Sunday, April 30, 2006

Ethanol Fuel: Hope or Hype?

Summer is approaching. And with it comes vacation time when, traditionally, Mom and Dad load their 2.4 kids into the old minivan and head out for fun in the sun.

This summer, however, there will be fewer families who will be able to afford it. Instead, they may have to pass their free time sitting out on the porch, watching the price of gas go up on the sign at the filling station down the street.

With the price of a gallon of gasoline hovering close to three bucks, I wax nostalgic about the days when I first started to drive. Gasoline was about 32 cents a gallon and I could fill up my old American Motors Rambler for less than five dollars.

I seldom actually filled it up, though. Five bucks was a lot of cash for me back then.

Last month, for the first time ever, it cost me more than 30 dollars to fill my tank up. And, no, I don’t feel better about it knowing that Europeans are paying three times what we’re paying for gas. That’s their problem.

It’s when gasoline goes over three dollars for a gallon that talk starts getting louder about alternative fuels, such as ethanol. And right now, the buzz is almost deafening.

Sometime this month, representatives from the three big automakers will gather on Washington to tell Pres. Bush that we need to divert more resources into building our ethanol infrastructure. In other words, the automakers want more gasoline stations to start selling E85, the 85-percent ethanol fuel.

Ethanol is a type of alcohol that can be made from corn, soybeans, grass, and even waste matter derived from plants. Ever since the 1970s gas stations have been selling ethanol blends, sometimes called gasohol. But those blends typically contain only about 10 percent ethanol and can be used in all cars.

E85 can only be used in cars with engines specifically designed to burn it. My car can’t.

But, like with almost everything new and upcoming, ethanol has its critics. They say ethanol fuel takes more energy to produce than what it contains. In other words, some say it takes more than a gallon of gasoline to produce a gallon of ethanol. And gallon for gallon, ethanol doesn’t contain as much energy as gasoline.

Ethanol proponents, however, counter that the figures of the critics are off. Everyone agrees that ethanol contains only about two-thirds as much energy as gasoline. But it has a higher octane, so engines can be made that will burn it more efficiently.

In addition, ethanol is cleaner to burn. It, therefore, causes less air pollution, making ethanol more environmentally friendly.

And even though ethanol still produces the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide when it is burned, the corn that is grown to produce ethanol soaks up that CO2. The carbon dioxide released from burning gasoline is new and has no sink mechanism to remove it from the air.

So is ethanol really the alternative fuel of the future for our cars?

It all depends on whom you ask. Proponents say it’s just around the corner. But critics say it will only increase, not decrease, our dependence on fossil fuels.

One thing that most experts agree on is that it won’t be economical to produce until it can sell for about $3.79 a gallon. But with gasoline prices increasing as fast as they are, that could be any day now.

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