2015

Agricultural marketing resource center, Ethanol Usage Projections& Corn Balance Sheet,, last accessed 27 January 2015

10 James Conca, It’s Final—Corn Ethanol IS of No use, , last accessed 27 January 2015

11 The Economist, “what happened to biofuels?”, 7 September 2013,, last accessed 27 january 2015


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