Global demand for fossil fuels has created an unhealthy reliance on unstable geopolitical regions and an unhealthy environment. The solution, in the minds of many, is biofuels. Ethanol is clean, green and creates new investment opportunities. What's not to like?
Today, gas stations in the United States sell a blend of fuel that includes 10% ethanol. Ethanol is derived from corn, a renewable resource. Sounds great so far, right? Yes, and no.
The Dark Side of Green
While it's true that ethanol can be created from corn, researchers are still debating whether or not the amount of energy required to produce a gallon of ethanol is greater than the amount of energy it provides. Considering that everything from the tractors that plant the corn seeds, the combines that harvest it, the trucks that haul it to market, the machines that refine it, and the trucks that deliver it to the local gas station are all running on fossil fuels, there's plenty of room for debate.
It's quite possible that the only people benefiting from the process are the farmers, refiners and investors. (To see if you should invest in this new energy source, read The Biofuels Debate Heats Up .)
There's also a little-publicized issue that's having a major impact on boat engines: ethanol is a powerful solvent. While it goes through the average car engine fairly quickly, it sits it the average boat's fuel take for a much longer period of time. In older boats, the ethanol strips the fiberglass resin off of the inside of the boat's fuel tank. When the engine is turned on, the resin is sucked into the motor, fouling it and putting the boat out of commission.(Read Peak Oil: Problems And Possibilities to learn a little more about the "non" part of this nonrenewable resource.)
In newer boats, the ethanol separates from the gasoline over time, and also attracts water. So a boat parked at the marina for a few weekends may end up with a tank full of water the next time the owner tries to take it out for a ride. Even if the motor does start, once the boat has been run and the motor is hot, it may not restart after it gets turned off. The ethanol evaporates in a hot motor, causing fuel starvation. If you don't think these problems sounds like a big deal, 18 million boaters in the U.S. alone would beg to disagree.
The Next Stage
Now the government is proposing increasing the amount of ethanol used in gasoline to 15%. At this level, even the automobile manufacturers are getting worried. Since most of the cars on the road today were not designed to run on ethanol, car makers have considered invalidating the warranties on any vehicle that uses fuel that contains more than 10% ethanol. While the world needs an alternative to fossil fuels, ethanol may not be the solution we've been seeking.