Corn Ethanol Use in the Midwest

David Parry
December 14, 2014

Submitted as coursework for PH240, Stanford University, Fall 2014


Fig. 1: Ethanol plant in Burlington, Iowa. Iowa is one of the World's leaders in ethanol production. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

The Midwest United States of America is one of the largest corn producers in the world. Because the Midwest has such a large surplus of corn, it would be very beneficial to have an energy source from this crop. Ethanol is a biofuel that is derived from the alcohol made from the sugars found in grains such as corn, sorghum, or barley. [1]

Although ethanol can be produced from sugars found in potato skins, rice, sugar cane, sugar beets, yard clippings, bark, and switchgrass, the most common production of ethanol primarily uses the grains of corn.

While ethanol is more expensive to produce than fossil fuel based diesel, ethanol yields cleaner-burning fuels with fewer air pollutants. [1] Ethanol fuel consumption has been on the steady increase since the early 1980s.

What is Ethanol?

Ethanol, otherwise known as ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, and EtOH, is a pure form of alcohol that is made from the fermenting of sugars. Cornstarch is converted into the necessary sugars through a process that yields what is called cellulosic ethanol. [2]

It is a clear colorless liquid contains the hydroxyl group (-OH) bonded to a carbon atom. It is a high octane fuel, yet by the gallon, contains 34% less energy than gasoline. [1]


Initially, Henry Ford designed the Model T to run on Ethanol. Ethanol and gasoline competed throughout the 1920s and 30s but ethanol eventually was overtaken due to major oil discoveries and the cost effectiveness of gasoline.

Ethanol use eventually made resurgence during World War II in the face of fuel shortages, yet did not stay in commercial use. In the energy crisis of the 1970s ethanol production began again intended for automotive use.

Since the 1970s more and more government policies and subsidies have been developed to promote the increased production, use, and sale, of ethanol as a fuel source. [2] An example of this is the U.S. Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which mandated a goal of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2022. [3]


Using the sugars from corn syrup or corn based animal feed; ethanol is produced through a distillation process that is identical to the distillation used in producing alcohol for beverage consumption. [2]

Ethanol is mostly used in blends, most commonly in either E10 (10% ethanol, 90% gasoline) or in E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline). E10 can be used in all engines without modification, however in order to for an engine to properly function over an extended period of time while using E85, modifications must be made. These blends must occur because Ethanol is a high-octane fuel that could produce too much power for an engine designed to run on low-octane unleaded gasoline. [1]


While ethanol still trails petroleum-based gasoline in terms of cost efficiency, it is continuously closing the gap. Ethanol could eventually overtake gasoline in terms of pricing if oil prices continue to rise. [4]

Ethanol burns cleaner and yields less harmful emissions than that of petroleum-based fuel, however one issue would be converting and modifying engines to be able to run on blends that are comprised of higher amounts of ethanol, such as E85.

What makes ethanol so attractive to the Midwest is the surplus of corn that could be used for its production. With increased ethanol use, the Midwest decreases its reliance on foreign oil and also creates a viable export to help stimulate the economy.

With Ethanol blends now comprising 70% of gasoline sold within the United States, it seems that subsidies and other government policies are helping increase ethanol use. [3] Because there is such a large surplus of corn in the Midwest, it would be very beneficial for not only the environment, but also for the citizens if oil dependency was lessened, and a reliant stimulant to the economy was found in ethanol.

© David Parry. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] B. Yacobucci and R. Schnepf, Energy: Ethanol (TheCaptor.Net, 2010).

[2] K. G. Glozer, Corn Ethanol: Who Pays? Who Benefits? (Hoover Institution Press, 2011).

[3] S. C. Pryor, Climate Change in the Midwest: Impacts, Risks, Vulnerability, and Adaptation (U. of Indiana Press, 2013), p. 18.

[4] R. Rapier, Power Plays: Energy Options in the Age of Peak Oil (Apress, 2012), p. 121.