Sunday, April 13, 2008

Ethanol-gasoline's smart younger brother

With an ever increasing demand for useable energy, almost every compound imaginable has been studied for use to replace petroleum products. As oil wars are waged the world over and greenhouse gases threaten to destroy the ozone layer once and for all; it has become high time that we diverted our attention toward sustainable, renewable, and safe sources of useable energy. No substance may have more potential towards fulfilling our need for a renewable yet clean source of energy than ethanol.

What exactly is ethanol? If you have never heard of the term, you probably have still seen it inadvertently on a store shelf or in a cooler. Why? Because ethanol is the scientific name for common alcohol. That is right, the alcohol that makes up the alcohol portion of all alcoholic drinks is ethanol. Ethanol is also known as drinking alcohol or grain alcohol. It is referred to as grain alcohol because grain is typically what is used to make ethanol. Grain isn’t the only thing that can be used to make ethanol, and this is why it has such a tremendous potential.

Ethanol is the byproduct of the breakdown of sugars by micro organisms. Sugars can be found in every type of starch from grains, potatoes, or even cellulose. It is the latter that really makes scientists hope that ethanol could revolutionize the energy industry as we know it. Essentially, ethanol is a useable form of energy derived from the energetic bonds that are found in starch and sugar. Since ethanol comes from plant sources, when it is burned it has a neutral carbon dioxide balance.

Carbon dioxide balance refers to the net carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by burning a given fuel. Since the plants that are used to make ethanol sequester carbon dioxide during their development, it is this same carbon dioxide that is released into the atmosphere when ethanol is burned. This means that no new carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere when ethanol is utilized, and this fact means that by using ethanol as opposed to fossil fuels we are saving our ozone layer and environment.

Before the explosive increase in fuel prices, producing ethanol for fuel was too expensive. As time progresses and petroleum becomes scarce and prohibitively expensive, ethanol will continue to become a more attractive alternative fuel. One key development that could absolutely revolutionize ethanol production is bacteria. Scientists are working on developing a method of ethanol production by utilizing strains of bacteria that can convert any type of sugar-including cellulose-into ethanol.

If we could transform cellulose into ethanol in a cost effective manner, ethanol would be extremely cheap and eco efficient because we bury tons upon tons of cellulose every year in the form of plant byproducts like pine needles and corn husks. Even straw could be used to manufacture ethanol if the scientists succeed in making a cost effective method for converting cellulose into ethanol.

One of the key attributes of ethanol that make it a viable alternative to fossil fuels is the fact that it can be utilized in gasoline engines. This means that the present fleet of gasoline powered vehicles could be converted to ethanol vehicles with a few simple cheap modifications, and many times with no modifications at all. This means that cars, boats, trains, and airplanes that run on gasoline could run on ethanol. Ethanol could quite possibly replace gasoline permanently if the proper government and grass roots initiative was formed to advocate its use.

Ethanol has the potential to be the gasoline of the future. As our society becomes increasingly dependant on dwindling petroleum supplies, and the masses wake up to the horrible effects pollution is having on our environment there will be a mass movement for change. There is a good possibility that ethanol will embody the struggle for eco-friendly renewable energy.

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