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Why Corn-Based Ethanol Is an Inferior Fuel Alternative

I am a writer, freelancer, technology specialist, and globe trotter. I work at the University of Minnesota.

Corn as a fuel

Corn as a fuel

Seeking Alternatives to Gas

Gasoline is becoming too expensive. Rising gasoline prices are on the minds of virtually every U.S. citizen. High costs at the fuel pump have stretched already-thin budgets and have people searching for a solution that will bring consumers financial relief. One of the most popular and widespread of these solutions has been the switch from traditional gasoline to corn-based ethanol, which supposedly offers a more affordable, sustainable, and renewable option. The reality is that there are several hidden costs and disadvantages to ethanol that should cause U.S. citizens to pause and reconsider before making the switch from regular gasoline. Ethanol fuel threatens the planet’s affordable food supply, drains significant amounts of valuable resources, and is far less effective than other alternative fuels, such as hydrogen. As a result, ethanol use should not be promoted as a viable fuel alternative in the U.S.

E85 fuel pump

E85 fuel pump

Problematic Fuel

One of the major problems of using corn as a fuel is that it is also a major part of the food supply. Corn feeds livestock, is used in many household items, and is an affordable food source. The United States is a very large corn exporter. Many countries rely on the U.S.’s corn supply to feed their population. More developed countries, such as China, import corn for both food and ethanol fuel production. China has recently been increasing their corn imports in fear of a shortage (Bhattacharya, P., 2007). When the demand for corn rises due to fuel demands, the price of food will increase with it. This impacts poultry farmers needing to feed livestock and also affects countries that rely on corn as food. This is a problem, especially for those that are not so fortunate.

Corn-based ethanol fuel has been marketed as an excellent, environmentally friendly, cost-effective alternative fuel. To a consumer at the pump, it may seem cheaper, and without knowledge of the energy costs to produce ethanol fuel, it does seem like a great alternative fuel. However, the benefits in using corn-based ethanol fuel in vehicles become void when looking at the cost of producing one gallon of ethanol fuel. Specifically, due to the energy required to produce ethanol fuel, the efficiency of the vehicle using the fuel is halved. The main purpose of using ethanol fuel is to avoid using gasoline. Since corn is used to create the fuel, it must be grown, harvested, transported, and processed. It basically takes one gallon of gasoline to create one gallon of ethanol fuel that was supposed to save the one gallon of gasoline in the first place. The emissions given off from cars using ethanol fuel are still harmful. According to one study, corn-based ethanol fuel “resulted in significantly higher formaldehyde and acetaldehyde emissions than the specification fuels or other ethanol blends” (Karavalakis, Durbin, Shrivastava, Zheng, Villela, & Jung, 2012).

Corn as a fuel is quite inefficient and ends up causing ripple effects of resource absorption and financial pinches. Corn already takes up vast amounts of land and causes rapid soil erosion. When demanded as a fuel, incredible amounts of space are needed that are simply impossible to sustain. The amount of space needed creates demand for land, which in return raises the prices for farmland. Deforestation and fertilizer runoff are very negative side effects as well. Irrigation and water supply are also something that simply is not a viable option for mass amounts of corn fuel farming. United States citizens are basically walking processed corn. The food industry uses corn for a great number of products that will become more difficult for average consumers to reach if corn prices become higher.

With so many great alternatives to corn-based ethanol fuel, it is a mystery why other fuels such as hydrogen are not being explored. A significant percentage of U.S. citizens believe that hydrogen fuel is some sort of myth or something that is far from being available. Hydrogen fuel cell technology is already being used in public transportation in Berlin (Germany), Beijing (China), and several cities in Spain, just to name a few. Manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Diamler, and VanHool already produce vehicles for public transit that use hydrogen as their fuel. The M4 highway in England, the busiest and most vital economic artery, is currently in the works of becoming a hydrogen highway. “The scheme, to extend into south-west England, is aimed at making hydrogen and electric-powered vehicles a viable alternative to petrol-driven machines” (BBC News, 2010). Refueling hydrogen vehicles will become a reality for the M4, and should become a reality for the United States as well.

The big question of why corn-based ethanol was considered as a fuel still remains. The answer is that it was a big political move. Corn in the United States is subsidized by the government and is also grown in excess. Many U.S. citizens are concerned that their source of fuel comes from overseas. They want that to change; they want fuel to be a domestic product. There is a large movement in the oil industry to drill within U.S. borders and is greatly supported by patriots. What people don’t realize is that when oil is drilled inside the United States, it most likely will not be sold domestically, but will be exported due to much better prices overseas. It may not seem logical to export locally drilled oil while importing foreign oil, but it does make sense for oil companies when money comes into the equation. Corn-based ethanol was a very popular idea and was marketed as the greatest solution to not only the fuel crises, but to a rough economy. The idea was that farmers were going to benefit greatly, which in return put many politicians in their current places simply because they supported ethanol fuel. “Ethanol’s supporters argue it has kept gasoline prices cheaper, helped reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and created local jobs” (Marohn, K. 2012). While corn farmers do benefit from the government subsidy and an increase in demand for corn, it ends up being the cost of the tax-payer.

Finding an Alternative

Ethanol as a fuel is not all bad, just corn-based ethanol is. It is possible to create ethanol fuel from various sources. “A biofuel startup in Illinois can make ethanol from just about anything organic for less than $1 per gallon, and it wouldn't interfere with food supplies, company officials said” (Squatriglia, C., 2008). A company called Coskata, which is currently backed by General Motors and other investors, can convert almost any organic material, from corn husks to municipal trash, into ethanol using bacteria (Squatriglia, C., 2008). Companies such as this seem to be unheard of. An alternative fuel, not based on corn, and priced at $1 per gallon sounds great. The planet needs an alternative fuel immediately, but the quest for finding the perfect solution is a long one. Once a “perfect fuel” is found, it will take years for all the vehicles on the road to convert and for the infrastructure to adapt. It seems like a hopeless journey, but it is one that must be made. The current primary fuel, oil, is not only harmful for the environment, but is also coming to an end. What is even more of a problem is that while oil is running out, the demand for it is drastically increasing as world nations develop at a rapid pace. The consequences of not pursuing an alternative fuel quickly will be catastrophic. Each day that passes without a solution is a day lost. Climate change and the high cost of fuel are serious problems that cannot be taken lightly. While it is great that automobile manufacturers are currently aiming to improve fuel efficiency, they need to focus on changing their source of fuel entirely.

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As the demand for fuel rises worldwide and the current source of fuel becomes more and more expensive, an alternative must be found. Corn-based ethanol, which is a great stepping stone, will not be able to be the alternative. It uses far too much energy to produce, it interferes with the food supply, and there are much better alternatives to explore. The oil industry needs to finally step aside and allow for renewable sources of energy to step in. As the world expands and countries develop, the need for an affordable, sustainable fuel will become great. The world needs a solution to the fuel crises. Corn-based ethanol is not that solution.

The question remains, food or fuel?

The question remains, food or fuel?


(2010, February 12). M4 in Wales to be 'hydrogen highway,' say ministers. BBC News. Retrieved from on 3/15/12.

Bhattacharya, P. (2007, January 16). Ethanol could fuel rise in corn; growing demand may limit supply for poor countries. Wall Street Journal, C.3

Bjorhus, J. (2007, February 11). Ethanol: a ripple effect: livestock growers feeling squeezed as corn prices surge on demand for fuel. McClatchy - Tribune Business News, 1.

Karavalakis, G., Durbin, T. D., Shrivastava, M., Zheng, Z., Villela, M., & Jung, H. (2012). Impacts of ethanol fuel level on emissions of regulated and unregulated pollutants from a fleet of gasoline light-duty vehicles. Fuel, 93549-558. doi:10.1016/j.fuel.2011.09.021

Marohn, K. (2012, March 3). Local ethanol industry has a tough year. St. Cloud Times. Retrieved from on 3/5/12.

Patzek, T. W., et al. (2005). Ethanol from corn: clean renewable fuel for the future, or drain on our resources and pockets? Environment, Development and Sustainability, 7. 3: 319-336.

Squatriglia, C. (2008, January 24). Startup says it can make ethanol for $1 a gallon, and without corn. Wired. Retrieved from on 3/15/12.

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