Ethanol (Rhymes With 'Cornball')

May 12, 2009

An article in Science magazine says that growing corn for ethanol is an inefficient use of farmland. (Of course, if you've been paying attention, this isn't really news.) A better option? Growing trees that can be burned to produce volts for electric vehicles. Sorry, hippie friends.

According to the authors' calculations, an acre of crops, converted to ethanol, would provide about 9,000 miles worth of fuel for a small SUV with a combustion engine. An acre's worth of trees or switchgrass, however, could be converted into electricity and provide around 14,000 miles worth of travel in a similar-sized battery-powered vehicle. Big difference.

There are environmental advantages to ditching ethanol and combustion engines, too. Obviously EVs produce fewer emissions than traditional cars--even hybrids:

Powering an electric vehicle using crops would...prevent the release of up to 10 tons of CO2 per acre compared with a similar sized gasoline-powered car. That "offset" of unreleased CO2 is roughly double that of bioethanol-powered cars.

Not only that, but given CO2-capture technology, the process of generating electricity from burning trees is potentially carbon-negative. That contrasts pretty starkly with the environmental impact of corn production, including fertilizer runoff and the effect that withholding corn for ethanol has on world food supplies. (Hint: doing so forces farmers in other countries to mow down forests and create arable land.)

So, problem solved, right? Well, except for the fact that very few people on Planet Earth have fully electric vehicles. Other than that, great news.

[source: Sciencemag via NYTimes]

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