Not only is ethanol the substance in your martini that gives you a buzz, but it's also a clean-burning fuel that can power an internal combustion engine. It's been around for several thousands of years as a substance to let our ancestors wind down, and now it's proving itself to be even more useful as a form of alternative energy. Although ethanol could have powered the earliest automobile models, including the Ford Model T, the outlawing of alcohol in the 1920's meant that anyone associated with the substance was violating prohibition. Ethanol faded from public interest, but it's back now, and with a vengeance.
Fuel for Thought
Ethanol is just one of the alcohols that is being tested as an alternative fuel source. Along with methanol, propanol and butanol, ethanol can be synthesized biologically and can be used in the engines we currently put into our vehicles. As previously mentioned in the article on biofuels, ethanol is currently most commonly distilled from both corn and sugarcane--with most sugarcane ethanol exports coming from Brazil. But according to British Heritage magazine, Scotland has even authorized a grant for Alberta University to study methods of turning spent grain used in the production of whiskey and beer into bio-ethanol. There are far too many jokes to be made at the expense of Scottish people here, but I'll restrain myself.
This new interest in research and development is likely because (according to World Watch magazine), the EU has a 2010 target of
increasing biofuel consumption to up to almost 6 percent of their overall fuel consumption, and they know it's easier to grow locally than depend on exports as they currently do with oil. Which happens to be another very important reason for trying to find alternative fuels. Unstable and rising oil prices are forcing countries without their own oil to peruse the alternative energy market for a replacement. Will ethanol be it? For now, it's hard to say, as there are still some kinks to be worked out.
Always a Hitch
However as with many green solutions, there are still some problems to be worked out. For instance, because fertile land needs to be devoted to raising
ethanol crops, competition may arise for arable land between food crop farmers, and ethanol crop farmers. This is especially true once ethanol becomes more profitable to grow than food. It will get harder and harder for food farmers to compete, and that's not a good thing. If less people are producing food, costs will rise, and in many countries where the poor can already barely afford to eat, this could become a major issue. There is also the problem of increasing pressure on farm aquifers. According to an article entitled
"Ethanol's Water Shortage" in the Wall Street Journal this past October, it takes ethanol plants four gallons of water to produce one gallon of fuel. This is definitely problematic considering
water shortages are happening all over rural and even urban America (ala Atlanta, Georgia).
While biofuels like ethanol may seem like the perfect solution, their development must be closely monitored to ensure no one country produces too much ethanol and not enough food. There must also be a close eye kept on aquifer levels in order to preserve falling water tables across the globe. If these principles are followed, and to a tee, ethanol could become a major player in the world of alternative energy.
Sources (via EBSCOHost): British Heritage; Jan2008, Vol. 28 Issue 6, p. 14, 1/3p, and The Wall Street Journal - Eastern Edition; 10/17/2007, Vol. 250, Issue 91, p. A18