The Ethanol Highway

Most of us have heard about the “Hydrogen Highway,” that mythical roadway which, along with bullet trains and bridges to nowhere, may actually get built someday at a staggering expense to the taxpayer (to be fair – we’re as hopeful as anyone the formidable technological barriers to using hydrogen as a transportation fuel are eventually overcome). But meanwhile, as of last week, the first ethanol highway in the United States is open for business – I65, stretching from the Great Lakes to the Gulf of Mexico. Corn ethanol is a viable transportation fuel today, not someday, and implementation of this ethanol highway, the first of many, is an exercise in practicality, not pipe dreams.

For 886 miles, from Gary, Indiana, all the way to Mobile, Alabama, drivers of flexfuel vehicles who wish to purchase E85 fuel (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) are now no more than one quarter-tank away from a filling station offering the blend. To make this a reality, a consortium of partners including General Motors, the States of Indiana, Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, as well as the DOE, Clean Cities, and many others, worked to convert and certify hundreds of retail fuel stations along the entire length of I65. Overall, there are now over 1,800 retail filling stations offering E85 in the USA, just over 1% of the total stations.

The future of ethanol depends on a few key factors: The availability of flexfuel vehicles, the availability of retail outlets that offer E85, and the quantity of E85 available to the consumer. There are about 7.0 million flexfuel vehicles already on the road in the USA, and in many parts of the country – the Midwest in particular – E85 is readily available. Gaining UL certification for ethanol refueling equipment, which should occur early next year, will greatly accelerate the adoption of ethanol pumps at major chains of gasoline retailers. The real wild card is the availability of ethanol.

As specified in the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007, the United States has committed to blending up to 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2030. Currently the United States consumes about 130 billion gallons per year of gasoline, meaning – taking into account a somewhat lower energy content per gallon in ethanol vs. gasoline – by 2030 ethanol can replace over 20% of today’s gasoline consumption. Given the potential of electricity and natural gas powered vehicles to also offset gasoline demand, combined with the increasing average fuel economy of the US light vehicle fleet, it is possible these 36 billion gallons of ethanol will actually provide more than 20% of liquid transportation fuels being consumed by 2030.
post resumes below image

Cellulosic ethanol is mandated via EISA to provide nearly 50% of total
ethanol production by 2022. In reality, cellulosic ethanol can provide
up to about 100 million gallons per year, far more than EISA’s goals.
(Source: General Motors)

With 2008 production of corn ethanol projected to reach nearly 10 billion gallons, and with additional refineries already under construction to produce another 2 billion gallons, it is evident the potential for corn crops to supply ethanol is reaching its limit. Whether or not corn ethanol production reaches 15 billion gallons, or is throttled down to somewhat less than that, the future of ethanol lies in the ability to produce it from cellulosic material. Dozens of companies are hot on the trail of commercializing cellulosic ethanol production – via two primary technologies, biochemical conversion or thermochemical conversion. Two companies at the forefront of this process are Coskata, who have a hybrid process that relies initially on thermochemical conversion of cellulosic feedstock, and Mascoma, who are pioneering a 100% biochemical conversion process.

For more information on cellulosic ethanol, read our in-depth report “Cellulosic Ethanol.” We will be covering this extensively in future posts, given the potential of cellulosic ethanol is to deliver quantities of fuel well beyond the 16 billion gallons per year targeted by the U.S. Congress for delivery by 2022. Cellulosic ethanol production, if successfully commercialized, based on known feedstocks, could conceivably reach 100 billion gallons per year – which when considered along with the other ways gasoline is destined to be either replaced or used far more efficiently, is another reason we are on the verge of an age of plenty, not an age of scarcity.

4 Responses to “The Ethanol Highway”
  1. Willie says:

    A note to the author- while hydrogen may be a mythical cure like ethanol I would suggest that the existence of high-speed rail in many other countries reveals that the barriers are not technological but political.

    Also you never see mention of the costs of producing ethanol. A number of analyses have suggested that corn ethanol is no better carbon wise than natural gas. Is this being considered or are we just accepting ethanol as a cure with no critical analysis?

  2. Willie – for those of us concerned about CO2 emissions, there are some lifecycle analyses that render the carbon profile of corn ethanol quite close to that of natural gas. The major variables are the nature and origin of the fertilizer inputs, other inputs, as well as the distance from field to refiner to retailer. In areas not requiring irrigation or imported petrochemical fertilizers, where the refiner and retailer are within a reasonable radius, I doubt natural gas can beat corn ethanol.

  3. This is a great post! I agree that ethanol should be part of an energy independence plan. If you’d like to follow coverage of the ethanol industry in the United States, check out Toni Nuernberg’s blog Ethanol Conversations ( Let us know what you think.

    Joanna Schroeder
    EPIC Communications Director

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