Sweetly superior:

Why sugar deserves mention in the ethanol debate


Kenneth Burchfiel

Some consider corn ethanol to be the solution to America’s gasoline addiction. Certainly, it seems like the perfect fuel: good for farmers, good for drivers and great for the environment. In reality, though, a better choice for the United States lies some 4000 miles to our south, in a country that has all but conquered its own fuel problems. Sugar ethanol, the gas substitute it uses, might just be the best plant-based fuel around.

Brazil, like America, wanted a cost-effective solution to its petroleum dependency. Years later, the country has largely shifted over to sugar ethanol, a fuel both cheap and environmentally friendly. It would make sense for the United States to set up a few sugar plants of its own, but no progress has been made: 97 percent of ethanol production in America is corn-based, and no sugar conversion plant exist within its borders. That’s a shame, as sugar-based fuels are far superior to any other type of ethanol.

Consider, for starters, environmental impact. As David Tilman and Jason Hill make clear in their Washington Post editorial, “Corn Can’t Solve Our Problem,” sugar ethanol is far greener than corn-based alternatives. Sugar cane ethanol in Brazil has the potential to be 80% cleaner than gas; this bodes well for molasses ethanol, a possible fuel choice for the States. Corn ethanol, in contrast, burns only 15 percent cleaner than gasoline.

The news gets worse for corn and better for sugar. Tilman and Hill expose a jarring fact: “If every one of the acres on which corn was grown in 2006 was used for ethanol, the amount produced would displace only 12 percent of the U.S. gasoline market.” Corn ethanol is not only inefficient but potentially disastrous for food prices, too. The more ethanol produced from corn, a dominant feedstock in agriculture, the higher the cost of milk, beef and numerous other foods—high enough, perhaps, to offset the cheap price of corn-based ethanol. Fuel made from sugar cane, however, has twice the ethanol potential per acre as corn, and conflicts much less with food production.

Nor would large fields need to be cleaned to make a difference. Ethanol can be produced from molasses, a byproduct of sugar refinement that is widely available in processing facilities. To profit off molasses, sugar companies can simply add conversion plants onto pre-existing factories. This method won’t put an end to gasoline use, but it’s certainly a start.

There is, of course, the matter of cost. Because corn is so widely available for conversion into fuel, its price remains reasonably low. Sugar remains far cheaper to convert into fuel, but corn ethanol remains more profitable.

There is, however, one form of sugar that would be far cheaper to convert: molasses. A 2006 USDA report called it “economically feasible,” and went on to describe it as “the most cost-effective [sugar] feedstock.” Using cane sugar or sugar fuels for ethanol production would be very costly, but molasses, thanks to its nature as a leftover ingredient, is very cheap: a USDA-estimated 1.26 per gallon of ethanol, compared with 1.03 for corn-based fuel. As more molasses is converted, this cost disparity should decrease.

Ethanol has plenty of potential in the years ahead, but it’s important to center around the right fuel source. Brazil chose sugar over other crops, and their choice paid off greatly. It would be wise for America to forego corn and do the same.


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