Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy

, Volume 12, Issue 4, pp 373–380 | Cite as

Growing America’s fuel: an analysis of corn and cellulosic ethanol feasibility in the United States

  • Dan Somma
  • Hope Lobkowicz
  • Jonathan P. DeasonEmail author
Original Paper


Recent excitement over ethanol in the United States has been unmatched by other alternative energy sources. To a certain extent, the mention of ethanol by President Bush in the past four State of the Union Addresses has politicized the debate and generated a high level of support for increased ethanol production in both Congress and the private sector. In December 2007, President Bush signed into law the Energy Independence and Security Act, which increased the renewable fuel standard that was mandated under the Energy Policy Act of 2005 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. “Growing fuel” has appealed to politicians, the American public, and powerful agricultural interests all for different reasons. Whether or not the large-scale ethanol production and distribution of ethanol is efficient is not easily understood. Corn-based ethanol is so heavily subsidized through federal tax credits and even state credits that its true cost is hard to determine (Gardner in J Agric Food Ind Organ 5:4, 2007). The high corrosiveness of ethanol and its tendency to absorb water damages existing fuel infrastructure and requires special equipment and supply chains for transportation (Rusco and Walls in Biofuels, petroleum refining and the shipping of motor fuels. Institute for Advanced Policy Research, Technical Paper TP-05008, 2008). Perhaps, most importantly, the agricultural availability for energy crops is intertwined closely with food crops; corn prices are influenced by the converging demands of ethanol, feed crops and human consumption. After examining the feasibility of recent goals for alternative fuels in the context of corn and cellulosic ethanol production, we are unable to validate that corn-based ethanol is worthy of continued pursuit as a viable, comprehensive alternative to gasoline. On the other hand, we find the argument for cellulosic production more compelling due to the ubiquitous availability of amounts and variety of feedstock, combined with a high potential for far reaching and decentralized refineries. Our work indicates that a transition to advanced, cellulosic feedstocks for ethanol is absolutely necessary for increased biofuel production and reduced petroleum use to occur. However, in light of the lack of commercial availability of key components needed for cellulosic ethanol production, we conclude that the feasibility of cellulosic ethanol as a mainstream fuel will require many changes in technology and federal funding. Thus, we conclude that, in the short term, ethanol cannot meet the energy security and environmental goals of a gasoline alternative.


Corn ethanol Cellulosic ethanol Transportation fuel Feedstock Renewable fuels standard Energy 



The authors would like to thank Dr. David Pimentel of Cornell University, Carmela Bailey of U.S. Department of Agriculture, Dr. Jack Santa-Barbara of McMaster University, Dr. Vincent Chiang of North Carolina State University, Dr. Michael Wang of Argonne National Labs and Rachel Miller of BP America for their time and enthusiasm.


  1. Bailey C (2007) USDA (Department of Agriculture). Interview, 29 October 2007Google Scholar
  2. Briggs M (2008) Widescale biodiesel production from algae. Aquac Mag 34:24–32Google Scholar
  3. Chicago Board of Trade (2007) Weekly Chartbook for CBOT ethanol futures contract. U.S. Wholesale Posted Prices in Platt’s Oilgram Price Report, 2 October–29 December 2006Google Scholar
  4. Demirbas A (2005) Bioethanol from cellulosic material: a renewable motor fuel from biomass. Energy Sources 27:327–337CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Fales S, Hess JR, Wilhelm WW (2007) Convergence of agriculture and energy: producing cellulosic biomass for biofuels. CAST Commentary, USDA PublicationGoogle Scholar
  6. Farrell A, Plevin R, Turner B, Jones A, O’Hare M, Kammen D (2006) Ethanol can contribute to energy and environmental goals. Science 311:506–508CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) (2006) Report on ethanol market concentrationGoogle Scholar
  8. GAO (Government Accountability Office) (2007) Crude oil—uncertainty about future oil supply makes it important to develop a strategy for addressing a peak and decline oil productionGoogle Scholar
  9. Gardner B (2007) Fuel ethanol subsidies and farm price support. J Agric Food Ind Organ 5:4Google Scholar
  10. Greene N (2004) Growing energy—how biofuels can help end America’s oil dependence. Natural Resources Defense Council, USAGoogle Scholar
  11. Hymel E (2002) Ethanol producers get a handout form consumers. The Heritage FoundationGoogle Scholar
  12. Lave L, Griffin WM (2006) Import ethanol, not oil. Issues Sci Technol 22:40–42Google Scholar
  13. Lin Y, Tanaka S (2006) Ethanol fermentation from biomass resources: current state and prospects. Appl Microbiol Biotechnol 69:627–642CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Lynd L (2006) Overview and evaluation of fuel ethanol production from cellulosic biomass: technology, economics, the environment, and policy. Ann Rev Energy Environ 21:403–465CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. McAloon A, Taylor F, Yee W (2000) Determining the cost of producing ethanol from corn starch and lignocellulosic feedstock. A joint USDA & USDOE Study. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, ColoradoGoogle Scholar
  16. Miller R (2007) Director, Federal Affairs, BP Americas. Email correspondence, 5 NovemberGoogle Scholar
  17. National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (2009) Accessed 27 April 2009
  18. Perlack R, Wright L, Turhollow A, Graham R, Stokes B, Erbach D (2005) Biomass as feedstock for a bioenergy and bioproducts industry: the technical feasibility of a billion-ton annual supply. USDA and Department of Energy, Oak Ridge National Laboratory ReportGoogle Scholar
  19. Philips S, Aden A, Jechura J, Dayton D (2007) Thermochemical ethanol via indirect gasification and mixed alcohol synthesis of lignocellulosic biomass. National Renewable Energy Laboratory Technical Report, USAGoogle Scholar
  20. Pimentel D (2007) Professor of Agriculture and Life Sciences, Cornell University. 20 October, Email CorrespondenceGoogle Scholar
  21. Pimentel D, Patzek T (2005) Ethanol production using corn, switchgrass, and wood; biodiesel production using soybean and sunflower. Nat Resour Res 14:1CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Pimentel D, Dougherty R, Carothers C, Lamberson S, Bora N, Lee K (2002) Energy inputs in crop production: comparison of developed and developing countries. In: Lal R et al (eds) Food security and environmental quality in the developing world. CRC Press, Boca RatonGoogle Scholar
  23. Renewable Fuels Association (2007) U.S. fuel ethanol industry plants and production capacityGoogle Scholar
  24. Righelato R, Spracklen D (2007) Carbon mitigation by biofuels or by saving and restoring forests? Science 317:902CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Rusco FW, Walls WD (2008) Biofuels, petroleum refining and the shipping of motor fuels. Institute for Advanced Policy Research, Technical Paper TP-05008Google Scholar
  26. Schnepf R (2006) Agriculture-based renewable energy production. Congressional Research Service Report to Congress RL32712Google Scholar
  27. Searchinger T (2008) Use of U.S. croplands for biofuels increases greenhouse gases through emissions from land use change. Science 319:5867CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. USDOE (Department of Energy) (2007) Press Release, DOE selects six cellulosic ethanol plants for up to $385 million in federal funding, 28 February 2007Google Scholar
  29. USEIA (Energy Information Administration) (2009) Alternatives to traditional transportation fuels 2007Google Scholar
  30. Varvel G, Vogel K, Mitchell R, Follett R, Kimble J (2008) Comparison of corn and switchgrass on marginal soils for bioenergy. Biomass Bioenergy 32:18–21CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Wang M (2005) Energy and greenhouse gas emissions of fuel ethanol. Presentation at the National Corn Growers Association Forum, The National Press Club, 23 August 2005Google Scholar
  32. Wang M, Saricks C, Santini D (1999) Effects of fuel ethanol on fuel-cycle energy and greenhouse gas emissions. Argonne National Laboratory, ILGoogle Scholar
  33. Yacobucci B (2007) Fuel ethanol: background and public policy issues. Congressional Research Service Report for Congress RL33290Google Scholar
  34. Yacobucci B, Schnepf R (2007) Ethanol and biofuels: agriculture, infrastructure, and market constraints related to expanded production. Congressional Research Report for Congress RL33928, 16 March 2007Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  • Dan Somma
    • 1
  • Hope Lobkowicz
    • 1
  • Jonathan P. Deason
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.The George Washington UniversityWashingtonUSA

Personalised recommendations