What is Ethanol Biofuel?

Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

Ethanol biofuel is a gasoline alternative distilled from certain agricultural crops. Although considered by some to be a revolutionary discovery, ethanol biofuel has in fact been used since the early days of automobile invention. While technically a renewable resource, many environmental experts suggest that this alternative fuel carries considerable consequences for both the planet and its inhabitants.


The production of ethanol biofuel begins with the planting and growth cycle of many plants. Starchy crops, such as sugar, potatoes and corn, are particularly efficient when used for the creation of ethanol. After achieving desired growth, crops are harvested and put through a fermentation process that creates ethanol. The biofuel is siphoned off and processed to achieve consistency and the correct balance or concentration.

Biofuel processors can turn corn into a liquid fuel known as ethanol.
Biofuel processors can turn corn into a liquid fuel known as ethanol.

Ethanol biofuel can be used as a gas alternative or added to traditional gasoline in certain concentrations. Adding ethanol to regular gasoline cuts down on the amount of fossil fuels required, making the process slightly more sustainable. Using ethanol biofuel in vehicles is hardly a new idea; Henry Ford was a great proponent of ethanol, and some of his early model cars ran entirely on this alternative fuel.

The United States, with its vast agricultural heartland, is the world's leading producer of ethanol. Much of the product from this country is made with corn, an extremely common crop. However, controversy rages over the use of corn crops for ethanol production; detractors suggest that food sources are being depleted as farmers take advantage of greater subsidies offered for ethanol-producing corn. This problem becomes far greater on the world stage. Some experts suggest that the tremendous upswing in crops used for ethanol will lead to an increase in malnutrition and starvation in developing countries around the world.

Ethanol biofuel is often touted as a renewable, environmentally-friendly form of alternative fuel, but this claim is widely disputed. The production and manufacturing process of ethanol creates considerable carbon dioxide pollution, as well as causing topsoil depletion through some growing methods.

Moreover, the production of ethanol requires tremendous amounts of water. While this may not cause an immediate problem in developed countries, usable water is a scarce commodity in many parts of the world that grow ethanol crops. Often wrongly regarded as an infinite resource, water sources risk considerable depletion if dependency on ethanol production continues to grow.

Proponents suggest that investing time and resources into ethanol development is an important step in weakening dependence on fossil fuels. New methods of production, such as biofuel algae, can make use of waste water sources and prove to be sustainable and far more productive than traditional crop sources. Although the battle over its status as an environmentally friendly fuel continues to rage, the demand for ethanol fuel has shown a steady increase since the turn of the 21st century.

Henry Ford was a great proponent of ethanol, and some of his early model cars ran on this alternative fuel.
Henry Ford was a great proponent of ethanol, and some of his early model cars ran on this alternative fuel.
Jessica Ellis
Jessica Ellis

With a B.A. in theater from UCLA and a graduate degree in screenwriting from the American Film Institute, Jessica is passionate about drama and film. She has many other interests, and enjoys learning and writing about a wide range of topics in her role as a wiseGEEK writer.

You might also Like

Readers Also Love

Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- Yet another concern is that fuel economy does suffer when it comes to ethanol. That is why those "flex fuel" engines get worse gas mileage when dealing with fuel with a high ethanol content. The stuff just isn't as good as pure gas for economy.

But, there are some areas where that pure gas just is not available. So, you have to put up with ethanol whether you like it or not.

And that is precisely why the tip you gave out about the ethanol fighting additives you mentioned is so valuable.


@Soulfox -- The problem with using pure gasoline is that it is always more expensive than gas cut with ethanol. In my area, pure gasoline costs about 20 cents more per gallon. That's not a whole of money here and there, but it does add up over time.

Luckily, there are some very inexpensive additives you can buy that will counteract the damage done to small engines by ethanol.


One very bad thing about ethanol that a lot of people don't seem to know about is how bad it is for lawn mowers. I had a push mower die after only a couple of seasons and wondered why.

I read the owner's manual (I'm ashamed to admit I didn't start out with that manual) and learned that ethanol destroys the floats in the carburetors in those things and causes all sorts of other problems.

How can you avoid fuel with ethanol in it? Gas stations will let you know which fuels have ethanol and which ones do not by disclosing that information on gasoline pumps.

Post your comments
Forgot password?