Ethanol, without the corny problems


Advertise with us

No corn was harmed in the production of this ethanol, but an unfathomable number of specially developed microbes were horribly inconvenienced.

Read this article for free:


Already have an account? Log in here »

To continue reading, please subscribe:

Monthly Digital Subscription

$4.75 per week*

  • Enjoy unlimited reading on
  • Read the E-Edition, our digital replica newspaper
  • Access News Break, our award-winning app
  • Play interactive puzzles

*Billed as $19.00 plus GST every four weeks. Cancel anytime.


Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/08/2015 (2847 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

No corn was harmed in the production of this ethanol, but an unfathomable number of specially developed microbes were horribly inconvenienced.

So sorry.

Using food for fuel was certainly one of the most ridiculous notions ever floated in the quest for energy independence. While it was an interesting experiment, it’s a notion that suffers from several fatal flaws, not the least of which is a waste of agricultural land.

An acre of corn, according to a study by Cornell University, produces merely 1,241 litres of ethanol. The same acre uses about half that in fossil fuels to farm and costs about US$347, which works out to about $0.27 per litre of ethanol produced. That the corn is usually a non-food, industrial variety doesn’t change the fact the land is taken out of food production.

To put that into perspective, to displace the entire U.S. yearly gasoline consumption with corn-based ethanol would require 417 billion acres of land, or about half of the entire U.S. supply of arable land, and cost $144 trillion per crop year. (Before the corn lobby hits me with the same silly straw-man argument they did the last time I made this comparison, nobody is suggesting replacing the entire U.S. supply. This is just perspective.)

If you consider the net displacement is only half the total ethanol produced per acre, double those numbers. Of course, we haven’t even mentioned the fact ethanol has 27 per cent less energy than gasoline. Or that it takes, according to Stanford University, about 800 gallons of water to produce a bushel of corn, which produces about three gallons of ethanol.

Still, ethanol does have some advantages, including lower net greenhouse gas emissions due to its recycling of carbon-dioxide emitted by today’s plants (or factories), as opposed to oil, which is releasing the CO2 of plants and animals that grew millions of years ago.

But in a world where food shortages are increasing, diverting agricultural land from producing food to powering the thirst of gas-guzzling SUVs is hardly environmentally sound.

So, if you could find away to produce ethanol using more compact facilities than billions of acres of land, and using little to no fossil fuels in production, you might be on to something.

Enter Joule. This Dutch-American company has developed an ethanol plant in Hobbs, N.M., that at full-scale would take up 10,000 acres and use little more than waste carbon-dioxide from industry, non-potable water and sunlight to produce the equivalent of 50 million barrels per year for about US$1.20 per gallon, or about 32 cents per litre.

The technology is a fascinating use of organics: tiny genetically engineered microbes are continuously circulated in non-potable water through clear tubes covering the production field. Activated by sunlight, and surrounded by bubbles of CO2, the microbes chew through the CO2 and produce ethanol, which is stripped from the solution before the microbes, water and CO2 head out to do it all over again.

The process continues for weeks before the system is flushed and re-inoculated with fresh microbes.
Joule said the water would come from brackish water sources or waste water, and in later versions of the system would be recycled. The CO2 would be piped in from the waste exhaust of industrial gas heat sources, such as smelters or other heat-intensive factories.

Essentially, the recycling of CO2 in such a way turns burning the ethanol in cars to a zero-sum game, since the CO2 that eventually comes out of the exhaust of cars is CO2 that would otherwise have been spewed by the factory.

At the Joule plant in New Mexico, carbon dioxide enters the production field at the left and ethanol emerges on the right.
At the Joule plant in New Mexico, carbon dioxide enters the production field at the left and ethanol emerges on the right.

Since the system doesn’t involve traditional agriculture, it does not displace any arable land. The best location is a combination of maximum sunlight and proximity to a large source of CO2, such as a factory with heat-intensive processes.

Another trick involves using metal catalysts to transform carbon monoxide into ethanol.
At Stanford University, researchers have developed a means of converting carbon monoxide into ethanol at room temperature and at normal atmospheric pressure.

The process looks a lot like that high-school science experiment where you crack water into oxygen and hydrogen. Electrodes are placed into a solution of water and carbon monoxide gas, but instead of conventional metallic electrodes, the team used oxide-derived copper, which is covered in tiny copper nanocrystals. Instead of oxygen and hydrogen, acetate and ethanol are produced.

Researcher Matthew Kanan said 57 per cent of the electricity applied to the electrodes was converted into ethanol, which is 10 times the efficiency of previous experiments using conventional copper electrodes.

In reality, using electricity to produce any kind of fuel only makes sense when the electricity is cheap and clean, such as hydro, solar or wind generation.

Ethanol got a bad rap for displacing food to create fuel, but as new ways of creating ethanol are discovered, it might yet be a fuel of the future.

Kelly Taylor

Kelly Taylor
Copy Editor, Autos Reporter

Kelly Taylor is a Winnipeg Free Press copy editor and award-winning automotive journalist. He's been a member of the Automobile Journalists' Association of Canada since 2001.

Report Error Submit a Tip


Advertise With Us