The Car that Drinks and Drives

Ethanol better than gas at fueling cars

The car of the near future might work on alcohol. A new study has shown that ethanol can be produced much more efficiently that gasoline (and cheaper) and it also seems to be a more environmental friendly solution.

Several past studies suggested that the process of producing alcohol for fuel might consume more energy than the resulting amounts of energy. However, Daniel Kammen's team from the University of California, Berkeley, looked more carefully at these studies and found several errors. The errors ranged from incorrect unit conversions to reliance on data from outdated methods more than a century old.

It turned out that, compared to the amount of energy that goes into producing gasoline from fossil fuels; producing ethanol is much more economical. Moreover, Kammen's team looked into levels of greenhouse gases produced by both, and arrived at the conclusion that the use of ethanol would reduce the greenhouse gas emissions by around 13 percent.

According to Kammen, the production of ethanol fuel would be even more efficient if instead of being fermented from corn, it would be fermented from woody, fibrous plants.

"It looks to be that you can get just about twice the amount of energy by going the cellulose route, and greenhouse emissions are very small," Kammen said.

However, the technology for producing ethanol from such plants is still too expensive. Nevertheless, various investors have already started to pump up money into research. These include high-profile names such as Microsoft Corp. chairman Bill Gates and Sun Microsystems co-founder Vinod Khosla. Kammen estimates that the cellulosic technology could enter the commercial market within five years.

The transition to ethanol cars would not be very difficult as the conversion of one automobile to run on the so-called flex-fuel (a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) costs about 100 dollars. In US there are already 5 million flex-fuel cars and trucks, although the offer of ethanol fuel lags behind the demand.

The most advanced country in this aspect is Brazil, which has converted nearly all its cars and gas pumps to run on a 96 percent ethanol fuel produced from sugarcane. The benefits are not only ecological. Since sugarcanes are produced locally, this fuel is half the price of the price of imported gasoline.

It is interesting that the first investigation into fuel ethanol dates back to Henry Ford.

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