Gasoline is refined from crude oil, much of which is found outside of the United States. Because we depend on external fuel sources, gasoline can be pretty pricey, and it also has sometimes-questionable implications for international relations. Besides that, gasoline emissions are harmful to the environment and contribute to poor air quality and the onset of global warming. This is why many people are now turning to alternative fuels and exploring options like electric and hybrid cars, hydrogen, and ethanol. Ethanol and E-85 are among the most popular alternative fuel types, and since ethanol is derived from corn—at least in the US—we want to examine how that affects Indiana’s corn-heavy economy.
What Is Ethanol?
But first things first: how do you actually get fuel from ears of corn? Well, there are two processes: dry milling and wet milling. Dry milling will sound familiar to anyone who’s made beer on a large scale (or is at least familiar with the process). Incoming grain is ground into a flour, combined with water and yeast, heated to reduce bacteria, and allowed to ferment for about 40-50 hours. After this, the mixture is moved into distillation tanks where the solids—stillage—sink to the bottom, and the ethanol rises to the top. Through a molecular sieve system, the ethanol is concentrated and treated with a denaturant and is then ready to ship. The stillage is converted into a feed for livestock.
Wet milling takes corn and steeps it in water and diluted sulfurous acid from 24-48 hours until the grain separates into its several parts. After that, the slurry can go through any number of processes to become various products. But the starch and leftover water from the mash is what’s used to create ethanol through a fermentation process similar to that used in dry milling.
How Do Ethanol and E-85 Power Cars?
OK, so ethanol is a kind of very strong alcohol, which you should never drink. There’s a reason dry milling adds a denaturant to the ethanol—it makes it completely undrinkable for anyone, not that you’d want ethanol in your body anyway. But you do want it in your car. Actually, there’s probably already some ethanol in the gasoline you pump in; manufacturers started adding ethanol in place of methyl tertiary butyl ether because ethanol is cheap to make and burns a little cleaner. But E-85, a fuel composed of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline, is catching on—especially in the Midwest—as flex-fuel vehicles become more popular.
While a car requires more ethanol to reach the same distance as a car powered by gasoline, ethanol improves engine efficiency and performance. But to use E-85, you need a car with a flex-fuel engine, one modified to accept larger amounts of ethanol.
How Does E-85’s Growing Popularity Affect Indiana?
Ethanol is produced primarily in the Midwest, notably in Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and Illinois, but 20 states in the country produce ethanol. Brazil is far and away the world’s largest producer of ethanol. In fact, cars there have run on ethanol for quite some time now. But Indiana is a corn-growing state, so a higher demand for ethanol surely affects the state’s economy.
For starters, the state offers tax incentives to anyone that wants to produce ethanol. This continues the national government’s long-standing tax-incentive policy to producers of ethanol as a way to get people innovating and combating the reliance on gasoline. Indiana’s Corn Marketing Council also sends thank-you kits to new owners of flex-fuel vehicles, providing information about ethanol as a renewable, cleaner alternative fuel. As ethanol production and demand for it increases, we’ll likely see more and more companies growing corn and sugar cane to support its manufacture. This could mean big things for Indiana.