Ethanol is a highly flammable and explosive alcohol that is produced from plant crops. Ethanol is also a highly controversial and explosive topic of conversation these days. When distilled to higher concentrations, it can be used as fuel much in the same way as gasoline. In fact, as a much cleaner alternative, ethanol has emerged in the last decade or two as a miracle solution to reducing carbon emissions, in particular from automobiles. Demand for it, however, has brought about all sorts of questions, as its industrial use has arguably created food shortages throughout the globe.
To address the debate, it’s important to understand how ethanol is produced, and especially where it comes from. Making ethanol begins with the selection of a crop. While grains and corn are predominantly used, many different crops are suitable: sugarcane, sugar beets, potatoes, and even apples. The sugar content of the crop determines how much ethanol can be produced. Crops are ground up and mixed with water as a mash, in which enzymes that convert starches into sugar are combined. The resulting alcohol is separated from the water to create ethanol.
Controversy is mostly rooted in the tremendous amounts of crops used to create the alcohol. This is problematic for two reasons. First of all, by allocating crops yields to the production of fuel, food crops are reduced considerably. The lack of supply in the food chain takes corn and grains off tables, driving up prices in the process. So even though some grains may be available, they remain nevertheless unaffordable.
Environmentally, the sheer size of land needed to produce these grains becomes a serious concern as well. Deforestation already plagues huge swaths of Africa and South America, and as these economies grow, pressure mounts to use available agricultural land for the most lucrative industries, ethanol production being among them.
Notwithstanding the intricate economics of growing corn, veggie diesels, as far as fuels go, are nonetheless among the safest. Unlike petroleum-based fuels, ethanol is non-toxic and breaks down very easily if spilled. In terms of carbon emissions, it emits much lower levels than diesel or gasoline, and explosive fumes, as they exist in the latter, are barely present in it at all.
As a compromise, it is wise to suggest automobile culture – and all fuel-induced transportation for that matter – ought to be decreased altogether. In doing so, reliance on fuels including ethanol would be greatly reduced, freeing up crops to feed the billions who depend on basic grains to survive. Though perhaps idealist to think we can achieve that anytime soon, the environmental imperative requires that we do so as quickly as we can.