For some time now we've been hearing about ethanol as an alternative fuel or fuel additive, a biofuel that is supposed to be renewable and eco-friendly. The only problem is that, as the US has been promoting and subsidizing ethanol, it is anything but.
Ethanol in the US comes from corn, That's all well and good. But there are two problems with corn as a feedstock for ethanol production – production uses as much fossil fuels as the ethanol is supposed to replace; and it's driven up commodity corn prices, making it far more expensive for use as food, something that hurts people in countries where corn is a major foodstuff.
There are other crops that could be used as a feedstock that would be far better than corn. Corn requires a considerable amount of work to grow and harvest. It also requires fertilizer and pesticides to ensure a good crop, both negatives when it comes to return on investment, money and energy-wise.
While Brazil uses sugar cane, and quite successfully at that, it isn't a crop that can be grown throughout the US as it can be there. From my reading it appears that switch grass may be America's best bet when it comes to producing ethanol. It requires little work once the seed is spread. It doesn't need fertilizer or pesticides. The conversion process is a bit different that that used for corn, relying more on an enzymatic process, but it requires little external energy in comparison to corn to make ethanol.
While the process hasn't been perfected, meaning that it has not yet been scaled up to produce the millions of gallons of ethanol needed, in the long run it makes sense to use this ubiquitous plant rather than corn. But don't hold your breath when it comes to making the change over.
There are hundreds of millions of dollars to be made from corn based ethanol. Much of that comes from government subsidies and some comes from the ever higher corn prices that diversion of corn to ethanol production has created. Changing over to a non-subsidized crop as a feedstock would cause many in the ethanol business to lose money, and farmers would not see the gains from the subsidies and higher commodity prices. Therefore it is unlikely we'll see a change any time soon and we'll continue to pay higher prices for ethanol, for corn, and see little return from the energy required to complete the corn-to-ethanol cycle.