The use of ethanol as an alternative motor fuel has been steadily increasing around the world for a number
of reasons. Domestic production and use of ethanol for fuel can decrease dependence on foreign oil,
reduce trade deficits, create jobs in rural areas, reduce air pollution, and reduce global climate change carbon
dioxide buildup. Ethanol, unlike gasoline, is an oxygenated fuel that contains 35% oxygen, which reduces
particulate and NOx emissions from combustion.
Ethanol can be made synthetically from petroleum or by microbial conversion of biomass materials through
fermentation. In 1995, about 93% of the ethanol in the world was produce by the fermentation method and
about 7% by the synthetic method. The fermentation method generally uses three steps: (1) the formation of a
solution of fermentable sugars, (2) the fermentation of these sugars to ethanol, and (3) the separation and
purification of the ethanol, usually by distillation.
Fermentation involves microorganisms that use the fermentable sugars for food and in the process produces
ethanol and other byproducts. These microorganisms can typically use the 6-carbon sugars, one of the
most common being glucose. Therefore, biomass materials containing high levels of glucose or precursors to
glucose are the easiest to convert to ethanol. However, since sugar materials are in the human food chain,
these materials are usually too expensive to use for ethanol production.
One example of a sugar feedstock is sugarcane. Brazil developed a successful fuel ethanol program
from sugarcane for a number of reasons: (1) Brazil traditionally relied heavily on imported oil for transportation
fuels, which caused a severe economic drain on the country; (2) Brazil can attain very high yields of
sugarcane; and (3) Brazil has also experienced periods of poor sugar markets.
As a result, the Brazilian government
established programs supportive of the industry with the result that Brazil has been able to successfully
produce and use sugarcane for fuel ethanol production.
Although fungi, bacteria, and yeast microorganisms can be used for fermentation, a specific yeast (Saccharomyces
cerevisiae also known as Bakers’ yeast, since it is commonly used in the baking industry) is frequently
used to ferment glucose to ethanol. Theoretically, 100 grams of glucose will produce 51.4 g of ethanol
and 48.8 g of carbon dioxide. However, in practice, the microorganisms use some of the glucose for growth
and the actual yield is less than 100%.
Other biomass feedstocks rich in sugars (materials known as saccharides) include sugar beet, sweet sorghum,
and various fruits. However, these materials are all in the human food chain and, except for some
processing residues are generally too expensive to use for fuel ethanol production.
Another potential ethanol feedstock is starch. Starch molecules are made up of long chains of glucose
molecules. Thus, starchy materials can also be fermented after breaking starch molecules into simple glucose
molecules. Examples of starchy materials commonly used around the world for ethanol production include
cereal grains, potato, sweet potato, and cassava. Cereal grains commonly used in the US for ethanol production
include maize and wheat.
Approximately 475 million tonnes of maize were produced in the world in 1990 with about 200 million
produced in the US. Approximately 8 to 9 million t, or 4% of US maize grain went into ethanol in 1990. A
bushel of maize grain (25.3 kg or 56 lb. at 15% moisture) can produce from 9.4 to 10.9 L (2.5 to 2.9 gallons)
of pure ethanol, depending on the technology used.
Starchy materials require a reaction of starch with water (hydrolysis) to break down the starch into fermentable
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