What is Ethanol Biomass?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ethanol biomass is organic material which is suitable to the production of ethanol. Corn is a notable and widely used example of this, but other sources can include algae, switchgrass, and other cellulosic crops. Sourcing biomass is a concern for some ethanol producers, as they need access to materials which are energy dense and can be converted into ethanol efficiently. In some circles, biomass sourcing is a subject of contentious debate.


The term “biomass” refers more generally to organic material, classically waste material which cannot be eaten or used in industrial processes. The term is also used in ecology to talk about the total plant material in a given area, with biomass being a concern as well as biodiversity. Ethanol biomass can in fact be used in industrial processes, and some sources of biomass are actually sources of food as well.

Growing corn that is needed for ethanol takes away resources that could be used to provide food for people.
Growing corn that is needed for ethanol takes away resources that could be used to provide food for people.

To make ethanol, the biomass has to be converted so that its energy is available in the form of a fuel which people can use. Ethanol production relies on using ethanol biomass which requires less energy to grow and convert than it produces. Otherwise, the process would be inefficient, making ethanol a poor choice of alternative fuel. Crops like switchgrass are good candidates because they require far less energy to grow, and the technology for refining ethanol biomass to turn it into ethanol is improving all the time, increasing the efficiency with which ethanol can be extracted.

Some people have suggested that by treating edible food crops like corn as ethanol biomass, the ethanol industry could potentially jeopardize the stability of the food supply, as farmers might be more inclined to plant food crops for use in ethanol production. Non-food crops utilized as ethanol biomass could also theoretically supplant food crops, reducing the available food on the market. However, ethanol advocates believe that such imbalances can be avoided with thoughtful land management, and that the production of ethanol biomass does not need to impinge on food production.

A secondary issue with ethanol energy is that many governments heavily subsidize the production of ethanol biomass. Critics suggest that subsidies have propped up an artificial market, and that removing the subsidies would allow people to see whether or not there is really a market for ethanol. Advocates point out that similar subsidies are in place for many crops and industries, and that sometimes subsidies are needed to support a nascent industry until it can achieve independence. Under this theory, the need for subsidies would gradually decline as ethanol production and the demand for ethanol increased.

Some people worry farmers will be more interested in planting food crops for ethanol production than for food.
Some people worry farmers will be more interested in planting food crops for ethanol production than for food.
Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


@Melonlity -- Ethanol could be that alternative fuel people are looking for. The simple fact is that technology could make that stuff very efficient one day.

Here's an example. I have a car powered by a six cylinder engine that generated over 300 horsepower and gets 30 miles per gallon on the interstate.

Just a few years ago, a six cylinder engine that could produce that kind of power and get that kind of gas mileage was considered impossible. But, technology has evolved to make those engines commonplace.

We might see the same thing happen with regard to the miles per gallon possible with ethanol.


A huge concern with ethanol is that it simply is not as good as gasoline. You will not find commercially available cars that run on ethanol and there is a reason for that -- fuel economy with ethanol is horrible. All those "flex fuel" engines that use E85 gas (fuel which is primarily ethanol with some gasoline mixed in) get horrible gas mileage when compared to what they can manage on gasoline.

And, keep in mind that all those people who hate that gasoline with a little ethanol mixed in have a point -- their gas mileage suffers even when gas/ethanol mixtures that work well in regular engines are used.

I know people around the world are looking hard for an alternative fuel to gasoline, but it is hard to imagine that ethanol is it.


@Markerrag -- Hold on there a minute. The ethanol industry has been great for corn farmers and there is nothing wrong with that. Growing techniques mean that we should be able to meet demand and help out a few farmers that might have had trouble making ends meet without higher prices. There is nothing wrong with that.

Besides, we have been through this once before, haven't we? Remember when all those soft drink companies switched from cane sugar to corn syrup? People were concerned about the price of corn skyrocketing and that might have happened for a time, but farmers adapted and grew more corn. That's how capitalism works, right?


The people who worry about corn being used for ethanol have a point. Because there is such a demand for corn by ethanol manufacturers, that has driven up the price of corn.

When the price of corn goes up, the prices are other things rise, too. Corn, for example, is a common ingredient in poultry feed, so more expensive feed means chicken costs more. The same goes for products such as soft drinks that are sweetened with corn syrup.

If ethanol is to be a viable alternative or additive to fuel, perhaps other crops should be used.

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