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Ethanol (Fuel)

What is it?

Ethanol, also known as ethyl alcohol or pure alcohol,l is a highly flammable, volatile liquid. Humans have been consuming ethanol, as the intoxicating ingredient of alcoholic beverages since before recorded history. Recent centuries have seen pure ethanol used in wide-variety of non-consumption related applications in the fields of chemistry and energy production.

The use of ethanol as a fuel or fuel additive for motor vehicles has seen rapid growth globally, with global ethanol fuel production for the transport industry tripling between the year 2000 and 2007.

How is it used?

Ethanol can be used in a variety of ways. The most common of these is as an additive in traditional gasoline fuel for automobiles. Ethanol is added at a variety of percentages depending upon engine design. Since 1999, many cars designed for the North American or European markets have been designed to run on fuel mixtures containing 0% to 100% ethanol without engine modification being required.

Who uses it?

Ethanol is becoming increasingly popular world-wide, though the vast majority of global consumption occurs in the United States (55%) and Brazil (30%), with China, Canada, Germany and France also being major consumers. Although the USA is the single largest ethanol fuel consumer, it is in Brazil where ethanol as a fuel source has seen its greatest success.

It has been mandatory to incorporate at least 20% ethanol in all motor-vehicle fuels in Brazil since 1977. By April 2008, ethanol made up more than 50% of fuel consumed by the Brazilian gasoline market. As a result the Brazilian automobile industry has become a world-leader in the production of “flexible fuel” engines, which can run on any combination of ethanol, gasoline or methanol based fuels.

Where does it come from?

Ethanol is mainly produced through fermentation of corn or sugarcane, though there has been increasing investment and research into the production of “Cellulosic Ethanol”, a derivative of the non-edible parts of plants.

Corn is the primary source of ethanol produced in the USA, with 10 million hectares of arable land being used fuel crops in 2006. This method of ethanol production results in roughly 4000 litres of ethanol produced per hectare, per year.

Sugarcane is the primary source of ethanol produced in Brazil, with 3.6 million hectares of arable land being used to grow fuel crops in 2006. This method of ethanol production tends to result in roughly 6,800 to 8,000 litres of ethanol being produced per hectare, per year. It is currently the most efficient proven method of producing ethanol on a commercial scale.

Cellulosic ethanol production is still in its infancy, but shows signs of promise for the mass-production from non-food based organic products such as wood chips and grass clippings. Production of Cellulosic ethanol has begun to expand on a commercial scale in recent years, with commercial plants currently in operation in the USA, Canada and across Europe with many more currently under construction globally.

Interesting Facts:

Henry Ford’s original Ford Model T vehicle was designed to run on ethanol fuel (1908).

Prohibition in the USA during the 1920s saw ethanol as a fuel fall into disuse in the USA amid accusations producers were aligned with illegal alcohol producers, or moonshiners.

The Italian “Mossi & Ghisolfi Group” will launch the worlds’ largest cellulosic ethanol plant at Crescentino, in North Western Italy in 2012. The facility will be capable of producing 50 million litres of Ethanol per year.

Visit our Oil, Gas and Energy for more information about different sources of fuel. Our Alternative Energy section contains articles related to biofuels.
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