I open my car door, plop into the driver’s seat, and jab the key into the ignition switch. I turn the key to start the car’s engine, but its rumble never roars into life back at me. I try again; still no response. I abandon my car and stalk back into my apartment. My car, I realize, is out of gas.
With the ubiquitous nature of cars in American society, dependence on fossil fuels to power these vehicles is likely to only grow. Every day, Americans drive their cars over seven billion miles, using over four-hundred million gallons of petroleum products just for transportation, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. What some do not realize is the limited quantity of these fuels in the world. What will we do once these materials have been depleted?
Gas used to power cars today is manufactured in modern oil refineries. These refineries take crude oil, a fossil fuel, and distill it into useful petroleum substances including gasoline. If the supply of crude oil were unlimited, this cycle could continue forever, and we would never need to worry about running short of gas. However, fossil fuels are limited. Fossil fuels were formed hundreds of millions of years ago from the remains of ancient living organisms. When these organisms died, their organic structures decomposed and were eventually covered by deep layers of sediment. After being subjected to high pressures and temperatures, these remains were eventually chemically altered to form hydrocarbons, or high-energy compounds containing only carbon and hydrogen atoms. Through a slow process, these compounds — now fossil fuels — began seeping back towards the surface of the Earth, making them accessible to humans.
The current environment is unsuitable for large-scale fossil fuel formation. This process requires high humidity, and our Earth, while sometimes very humid by human standards, is still not humid enough to initiate the fossil fuel formation process. Also, the changed biome distribution on our planet detracts from this process. During the period when fossil fuels began to form, (also known in the geologic time scale as the Carboniferous period), swamps and bogs occupied a significant portion of the land, providing the ideal combination of temperature and pressure for fossil fuel formation. Now, these biomes are only found in restricted regions.
Because of our modern atmosphere, fossil fuels are not being replenished at a rate fast enough to compensate for the rate at which we consume these resources, meaning there will come a day when these wells run dry. This drought would undoubtedly cripple our economy as we depend on gas for both our own transportation and the transportation of the products that we rely on. Fortunately, many scientists have begun to research solutions to this pressing concern. One of the many proposals that have been introduced involves the use of bioethanol, a fossil fuel replacement made from plants like corn.
Bioethanol seems like perfect solution to our fossil fuel dependence. By giving us the ability to synthesize these fuels on our own, we can ensure an abundant supply for years to come. However, the existing process of manufacturing bioethanol causes a great deal of harm to the environment and detracts from its benefits to humanity. In essence, while the concept of bioethanol does provide a viable solution to the fundamental problem of fossil fuel dependence, it simultaneously creates a host of other problems. First, its production.
The current process of bioethanol production has been labeled a renewable process since it fundamentally transforms solar energy into chemical energy in the form of a fossil fuel alternative. The sun initiates the process of photosynthesis in plants like corn, and this corn grain is fermented to create a high energy ethanol product. Because the carbon dioxide emissions of this bioethanol fuel would simply equal the carbon dioxide intake of the plant, this seems like a very sustainable process, according to an article by the BBC News. Nonetheless, these assumptions fail to recognize the large amount of energy needed to sustain the plants and harvest them. Fertilizer, a necessary component to cultivate the plant, requires very high amounts of energy to produce — most likely from fossil fuels. Once these energy consumers are taken into account, ethanol production is actually a quite inefficient process, both indirectly contributing to carbon emissions and creating a substance with less energy content than was utilized to make the product, says Dale Pfeiffer. As these analyses show, bioethanol is in fact not sustainable.
Moreover, using energy crops to manufacture fuels would greatly impact the economy of food. While corn is a relatively cheap product, the rising use of this crop to produce bioethanol has and will continue to increase the price of food. According to an Economist report, the corn necessary to produce enough bioethanol to fill one SUV gas tank would be enough to feed an average human being for an entire year. Such large amounts of corn and food crops necessary to sustain this market threaten its large-scale feasibility.
Energy crops are first and foremost cultivated as food crops. Should we sacrifice the nutritional needs of the poor in order to alleviate our fossil fuel dependency? David Victor, Director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development, does not think so: “[Bio]ethanol, with current technology, will do little to sever our dependence on imported energy.” Perhaps, on a smaller scale, it is possible to produce bioethanol from energy crops. However, in order to replace all the fossil fuels we use, it will take much more corn than we can sacrifice. Just in 2007, one third of the corn harvest was purchased for bioethanol production purposes. How much bioethanol was produced? Not even close to enough.
There is still hope though. While the current bioethanol production technology is impractical, some scientists have begun to expand their ideas to form cellulosic bioethanol, according to a ScienceDaily article. Traditional corn fermentation uses just the corn kernels to produce ethanol, using the edible portion of the plant while leaving the carbon compounds present in the other non-edible parts of the plant unused. Cellulosic bioethanol is made from almost every part of the plant in addition to the corn grain. The term cellulosic refers to the compound in these plant parts known as cellulose, a sugar structure that forms the stiffness of plant stems and leaves. This chemical component, while indigestible by humans, still possesses valuable carbon atoms that could provide a source for ethanol formation. By more efficiently using a larger portion of the plant, fewer crops would need to be allocated for energy production, which would mitigate economic and environmental effects. While this theory is still in the research stage, its potential for success is promising.
Bioethanol seems like a panacea for our fossil fuel dependence. What better way to cure our addiction to fossil fuels than by providing us with a way to synthesize these products on our own? Nonetheless, as research shows, this solution is far too simple to be viable with today’s technology. At first glance, corn and other energy crops seem to be in a great surplus; however, when trying to produce bioethanol from the grain of these crops to supply a nation with fuel, the vast quantity needed far exceeds the amount available. Bioethanol, while convenient, is the wrong solution today. Only with new developments can bioethanol be viable for our economy and environment.
I climb back into my car. The fossil fuel crisis has been averted so I drive along happily. My car no longer contributes to the human carbon footprint on the fragile Earth. What powers my car? Maybe cellulosic bioethanol — gas made from corn.
U.S. Energy Information Administration, “Where Our Gasoline Comes From,” U.S. Energy Information Administration Independent Statistics and Analysis.
Kinver, Mark, “Biofuels Look to the Next Generation,” BBC News.
Pfeiffer, Dale Allen, “The Dirty Truth about Biofuels,” Oilcrash.com.
The Economist Print Edition, “The End of Cheap Food.” The Economist.
Victor, David, “How to Manage Our Oil Addition.” from Houston Chronicle News.
ScienceDaily, “Cellolosic Ethanol: Fuel of the Future?” ScienceDaily.