Corn Ethanol the Flawed Argument Term Paper

  • Length: 14 pages
  • Sources: 12
  • Subject: Energy
  • Type: Term Paper
  • Paper: #74033218

Excerpt from Term Paper :

This helps to establish the case that a gap exists between that which science accepts about biofuels and that which politicians present on the subject.

This is complimented by Thornton's (2006) concise detraction of ethanol, this article serves as reinforcement for the recurring case that the process of yielding energy from ethanol is too consuming of time and energy, and thus, should be disregarded as a means to developing an alternative fuel source.


The certainty that the world community must attend with urgency to a transition to a clean-burning and effective alternative fuel source dominates discourse today on oil production and energy efficiency. And there is a dominance in this discussion, as well as in current implementation, of the endorsement of biofuels. A clear-burning energy source derived from the fermentation of sugars found in various plant-cellulous, for some time this has been sought as a possible alternative fuel to help aid in our extrication from oil dependency. Accordingly, "the idea is that it can be added to petrol where it both acts as fuel itself, and makes the petrol burn more efficiently and cleanly. Since it is not derived from fossil fuel it should reduce greenhouse gas emissions and help reduce American dependence on Middle Eastern oil." (Thornton, 1) in this regard, there are considerable positive benefits to the environment, at least when spoken of in comparison to the harmful emissions caused by the burning of fossil fuels. The prospect of an automotive industry powered on biofuel, on the surface, would have appeared as a promising opportunity if properly pursued.

To the case of its advocacy, "biofuel champions assure us that because fuel crops are renewable, they are environment-friendly, can reduce global warming and will foster rural development. But the tremendous market power of biofuel corporations, coupled with the poor political will of governments to regulate their activities, make this unlikely." (Holt-Gimenez, 2) Such is to say that the vast array of drawbacks to biofuel, relating to shortcomings in the production process and extending to the levying of severe political and economic exploitation on impacted populations suggest that, in fact, this is not an appropriate step forward in altering the global energy strategy.

In spite of the perception that there are likely to be a number of distinct benefits to the environment from the burning of biofuel, as opposed to gasoline, there is also a commonly voiced concern that this alternative is far too inefficient in the yielding process to yet be considered a suitable replacement. Accordingly, "biofuels are derived from plant matter, such as corn, grass, trees or other biomass. Current methods to produce ethanol, a biofuel, involve a multi-step process to extract the sugars in the plant matter and convert them to alcohol over five to 10 days." (Freeman, 1) This conversion process itself consumes a significant degree of energy and time, and draws speculation that ethanol may not be a particularly practical next step. The argument which has generally been levied since the popular inception in the 1960s and 1970s of the idea that ethanol might constitute a sustainable alternative to fully petroleum burning engine modes, by its detractors, that there is a net energy loss experienced in the refinement. The conversion the corn-based substance into a useable fuel is a process which in and of itself is demanding of a number or resources and process. The general agricultural costs such as natural gas-based fertilizers and mechanical cultivation, as well as the historically prohibitive expenditure of time, transportation and industrial energy to reduce corn cellulose to an ethanol form, help to make the endorsement of ethanol an Achilles heel of biofuel advocacy. And according to current findings, "it is shown here that one burns 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent in fossil fuels to produce 1 gallon of gasoline equivalent as ethanol from corn. When this corn ethanol is burned as a gasoline additive or fuel, its use amounts to burning the same amount of fuel twice to drive a car once." (Patzek et al., p. 319) Such is to say that those oriented to the discrediting of alternative fuel sources are given ammunition by the fact that distilling, fermenting and yielding grain from corn had until only recently resulted in a total net loss of production energy. It is only now, according to the government's seminal reference on the subject, 2002's the Energy Balance of Corn Ethanol, that technology has advanced to a level where there is a net energy gain. According to that report, research had concluded "that the NEV of corn ethanol has been rising over time due to technological advances in ethanol conversion and increased efficiency in farm production. [Researchers] show that corn ethanol is energy efficient as indicated by an energy output:input ratio of 1.34." (Shapouri, 1)

Still, this resolution does not begin to tell the full story, may of its critics state, of ethanol fuel. Observers are especially left to question endorsements for ethanol when its energy inefficiency in usage is so clear as well. To this end, "it contains one third less energy than gas, which means mileage is 30 to 40% lower." (Newman, 1) as consistent with the often ruthless and contradictory behaviors of the world oil industry, it has been offered in many circles that the intent behind the aggressive endorsement of corn-based ethanol is a pointedly unrealistic means of changing energy dependency habits. More insidious still is the suggestion that the oil industry and American government both have endorsed this method in spite of significant criticism and empirical dissuasion as a means of torpedoing the credibility of a prominent alternative fuel.

In most regards, scientific evidence dictates that this popularly pursued means of transferring energy dependency to a different source, even if realistic, will be ultimately rather destructive. Most particularly, it is feared that a shift of the focus by world agriculture industry toward the production of fuel would ultimately deter from the use of land for the production of food. The motive would persist to utilize resources, land and labor to the production of the infinitely more profitable purpose of fuel production than food yield. Accordingly, Butler (2008) argues that "the latest econometric models for alternative fuels show us their negative environmental impact, particularly with feedstocks that destroy palm farms or the rainforest. There is also a negative economic impact in the form of rising food prices. In addition, it's important to remember that even if we use all the arable land in the United States for alternative-fuel production, we'll only be able to replace a fraction of the diesel fuel the nation currently uses." (p. 1) This constitutes a meaningful case against current thought with regard to biofuel. It seems wholly unlikely that the interest in combating the violation of human rights would be sufficient to overcome the opportunities for agricultural corporations and oil industries to achieve a remarkably profitable economic nexus.

Indeed, this serves as the great detectable motive for the wholesale endorsement by the U.S. government of an alternative fuel source that has been sufficiently demonstrated to have far too many drawbacks in its present form. Even today, with the dialogue overwhelmingly dominated by environmental and academic parties opposed to an alternative transition which moves in this general directions, the United States government and its oil, auto and agro industry partners have collectively pushed forward with an alternative fuel policy dominated by corn-based ethanol and biofuel strategies. Specifically, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, "the Renewable Fuel Standard program will increase the volume of renewable fuel required to be blended into gasoline to 7.5 billion gallons by 2012. The RFS program was developed in collaboration with refiners, renewable fuel producers, and many other stakeholders." (EPA, 1)

Today, there is evidence that strides in research are being made everyday to the development of otherwise more efficient fuel production process. Typically, such strides have taken place in the confines of research laboratories and universities, with industries steadfastly resisting the adoption of more efficient technologies. This resistance is harbored by a government which is itself actively engaged already in the development and espousal of corn-ethanol-based strategies. Accordingly, in 2001, "1.77 billion gallons of fuel ethanol were produced in the U.S., over 90% of which was produced from corn. Ethanol demand is expected to more than double in the next several years." (Dien, 204) Bearing in mind the variety of drawbacks to this approach, it is hard to deduce that there has been any net benefit from this strategy. In particular, it would certainly be impossible to argue that America's dependence upon oil had in some way diminished. Moreover, the environmental consequences and world food source issues cautioned here above are certainly a threat during this time of energy and commodity-based inflation.

Therefore, it is distinctly problematic, and thus occupies a great deal of focus in this account, that the institutional alternative fuel movement is so notably focused on corn-based…

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