Sunday, August 27, 2006

Biodiesel V Ethanol - Making the Right Choice

By: Mike Copinger of

I’m sure that you have noticed that there has been a surge in interest in Ethanol as an alternative to regular fuel, especially in the USA. Bill Gates invested the better part of $40m in ethanol production and distribution; this month in SHELBY the town Planning Board granted site plan approval and issued a special use permit to Western New York Energy LLC on Monday, paving the way for construction of a major ethanol plant.

There seem to be ethanol plants going up all over the place. I can’t help but feel a little nostalgic – after all, when Henry Ford started out his cars were designed to run on ethanol (oil hadn’t really made it onto the scene by then) and in fact he invested considerable sums in ethanol production and distribution. It was only the bully boy tactics of the new oil barons that made petrol and petro diesel the no. 1 fuels in the market.

Nostalgic though I am, I have to also admit to being a skeptic. I mean why ethanol and not biodiesel? After all biodiesel recycles used oil that would otherwise end up in landfill into useable clean fuel. Better yet it’s simple for anyone to make biodiesel, with very basic equipment and instructions.

A recent study, done by researchers at the University of Minnesota and at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., points to the environmental benefits of biodiesel over ethanol (in this case made from corn), stating that ethanol provides 25 percent more energy a gallon than is required for its production, while soybean based biodiesel generates 93 percent more energy.
The study also identified that ethanol, in its production and consumption, reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12 percent, compared with fossil fuels; however biodiesel, they found, reduces such emissions by 41 percent, compared with fossil fuels.

Moreover the study acknowledged that in order to produce a sufficient quantity of ethanol from crops like corn, food production would inevitably be compromised. On the other hand oil rich crops like jatropha will happily grow in marginal soil not suitable for other forms of agriculture.
So it begs the question again - why ethanol? Could it possibly be that in most parts of the civilized world you need a government license to run a still to produce any kind of alcohol?

It’s possible to make biodiesel at home with little more than a soda bottle, and some basic hardware store chemicals - but to make ethanol you need a still and thus a license, you're traceable and if unlicensed you are committing a criminal offence. Could it be that governments prefer a fuel that they can more tightly control, and tax?

As we work towards a greener, more sustainable future it's equally important that we choose the right kinds of fuels and for the right reasons.

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