Ethanol is a clear, colorless alcohol fuel made from the sugars found in grains such as corn, sorghum, and wheat. It is a renewable fuel because it is made from plants. Corn is the main ingredient for ethanol in the United States. It is low in price and great in abundance. Most ethanol plants are located in the Midwest where there is a large supply of corn. At the plants, the starch from the corn is fermented into sugar, and then the sugar is fermented into alcohol. Other crops such as barley, wheat, rice, sorghum, sunflowers, potatoes, sugarcane and sugar beets can also be used to produce ethanol.
Sugarcane and sugar beets are the most common ingredients for ethanol in other parts of the world. Since alcohol is created by fermenting sugar, sugar crops are the easiest ingredients to convert into alcohol. Brazil, together with the U.S. producing 85 percent of the world’s ethanol, makes most of its ethanol from sugarcane.
As a transportation fuel, ethanol can be used as a total or partial replacement for gasoline. About 98 percent of the gasoline sold in the U.S. contains some amount of ethanol. Using fuel that contains ethanol can help reduce some air pollution in urban areas.
Some states promote more widespread use of E10. Minnesota, for example, requires that all gasoline sold in the state contains 10 percent ethanol. All modern vehicles that run on gasoline can use E10 without making changes to their engines.
E85 is an alternative fuel that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. E85 is used mainly in the Midwest. Vehicles are not modified to run on E85; they are specifically manufactured as “flexible fuel vehicles.” These types of vehicles can use any mixture of ethanol and gasoline up to E85.
Using ethanol means that we use a little bit less gasoline, which is a nonrenewable fuel. Unlike gasoline, ethanol is nontoxic, which means it is safe to handle. It is also biodegradable; it quickly breaks down into harmless substances if spilled. When small amounts of ethanol are added to gasoline, usually less than 10 percent, there are many advantages. Ethanol makes the air cleaner, and it reduces carbon monoxide and other toxic pollution from the tailpipes of vehicles.
Ethanol keeps engines running smoothly without the need for lead or other chemical additives. Because ethanol is made from crops that absorb carbon dioxide and give off oxygen, it helps reduce green house emissions. This carbon cycle maintains the balance of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere when using ethanol as a fuel.