MAIL: Another Perspective on Ethanol


I enjoyed reading "The Big Picture for Biofuels” by Brad Berman in HP143, but I’m surprised the author did not mention the logical alternative to industrial-scale corn-based ethanol—small-scale ethanol sourced from culled and damaged crops, beverage and bakery waste, and discarded food that comprises, by some accounts, nearly 30% of the food stream in the United States. He aptly applies “think small and local” to biodiesel, where home-brew buffs have made viable inroads, but seems to have overlooked the fact that small-scale private and cooperative distillation has produced clean, high-octane alcohol fuel since the 1920s, albeit not so much on our shores.

You could have reviewed my book, Alcohol Fuel: Making and Using Ethanol as a Renewable Fuel, which sheds considerable light on practical, small-scale biofuel production. Mr. Berman hit the nail on the head when he mentioned the influence of the corn–lobby states in influencing policy, particularly the E85 program (7.5 million flex-fuel vehicles on the road) and a waiver of the Clean Air Act (to raise the national ethanol-blending percentage from 10% to 15%).

But what is being left unsaid is significant: Unlike Europe, where diesel passenger cars represent 50% of the market, we have far more gasoline-powered cars on the road than diesels (at less than 2%), so developing a replacement for unleaded gasoline would seem to take priority. Also, the automotive industry in general and automotive engineers in particular show little interest in optimizing spark-ignition engines for ethanol. With an octane rating of 106, only basic modifications to existing engines are required to markedly improve the combustion efficiency of ethanol fuel; that done, the fuel-mileage differential goes away. In ethanol-rich Brazil, Fiat markets a Siena TetraFuel sedan, developed as a joint venture between Fiat Group and electronics developer Magneti Marelli. It burns gasoline, ethanol, or CNG (motorists compare prices at the pump before they fill up) and has the ability to switch between fuels automatically, adjusting ignition timing and fuel pulse width without compromising emissions control.

For some reason, we seem to equate ethanol exclusively with corn, with the result that the only good ethanol is no ethanol. This is one case in which size matters, because the flexibility of a small-scale ethanol fuel operation allows it to adapt to a variety of available non-food feedstocks far more easily and with less economic penalty than an industrial-scale ethanol plant could.

Richard Freudenberger • Hendersonville, North Carolina

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