There has been a lot of buzz lately about ethanol. Not only is this a renewable fuel that can be produced domestically, but tailpipe emissions from ethanol offer dramatic reductions in greenhouse gases, toxins, and particulates compared to gasoline. BP is trying to get in on the positive press associated with the renewable fuel. They recently made a deal to buy a cellulosic-ethanol business for $98.3 M from the Verenium Corporation. The federal Renewable Fuel Standard puts policy in place that works to make renewable fuels like ethanol sustainable and right now the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is studying whether or not to increase the maximum allowable amount of ethanol in standard gasoline from 10% to 15%. Corn growers and clean transportation advocates are very excited about this possibility.

However, ethanol doesn’t just come from corn and the type of corn used for ethanol is not suitable for human consumption. Cellulosic ethanol is different from the standard variety because it is made from a structural component of plants. It can be produced from non-food crops like wood, grasses, and even cornstalks that would otherwise be waste products. This type of ethanol will become more important as the world’s population grows because the source material, or “feedstock”, can be grown on lands not suitable for most crops so it does not need to compete with food production.

Watermelon is now also being considered as an ethanol feedstock after the discovery that lycopene can be easily extracted from it and sold as a nutritional supplement. Conservatively, it is estimated that to meet the demand for the supplement 10,000 additional acres of watermelon will need to be planted. This process is expected to produce 29 million gallons of watermelon juice per year, which can be turned into ethanol. To read more from this report, click on the “Watermelon to Ethanol Proposal” link on this page.

This is in no way a complete list of materials or processes from which ethanol can be made, and more are currently in development. America has a long history of technological innovation from perfecting the light bulb to developing safer drinking water treatment to the internet. We also have a successful model of a working ethanol economy in Brazil and can learn from their successes and mistakes. Mainstreaming the use of ethanol as a fuel has been a challenge, but one the U.S. and Michigan can overcome, helping to increase the success of domestic fuel production. Individuals like you are making a difference every day by purchasing flex fuel vehicles and using E85 fuel. Check to see if your vehicle is ethanol compatible here.