Recently folks have asked me why use Ethanol (E85) and how is it made?
My answer is a little long but I’ll try to keep the words short so we can all figure them out.
Other than nuclear and geothermal, the Sun is the source of energy here on earth.
Earth bound deposits of coal, oil and natural gas are from past interaction of the sun and living or growing things. Making these fossil fuels takes many millions of years and some really bad weather.
Because of the long time cycle, making more fossil fuels is not something that we can work with.
We need to look at other solar energy sources that renew faster.
Examples of energy sources that convert the energy from the sun into mankind usable energy include:
• Vegetation (Bio mass, Bio Diesel, Bio Ethanol, Bio Butanol)
• Weather (wind, waves)
• Gravitational pull (tides)
• Sun shine to electric conversion (solar cells)
• Hydropower (the evaporation-precipitation cycle that pumps water up hill so it can make power when it runs down hill)
The renewal time cycle for these solar energy sources is short. They renew in as little as half a day or as long as one year.
Tides renew in a half-day or so. Vegetation renews in a single growing season. Weather change is driven by the heating and cooling as the world turns a different face to the sun each day.
We need portable energy sources to power vehicles.
For the present, liquid fuels are the most effective way to power vehicles.
Two thirds of the petroleum used in this country is for transportation fuel.
More than half the petroleum used in the USA now comes from outside our borders.
It is safe and easy to use liquid alcohols like Ethanol or Butanol for transportation.
The source for these Bio-Fuel alcohols is our own forests and farmlands.
Photosynthesis is what green plants do to grow and ripen.
It is a key solar powered process.
Photosynthesis uses sunshine as its source of energy. For raw material, it needs Hydrogen from water and Carbon from carbon dioxide taken in from the air.
This process releases Oxygen for us to breath. The plant uses the carbon and hydrogen as building blocks to grow and ripen.
This well-established natural cycle keeps our atmosphere in balance by using up carbon dioxide and releasing breathable oxygen.
Photosynthesis is the first step in making ethanol for fuel.
1. Photosynthesis plus water and air yields Corn and Oxygen
2. Powdered corn starch plus water and enzymes yields Sugar
3. Sugar plus yeast and time, for the fermentation to take place, yields Ethanol plus two by products
One by-product is food grade carbon dioxide that is used to put the fizz in soda pop.
The second by product is used as a protein rich animal feed booster. It is called DDG for distillers dried grains. It looks like grape nuts cereal and smells like burnt pop corn.
A large input of energy (steam heat) is needed to distill the ethanol so it can be used as a vehicle fuel. Distillation is needed to separate out water from the Ethanol. The heat for distillation is the most energy expensive part of making alcohol for fuel.
Corn is not the only source of starch or sugar. Rice, barley, wheat, oats, potatoes, sugar cane, and sugar beets can be used to make alcohol.
Research is underway to use grass, trees and bio-waste as a raw material.
E85 is an 85% Ethanol and 15% gasoline mixture. The gasoline is needed to make sure that engines will start in cold weather. It is also there to poison the mix so folks won’t drink it.
It takes more energy to produce Ethanol than it delivers as a motor fuel. If you count the fuel that the farmer uses to plow, plant, fertilize and harvest the corn. Then add the transportation fuel and the energy used by the Ethanol plant, it totals a lot of energy.
The total of energy used to make it is more than the energy that we get driving down the road with E85 in our tank.
The high energy cost of making Ethanol is only justified if a minimal amount of imported fuel is used from start to finish. That means using our own coal or natural gas in the boiler that makes the steam to distill the Ethanol.
Ethanol only has 2/3 the energy per gallon that gasoline has. That means you have to fill up more often to drive the same distance.
Butanol can be efficiently made in a similar way using a continuous two-step fermentation process. It is a better fuel and makes by product Hydrogen as well as CO2 and DDG.
Butanol can deliver more energy than it takes to make it. It has 92% as much energy per gallon as gasoline. Butanol is the new kid on the block and it needs time to develop. Visit Butanol.com for more information.
The good news is that Butanol can go anywhere and do anything that gasoline can without equipment changes. Butanol is a great gallon for gallon substitute for gasoline.
The use of alcohol as a motor fuel may reduce the amount of petroleum that we need to import. If you are one of the folks, who worry about energy independence you will like that idea.
Our security risk may be lowered because it spreads the source of our energy into the heartland. Spreading out the distilleries and locating them away from the seacoasts. Our coastal ports are more vulnerable to storms and terrorists.
Using Bio Fuel alcohols may leave the carbon that is buried in the ground where it is. The folks who are worried about greenhouse gas emissions like that.
As the price of oil goes up alcohol fuels may become a good bargain. The folks who worry about running out of oil like that idea.
The farmers like it because it drives up the price they get for corn. The farm country economy is booming thanks to Ethanol.
Taxpayers like it because the money that the government pays for farm price supports is way down.
Some folks like it because it reduces the amount of dollars that we ship overseas for oil and circulates those dollars here at home instead.
Mean while the farmers use diesel fuel in their tractors. They put chemicals made from petroleum on their fields. Power plants use coal to make the electricity to turn corn into powered starch. More power is used to pump liquids around the fermentation tanks. The alcohol distillery burns natural gas or coal to make steam.
As the technology develops hopefully, all will be happy with the out come.
The road ahead is long so let’s enjoy the bio-fueled trip.
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