After watching a series of documentaries presented by the BBC in their climate watch series, I think its about time that we reevaluate corn- derived ethanol’s green credentials.
By: Vanessa Uy
Corn-derived ethanol is a bio fuel derived from fermenting corn syrup that can be mixed with varying amounts of gasoline or petrol that can run conventional gasoline engines with varying degrees of very minor modifications. At first, anyone, including the experts will testify that this is a very good way to limit our technological society’s continuous adding of carbon dioxide into our atmosphere, which is the main cause of global warming. Note: that corn plants are continually growing and producing fruits and every time it does this it removes- the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere where the gas increases the greenhouse effect- sending it to the corn’s various parts where the carbon dioxide is converted to cellulose. This is the idea behind “carbon capture” where excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is removed from where it causes the most harm to where it can be stored safely like the corn’s cellulose structure. As we already know, excess carbon dioxide produced by our technological society is contributing to the greenhouse effect that’s warming up our planet thus increasing the strength of new hurricanes causing widespread damage.
This carbon capture solution via the widespread planting of corn crops for use in bio fuel production seems like hitting two birds with one stone. Since corn plants are sustainable because it continually bears fruits where the corn-derived ethanol can be processed unlike “fossil fuel” sources like petroleum in which the gasoline or diesel fuels derived from this doesn’t revert back to petroleum as opposed to a bio fuel like corn-derived ethanol.
So, what’s the problem? After watching those BBC documentaries on their climate watch series, so far, the scientists haven’t yet conducted studies on the extent on how truly carbon neutral (i.e. doesn’t contribute carbon dioxide into the atmosphere) plant derived bio fuels are from all levels of production to usage. After the corn-derived ethanol is burned in an internal combustion engine either for transport or electricity generation, the resulting carbon dioxide gas lingers in the atmosphere for a while. No study yet exists if how long should this carbon dioxide be allowed to linger in the atmosphere before it becomes a problem. It takes a relatively long time for this carbon dioxide to be absorbed into the corn’s cellulose structure compared to the length of time ethanol is produced from the corn. Also, the process of harvesting the corn and fermenting it into ethanol takes energy at present, this energy is likely being generated by burning fossil fuels. And another thing, fermenting the sugars in corn syrup to ethanol produces carbon dioxide that eventually escapes into the atmosphere. Whether this amount of carbon dioxide is more or less than the one generated by the corn-derived ethanol when burned in an internal combustion engine is yet to be studied.
Also, using crops which are originally intended as food so that affluent people could continue to drive around their cars without being penalized by up and coming stricter environmental laws might cause more harm than good. Back in 2005, Mexican corn growers marched in protest against using corn as fuel because this might increase corn prices increasing the burden on the poor who are most likely to use corn as food as opposed to using corn to fill up their cars.
Fortunately until a newer study of this nature is presented, bio fuels like corn-derived ethanol might only be a bit cleaner than their fossil fuel derived counterparts. The BBC, CNN, Discovery Channel, National Geographic or any other environmentally oriented media corporation are not likely to run out of ideas for documentaries about how to take better care of our planet.
To know more about the carbon cycle and view detailed diagrams check out “enviropedia.org.uk”.