To start, I’ll have to say that I currently side of the arguments against corn-ethanol. In the current times, I’m convinced that the promotion of corn-ethanol is simply a political maneuver to get more votes. However, I believe it is important to continually reevaluate whether or not the corn ethanol industry is worthy of support. One must concede the following thoughts. Because of these political maneuvers, whether vote-motivated or not, a great sum of money is being provided for the research into ethanol related technologies. There are a couple of smart people in the world. New technologies may be found that provide the solutions to making corn ethanol energy positive. If these technologies were realized, there may be more reason to support the new fuel. However, one problem still looming with the idea of using food for fuel is that the two competing markets of the ethanol and food industries will drive the price of corn to higher and higher levels. To put this in perspective, we currently have mandates to displace 30 percent of our gasoline consumption with ethanol (NREL). As research has progressed, the current literature may be suggesting that corn-ethanol in fact is energy positive and that there may be solutions to the competitive industry problems as well.
Many of the qualified analyses report a negative Net Energy Balance for Corn Ethanol. However, various assumptions have to be made during the analysis process. Some values are considered and some aren’t. The USDA article, The 2001 Net Energy Balance of Corn-Ethanol by Dave Shapouri et al., indicates that the output to input ratio of corn-ethanol is in fact positive. The report compares the most recent literature focused on the plausibility of using corn-ethanol as fuel. The results of this analysis show an output to input ratio of 1.06 without credits. Yet byproducts may be harvested from the manufacturing process of corn-ethanol. With these adjusted credits, the output to input ratio becomes 1.67.
There are other processes being researched that may sway the opinions of the educated. In the report, Recovery of Corn Oil from Ethanol Extracts of Ground Corn Using Membrane Technology by Kwiatkowski et al., the major finding was that, using nanofiltration membranes during the ethanol production permits the ability to recover a large quantity of corn oil and other proteins. As corn oil is a highly valued product in the food industry, this may add anywhere between thirty to fifty cents per bushel of corn.
The above is an important find. Corn-ethanol currently only exists because of a 51 cent per bushel government subsidy. With an added value to the ethanol manufacturing process of 30 to 50 cents could almost wean the corn-ethanol industry off of the subsidy. Simultaneously, that value may be applied to the food industry which would experience a decrease in corn byproducts because of the increased manufacture of the ethanol derived.
Corn-ethanol still has a long way to go before it may be fully accepted as a viable fuel source. However, since research is now producing smart methods to get around our problems, corn-ethanol may soon find it’s acceptance.