Posts Tagged ‘ethanol’

Corn as food or as fuel?

Monday, February 5th, 2007

Back in November, in Can ethanol replace oil? we mentioned that ?diverting vast amount of agricultural produce from food consumption to ethanol production is unacceptable?the result will be mass starvation.?

In the United States, there is a trend of diverting corn output from food consumption to ethanol production. Needless to say, the result is an increase in corn prices. This price increase had a spill-over effect on neighbouring nations. For Mexico, since they import much of their corn from the US, the price of their staple food, tortilla, recently rose by over 400%. Since tortilla is a main source of calories for many poor Mexicans, we can be sure they would not like it as expressed by their recent protest: Mexicans stage tortilla protest.

We doubt corn has a great future as a fuel.

Can ethanol replace oil?

Wednesday, November 15th, 2006

Recently, due to worries over the prospect of sustained high prices of oil, there had been renewed interest in alternative energies (see our article: Is oil going to be more expensive?) One of the considerations for an alternative to petrol for powering motor vehicles is ethanol.

Indeed, Brazil is a working example on the successful use of ethanol as an alternative fuel. For years, cars in Brazil had been running on ethanol, which are derived from their vast sugarcane crop. In view of this, will there be a day when ethanol supplants petrol as choice of fuel for cars in a mass scale, thus reducing a big source of demand for oil? Before we can answer this question, let us examine what it takes for this to happen.

Ethanol is produced from the conversion of carbon based agricultural feedstock (e.g. sugar cane, corn, sugar beet). Currently, the world does not have a sufficient surplus of agricultural feedstock to produce enough ethanol to supplant petrol. Diverting vast amount of agricultural produce from food consumption to ethanol production is unacceptable?the result will be mass starvation.

In that case, how feasible is it to significantly increase the supply of agricultural feedstock for use in ethanol production? We believe it is not likely to be so. There are too many issues involved. We would not be able to examine every issue, but we will look at two of the most important ones. A commercially viable mass production of agricultural feedstock will require vast amount of land and water. Clearing vast tracts of fertile land (assuming that such land are available in the first place) to grow the same type of plants for extended period of time for this purpose will bring about its own environmental and agricultural issues. The next significant challenge will be the procurement of vast amount of potable and agriculturally-suitable water, which is a major issue in many parts of the world. In Australia, the naturally dry continent made worse by the drought is a case in point.

With these factors in mind, although ethanol will have its limited role to play in the world?s energy problems, we are not confident of it supplanting petrol in a mass-scale in the foreseeable future.