Illinois should do more to take advantage of affordable, clean energy through ethanol

Using higher blends of ethanol is the kind of innovative solution we need now to address our energy and environmental challenges together.

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  A customer pumps ethanol for his vehicle. Higher ethanol blends are cleaner and safer gasoline alternative, a UIC scientist writes.

A customer pumps ethanol for his vehicle. Higher ethanol blends are cleaner and safer gasoline alternative, a UIC scientist writes.

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As a community, we have collectively weathered skyrocketing energy costs, extreme weather and drought, inflation and supply chain disruptions. These events have raised awareness of the need for meaningful climate and energy solutions. But one of the most promising, effective, low-cost, and immediate solutions often goes under-appreciated.

Ethanol, a domestic energy source produced by U.S. farmers, is key to insulating consumers from price swings at the gas pump while reducing the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions and improving air quality.

Our researchers at the Bioenergy and Transportation Emissions Research Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago, have extensively researched the benefits of ethanol, and it’s clear that Illinois and the entire country should do more to realize the full potential of this affordable and cleaner energy source. 

Here’s why: Ethanol is shown to be better for the environment than gasoline, cutting both carbon and harmful tailpipe emissions. Blending more ethanol can directly replace the most harmful components of gasoline, making higher ethanol blends a cleaner and safer alternative. This low carbon and clean air progress is amplified by the fact that ethanol expands our fuel supply and costs less, holding down prices for consumers.

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What’s more, today’s farming practices have advanced significantly and are more sustainable than ever before. Corn is being produced with less land and fewer resources. Since 1980, production has more than doubled, while primary nutrients per bushel have been cut in half, resulting in improved soil health without impacting crops. This focus on soil health practices reduces erosion, increases the amount of retained nutrients, and generally sequesters more carbon in the soil. Between carbon sequestration on farms and the deployment of carbon capture and other technologies at bio-refineries, corn-based ethanol could reach net zero emissions. 

The data shows this story of environmental progress. One of our premier research institutions on lifecycle emissions, the Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, concludes that ethanol’s carbon intensity is 44% to 52% lower than gasoline’s carbon intensity, and Argonne has found that the carbon intensity of corn based ethanol has declined 23% since 2005. As we continue to advance on-farm sustainability improvements and deploy the technologies available at scale, corn ethanol’s carbon emissions will only continue to fall.

The process of growing corn and processing it into ethanol, along with value-added co-products such as distillers’ grains for feed and corn oil for more biofuels, helps to keep farms running throughout the heartland. In Illinois alone, 13 ethanol production facilities have the capacity to produce more than 1.8 billion gallons of ethanol each year, generating billions of dollars of economic impact.

Beyond reducing carbon emissions, supporting American energy independence, and boosting local economies, ethanol improves public health, too. Ethanol’s increased use in our fuel supply has significantly reduced the amount of toxic or carcinogenic chemicals present in our fuel because ethanol directly replaces these toxic gasoline components.

What are some of these chemicals? These are primarily aromatic hydrocarbons like benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene — all of which have high cancer-causing potential, and all of which have been heavily reduced through ethanol blending by almost six percentage points between 2006 to 2016, according to my 2019 study on ethanol’s effects on gasoline’s aromatic content.

Using higher blends of ethanol is the kind of innovative solution we need now to address our energy and environmental challenges together. The science underpinning the production process has significantly advanced to the point where we no longer have to choose between providing consumers with affordable fuel options, meeting food and feed demand and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We can achieve these important goals simultaneously by expanding market access for higher blends of ethanol to extend greater environmental and economic benefits to Americans.

Steffen Mueller, Ph.D., leads the Bioenergy and Transportation Emissions Research Group at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

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