Did you know that the energy balance of sugarcane-based ethanol is more than five times greater than that of corn-based ethanol? Alright, let’s unpack what this means. Ethanol is a compound that when combined with carbon, burns to produce energy. It is generated from plant matter, and the two most common types of plants are sugar and corn. When ethanol burns, carbon dioxide is released. However, because ethanol comes from plants, the production and use of ethanol encourages planting, which is environmentally friendly since plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to grow. This makes ethanol fuel more environmentally safe than fossil fuels, since the production of ethanol helps to compensate for the carbon dioxide that is released in the use of ethanol, something that does not happen with fossil fuels.
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Many nations, including the United States, primarily produce corn-based ethanol, which, as we learned above, is less energy-efficient than sugar-based ethanol. Brazil is the world’s largest producer of sugar-based ethanol, but most of its ethanol is currently being consumed by the domestic market. Not only is sugarcane ethanol environmentally sustainable, but it is also cheap. Because Brazil has replaced nearly 42% of its gasoline needs with sugarcane ethanol, its carbon dioxide emissions have decreased by over 300 million tons in the last thirteen years. This is equivalent to planting 2.1 billion trees and maintaining them for twenty years.
We now know that the energy balance of sugar-based ethanol is seven times greater than that of corn-based ethanol. Energy balance is defined as the “difference between the energy expended to convert the crop into ethanol and the amount of energy released from its consumption”. When corn-based ethanol is produced, the energy released when it is burned is only 1.3 times greater than the energy that was used up to make the ethanol. For sugar-based ethanol, the energy released is 8 times greater than the energy required to make it. In Brazil, it costs $450 to produce a cubic meter of sugar-based ethanol, which is $80 cheaper than producing the same amount of corn-based ethanol in the United States. Furthermore, an acre of land that is used to grow sugarcane produces around two times the amount of ethanol as an acre of land used to grow corn. Clearly, there are numerous advantages to using sugar-based ethanol over corn-based ethanol.
Not only do we want more people to use sugar-based ethanol, but we also want more people to simply use ethanol as a fuel source in general. If countries were to raise taxes on crude oil, it would become more expensive, which would make it easier for ethanol-based gasoline to compete with fossil fuels.
Countries can also raise the standard for ethanol concentration in gasoline to at least 18% (in Brazil the gasoline is 18-27% ethanol). In addition, any countries that have tariffs on ethanol imports should remove them to encourage a switch from fossil fuels to more renewable energy sources. The European Union has a high tariff on imported ethanol, making it less accessible to those who live there. The United States removed the tariff on imported ethanol in 2012. Finally, we should all increase the manufacturing of cars that support ethanol-based fuel. Given the current state of our changing climate, it is more important than ever to make a big change regarding our energy use, and the switch to sugar-based ethanol would play a needed role in helping to save the environment and the planet from the devastating effects of global warming.