Ethanol

Chart breaking down a bioenergy crop.Ethanol is a renewable fuel that can be blended with gasoline and burned in gas engines. Currently, the U.S. produces about 13.5 billion gallons of ethanol per year, of which, almost all comes from corn grain.

Henry Ford was the first to use ethanol to power his model T car. With an abundant and cheap supply of crude oil, automobile engines were built and designed to burn gasoline. It wasn’t until the oil embargo in the early 1970’s that interest in alcohol (ethanol) fuels resurfaced. By the late 1970’s oil prices had retreated and the cost to produce ethanol became higher than gasoline and the interest in ethanol quickly wanned.

Interest in ethanol reappeared again when the Clean Air Act was ammended in 1990. These amendments required that cities with high levels of pollution had to add 10% oxygenate to gasoline, which reduces vehicle emissions. MTBE, a petroleum derivative was used until the late 1990’s, when it was found to be a pollutant in water supplies. States quickly reacted and began to ban MTBE as an oxygenate. The logical alternative was ethanol. As demand grew, corn ethanol plants began popping up all over the cornbelt and midwestern states.

Today, the corn ethanol industry is considered to be mature and little expansion in the industry is expected. The focus has shifted from these “First Generation” biofuels to “Second Generation” biofuels. Second Generation biofuels come from non-food, renewable biomass sources. Cellulose will be a primary feedstock for new ethanol plants.

The Great Lakes Bioenergy Research Center was created from a $125 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy. Their primary responsibility is to remove the bottlenecks in the biofuels pipeline. This is a joint project between the University of Wisconsin and Michigan State University. This is just one of the current research investments made to figure out how to produce renewable sources of transportation fuel. Huge investments by private and public institutions are being made regularly.