Ethanol - Not As Clean As We Think

Ethanol in Australia is starting to slowly take off, with more and more manufacturers promising engines capable of running ethanol blend fuels, the "Ethanol is Better" image is starting to look a little, well, false.
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Firstly there is the problem of making ethanol fuel, the process pollutes the environment at a much greater proportion than the tradition fuel making methods. Currently Ethanol is widely thought of as an eco-friendly, clean-burning fuel.

However Mark Z. Jacobson, a researcher at Standford University (US) says that if every car in the States ran on fuel made primarily from ethanol instead of pure gasoline, the number of respiratory-related deaths and hospitalizations likely would increase.

"Ethanol is being promoted as a clean and renewable fuel that will reduce global warming and air pollution, but our results show that a high blend of ethanol poses an equal or greater risk to public health than gasoline, which already causes significant health damage." Mr Jacobson said.

Mr Jacobson used a complex computer simulation to study the air quality (US) in the year 2020. The study focused on comparing two teams of vehicles:

  • A vehicle fleet (that is, all cars, trucks, motorcycles, etc., in the United States) fueled by gasoline, versus
  • A fleet powered by E85, a popular blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline.

The results showed a very different story to the safe and environmentally friendly ethanol story for which are constantly bombarded with.

"We found that E85 vehicles reduce atmospheric levels of two carcinogens, benzene and butadiene, but increase two others—formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. As a result, cancer rates for E85 are likely to be similar to those for gasoline. However, in some parts of the country, E85 significantly increased ozone, a prime ingredient of smog." Jacobson said.

Now you might think that breathing in car pullution isn't going to kill you, but smog which is a direct result of vehicle and industrial pollution kills approximately 800,000 people each year (World Health Organization).

"In our study, E85 increased ozone-related mortalities in the United States by about 200 deaths per year compared to gasoline." Jacobson said.

The study also took into account the different methods of producing ethanol blends. The study found that E85 made from corn, switchgrass or other plant products will have the same detrimental effect. Of course, with all the investors purring billions into the ethanol industry, its no wonder that wider media coverage of the issue is somewhat lacking.

"Today, there is a lot of investment in ethanol, but we found that using E85 will cause at least as much health damage as gasoline, which already causes about 10,000 U.S. premature deaths annually from ozone and particulate matter. The question is, if we're not getting any health benefits, then why continue to promote ethanol and other biofuels? Jacobson said.

This begs the question indeed, why should we support ethanol blend fuels if not only are they a larger health risk than conventional fuel but are also much less efficient to produce?

It seems that ethanol, diesel and all other fuels which still rely heavily on fossil fuels are not the way forward, they might present a short term solution and a "in between" step, but its obvious now Hybrid and Electric powered cars as well as Hydrogen fuel cells are the future.

"These vehicles (hydrogen/hybrid/electric) produce virtually no toxic emissions or greenhouse gases and cause very little disruption to the land—unlike ethanol made from corn or switchgrass, which will require millions of acres of farmland to mass-produce. It would seem prudent, therefore, to address climate, health and energy with technologies that have known benefits." Jacobson said.

It seems that Ford Australia's recent announcement helping fund research into Hydrogen powered engines is the right way forward.

However with Prime Minister John Howard telling Australians that Global Warming is not a major issue, its no wonder Australia manufacturers are decades behind the Japanese in alternative fuel technologies.