A new method for making ethanol could eliminate the need for growing so much corn. (Photo: Scott Olson/Getty Images)
Scientists announced yesterday that they've developed a new way to produce ethanol — a development that has potentially massive implications for the alternative fuel.
The research was done by Stanford University scientists, and published in the latest edition of the journal Nature. The hope is that this new technique will decrease the environmental footprint required to produce liquid ethanol, which is currently used as a fuel source and as an additive in gasoline to lower tailpipe emissions.
Here's how it works:
While the majority of ethanol in Canada and the United States is currently produced from corn, sugarcane and wheat, the new method wouldn't use any crops at all. Instead, the process uses carbon monoxide and copper to produce liquid ethanol. When copper is electrified in a carbon-monoxide and water solution, a chemical reaction produces ethanol. The copper greatly increases the efficiency of the reaction, making the process viable for large-scale production.
Ultimately, researchers hope to develop technology to efficiently (and sustainably) convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into carbon monoxide, which could then be used to make liquid fuel. If that were to happen, the whole process would essentially be carbon-neutral.
"I emphasize that these are just laboratory experiments today. We haven't built a device," said Matthew Kanan, the Stanford scientist who led the study. "But it demonstrates the feasibility of using electricity that you could get from a renewable energy source to power fuel synthesis — in this case ethanol. There are some real advantages to doing that relative to using biomass [such as corn] to produce ethanol."
Ethanol has been a controversial addition to the global energy landscape. While corn-based ethanol produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions than gasoline (three to four per cent fewer, according to Natural Resources Canada), critics argue that the resources required to produce it — both in the form of pollution from large-scale farming and impacts on food production and security — diminish its potential as a green alternative. It takes more than 3,000 litres of water to grow just one bushel of corn, which only yields about 11 litres of ethanol. In 2011, roughly 40 per cent of corn grown in the United States went to ethanol production, which impacts both food prices (corn is a principal ingredient in animal feed) and government incentive programs for production of specific types of crops.
Researchers hope that they'll be able to efficiently scale-up production based on this research. If they can do that, they'll be one step closer to creating a carbon-neutral process for ethanol production.