As we look at alternative fuels ethanol is one that has been in the news latelty. Ethanol is an alcohol-based alternative fuel produced by fermenting and distilling starch crops that have been converted into simple sugars. Feedstocks for this fuel include corn, barley, and wheat. Ethanol can also be produced from “cellulosic biomass” such as trees and grasses and is called bioethanol. Ethanol is most commonly used to increase octane and improve the emissions quality of gasoline. Currently there is research into the use of switch grass to increase the output of the biomass.

Ethanol can be blended with gasoline to create E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. E85 and blends with even higher concentrations of ethanol, E95, for example, qualify as alternative fuels under the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct). Vehicles that run on E85 are called flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) and are offered by several vehicle manufacturers. Keep in mind that if your engine is not designed to use E85, don’t use it in your engine or you may cause severe damage.

In some areas of the United States, lower concentrations of ethanol are blended with gasoline. The most common low concentration blend is E10 (10% ethanol and 90% gasoline). While it reduces emissions, E10 is not considered an alternative fuel under EPAct regulations.

How is Ethanol Made?

Ethanol can be produced from any biological feedstocks that contain appreciable amounts of sugar or materials that can be converted into sugar such as starch or cellulose. Sugar beets and sugar cane are examples of feedstocks that contain sugar. Corn contains starch that can relatively easily be converted into sugar. A significant percentage of trees and grasses are made up of cellulose, which can also be converted to sugar, although with more difficulty than required to convert starch.

The ethanol production process starts by grinding up the feedstock so it is more easily and quickly processed in the following steps. Once ground up, the sugar is either dissolved out of the material or the starch or cellulose is converted into sugar. The sugar is then fed to microbes that use it for food, producing ethanol and carbon dioxide in the process. A final step purifies the ethanol to the desired concentration.

Ethanol is also made from a wet-milling process. Many larger ethanol producers use this process, which also yields products such as high-fructose corn sweetener.