Bio ethanol – What is Holding it Back?

In 1925, Henry Ford had quoted ethanol as the ‘fuel for the future’. Today it is considered to be the front-running successor to petrol for running motor-vehicle engines. It is highly eco-friendly and burns better than petrol, due to which it is gaining recognition in Brazil and USA. Yet, even after its discovery in the early-twentieth century; the eco-friendly fuel has been able to affect only a few parts of the world whereas most of the world still relies on fossil based petrol. There are many reasons for this fact ranging from cost of fuel to lack of technology. Let us look at a few important limitations elaborately.

Cost concerns : The main and most important reason for bio ethanol’s slow entry into the petrol-dominated market is its high cost of production, which is holding back many big oil firms like Shell and British Petroleum from pumping money into this futuristic eco-friendly fuel. To be competitive and find economic acceptance, the cost for bioconversion of biomass to liquid bio ethanol fuel must be lower than the current petrol prices. There are many researches being conducted to decrease the production cost of bio ethanol fuel and many have been very successful, but none of them have been able to make large scale factory production (mainly due to cost of feedstock and inefficiency of the current technology) of bio-ethanol successful which is hurting bio ethanol’s cause.

Land requirement : Another reason why bio ethanol is lacking behind petrol is because large areas of arable land are needed for bio ethanolfeedstock cultivation. This gives rise to two problems at the same time-loss of biodiversity and food versus fuel debate. When there is a large need of arable highly fertile land for cultivation it naturally gives rise to loss of biodiversity through deforestation.  An example of this is the Amazon forests in Brazil. Due to Brazil’s growing demand for fuel, Amazon forests are facing high levels of deforestation due to cultivation of sugarcane for bio ethanol. Due to this damage to the environment the eco-friendly tag of bio ethanol comes under high level of scrutiny.

Food inflation : Due to the lucrative prices offered to farmers to cultivate feedstock for bio ethanol in many countries, there has been a major concern sparking the fuel versus food debate. Many parts of the world especially Africa, are already facing heavy food crisis and everywhere around the world the food prices are skyrocketing. Amidst this if the farmers shift to crops which provide feedstock for bio ethanol, it could bring about a global food crisis. Due to huge tracts of arable fertile land being used for bio ethanol feedstock , the land for food cultivation is being reduced resulting in lesser food production for an increasing youth population.

Technology Limitations : Although bio ethanol is considered to be a revolutionary successor for regular petrol, it lacks behind petrol in a very big way. The reason is because of the lack of technology developed to support use of bio ethanol extensively around the world. Let us look into the different aspects of the lack of technology. The major reason for slow breakthrough of bio ethanol is the lack of companies manufacturing FFVs (Flexible Fuel Vehicles), which can run on the E85 (85% ethanol and 15% petrol)   blend. Generally most of the vehicles today can run with maximum of 15% ethanol mixed with petrol (E10 blend) but to use the more eco-friendly E85  blend one has to drive the FFVs which only a handful companies like Chrysler and GM manufacture.

Mileage concerns : Ok, even if enough FFVs are manufactured, there is a big problem with bio ethanol which matters a lot to a common man-lower per litre energy value (EV). This means that per litre of ethanol produces lesser energy as compared to the usual petrol, which means the common man has to do without a very important factor with his vehicle – the mileage. It has been observed that there is no significant change in the mileage of a vehicle while operating on the E10 blend as compared to petrol. The problem starts occurring when higher concentration of bio ethanol is used, for example it has been observed that there is 25-30 % drop in the mileage due to ethanol’s lower energy content.

Other problems and limitations

Now these are the problems which one can see from outside, but there are many problems due to which the current engines will face trouble while operating on ethanol.  One of which is also a major boon for bio ethanol-higher octane rating. Yes, the reason which makes ethanol a good fuel also makes it dangerous to use due to its high flammability, and hence it needs more caution while handling.

Ethanol is a very good solvent and cleansing agent, and used extensively for industrial use, which causes it troubles when used in car engines. Bio ethanol when used in car engines will dissolve in it almost anything that is accumulated in the fuel tank or the motor engine. A simple example of the problem caused due to its solvent properties is that bio ethanol dissolves the resins creating a black sludge that coats and travels through the engine, causing engine stalling and other complications, like clogged fuel filters carburettors and injectors. Apart from this the cleansing quality although useful, causes the dirt and gunk to travel through the engine clogging the parts of the engine, and hence affecting their life. This will cause a lot of hassles for the consumer to keep his vehicle in a good shape.

Although bio ethanol is considered carbon neutral, many believe that the cultivation of feedstock, production of fuel and lower mileage, neutralises its eco-friendly factors. But it is a well known fact that compared to petrol (or gasoline), bio ethanol helps us reduce our carbon footprints. This is proved by the fact that many nations are encouraging their citizens to move to the E10 and E85 blend, with Australia recently joining USA and Brazil in having effectively introduced the ethanol blends. Before ethanol becomes widely used across the globe, more research will be conducted and it will be scrutinized, but there is a desperate need for a successor to the rapidly depleting petrol.