Definition of Ethanol

What Is Ethanol?

A simple substance with a long chemical name (CH3CH2OH), ethanol is a colorless, flammable, clear liquid that is produced by the fermentation or through biochemical conversion of renewable biological matter. For example ethanol can be produced from feedstocks (corn grain, barley, or wheat for instance), cellulosic feedstocks (including grass, old newspapers, wood, or crop residues), or sugar cane, though it can also be made through the refinement of petroleum byproducts for industrial use.

Ethanol goes by different names such as ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, pure alcohol, or EtOH and is the type of alcohol found in alcoholic beverages (where it is often just called alcohol or spirits). Today, it is also used as a fuel in internal combustion engines. This idea is not new – Henry Ford used ethanol in one of his first vehicle models – though it has just recently gained notoriety as petroleum fuel prices fluctuate and supplies become scarce.

Though ethanol has 34% less energy than gasoline, it is a high-octane fuel that works well in high compression ratio engines. Ethanol is blended with regular gasoline in many fuels available at the pump. Low-level blends of ethanol and gasoline start around 10% and are called E10. One of the highest, commercially available ethanol-gasoline blends is E85 with 85% ethanol, though some premium alternative fuels are available with 95% ethanol (E95).

There are many benefits to using ethanol fuel in place of or blended with petroleum-based fuels, including the following:

  • By relying on locally-produced agricultural materials, consumers support local farmers and the farmers are able to recycle waste materials.
  • Diverting funds away from foreign oil producers ensures greater local security.
  • When based on biomass materials, ethanol is a renewable fuel, unlike petroleum fuels like diesel or gasoline.

However, there are many who raise concerns about using grain-based ethanol as a replacement for large quantities of gasoline in America. This is primarily due to the fact that, as demand for crops like corn rise, prices will follow, creating financial problems for many low-income communities worldwide that depend on corn as a daily staple food. This food-for-fuel debate rages on.

Others argue that the energy required to turn some biomass into ethanol fuel is equal to the energy that is obtained from the fuel itself, making it an inefficient process. Making ethanol from sugar crops is much more efficient, by comparison.

Ethanol is used for other purposes, not just alcohol and fuel, as it can also act as a feedstock, an antiseptic, a solvent, and a treatment for poisoning by other alcohols. 

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