Whats cooking Doc?

In 1944, Bugs Bunny made an impassioned appeal for an Oscar in What’s Cooking Doc? It is an entertaining show with clips of A Star is Born (a movie about actors winning awards which won the Academy Award for Best Story, very 4th wall) and the Bugs Bunny cartoon Hiawatha’s Rabbit Hunt (an animated loony toon based on The Song of Hiawatha by Longfellow and nominated for an Academy Award which has since become controversial).

So what does a Looney Toon that is a parody of itself have to do with ethanol?

If you follow me down the rabbit hole, I’ll show you what’s cooking, Doc.

Ethanol is a chain of hydrogen and carbon (with some oxygen added in for flavor) and it is one of the oldest known chemical reactions. To create most ethanol, a process of fermentation is used. As yeast consumes sugar it produces both ethanol and carbon dioxide. This process may sound familiar to some. In addition to creating ethanol to be used as fuel, it is used to create ethanol for consumption, or, as it is commonly known, alcohol. The cooking up of this substance is a long standing and noble profession (I even know a couple of brewers) that has its roots in the very origin of civilization.

Creative Commons License photo credit: Chuck “Caveman” Coker

There have been many times that ethanol has been brought to the forefront of the news.

One of those times was in 1919 with the Constitutional amendment on prohibition and again in 1933 with the Constitutional amendment repealing prohibition.

Ethanol has again been brought to the forefront because of its use as an alterative to gasoline. Ethanol burns when ignited. From the very beginning of its use people have know this. In the 1850’s it was a major fuel for lighting. During the American Civil War, a tax was placed on it to help raise money. The first mass produced car, the Model T, could run off of ethanol just as well as gasoline. Because of the decreasing cost of gasoline, and the outlawing of ethanol (see above), gasoline became the choice fuel for cars.

But now ethanol is back in the mix of things.

Ethanol is renewable. Because it is made from the fermentation of plants, such as corn and sugar (I’m sure you could make it from potatoes as well), we can always grow more plants. It could even be considered carbon neutral, meaning that the amount of carbon taken in by the plant is released when it is burned. Most gasoline in the United States has some ethanol mixed into it. Up till 2011 the maximum in gasoline was 10% ethanol. Now it can go up to 15% (called E15), but not all vehicles on the road can handle that much ethanol. If the car was made in 2001 or since, it can probably handle E15. If the car is older, you should probably not use E15. To be on the safe side check to make sure your car can handle it.

Ethanol based bio fuels have made some good headlines at the 49th Annual Air show in Paris. Other bio fuels are also being considered for airlines, such as a cooking oil based fuel.

Corn and Cornier
Creative Commons License photo credit: swanksalot

While ethanol has many great properties, it also has its detractors.

Ethanol is not as energy rich as gasoline. Gasoline contains about 34 Megajoules per liter (MJ/L) while ethanol has just 21 MJ/L. Megajoules has nothing to do with Bejeweled or with a great concert by a famous singer.

Joules is a measurement of energy (also referred to as “work”) that is mass times distance all over time. It can be expressed as Watts times seconds as well as Kilograms time meters squared all over seconds squared. A megajoules is one million (pinky to lips) joules. Therefore the fuel with more joules can get more work done.

It also means that if I filled up a car with just ethanol, I would have to refill it more often than I would with a gasoline powered car. Also ethanol is currently made from plants that I could also eat. In the United States we get most of our fuel ethanol from corn. In Brazil they make ethanol from sugar. I enjoy both of these as food. If I burn them in my car I can’t eat them.

It would be better to use things I won’t eat such as switch grass or lawn clippings. Cellulose based ethanol is just that. It is made from the cellulose which is the main component of the plant’s cell wall. All plants have them. It surrounds them. It binds them all together. But that is bleeding edge technology. While there are some cellulose ethanol plants up and running, it’s still easier and cheaper to use food for fuel.

They are also looking at different algaes and fungi (or what we call Eumycota at a party) to produce ethanol and other hydrocarbons.

In June of 2011, Congress voted to end some of the subsidies to the ethanol industry. It will be interesting to see how this changes the game, if at all. The major driver for the ethanol fuel has been demand for ethanol based fuel and not the federal subsidy. It seems that the farmers will be ok.

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About Daniel

An inveterate punster, amateur chef, and fencer, Daniel B has a double degree in History and Museum Science from Baylor. He currently serves as the Assistant Program Coordinator for the Wiess Energy Hall and Adult Education at HMNS.

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