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Ethanol: More than beer

by Joy Kikuchi, Science and Environment editor


By now, most people have heard about ethanol as an alternative fuel source. Most people also know that by April 2006, most gasoline in Hawai‘i will be mixed with ethanol. But has everyone heard about how it will help their wallets?


Hawai‘i lawmakers recently created an incentive program that gives producers of ethanol and their investors to up to $2 in tax credit. This is very attractive to many mainland companies, four of which are planning to move here because of the credits. Not only is this an opportunity for local investors, but in Hawai‘i, ethanol will be produced from sugar cane, which could give a boost to a dying industry, as well as create jobs.

Another economic plus of ethanol is that all sales of ethanol-blended gasoline will be exempt from sales tax until December 2006. This means that consumers, too will benefit from the tax breaks and credits in the form of lower prices at the pump.

Ethanol is also known as ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, or just alcohol. It is the ingredient in beer, wine, spirits, and—as another article in this issue informs us, AWOL—an alcohol aerosol. Ethanol has been made since ancient times. Ethanol, today, is used a lot by the medical and manufacturing industries, and plays a big part in everyone’s lives; it can be found in varnishes, perfumes, paints, explosives, medicines, and disinfectants. Did I mention that you also drink ethanol in most liquor? Hangovers, alcohol poisoning, and drunken driving are all due to too much ethanol consumption.

Ethanol’s best purpose, when it comes to the environment, is as an alternative fuel source. It can stand alone as a fuel, but most ethanol you find at the pump—or will find—is a 10 percent mixture with gasoline. However, E85, or 85 percent ethanol fuel, and 95 percent ethanol fuel may be readily available in Hawai‘i once the industry is up and running. There should be no worry about using higher concentrations of ethanol in your cars as well (although some models may need certain modifications). Most automobile manufacturers, including Ford, Chrysler, and General Motors, approve ethanol blends, and in fact, the Model T was designed to run on pure ethanol. Ethanol also burns at a lower temperature than gasoline—reducing the burning of engine valves—and will remove contaminants and residues from previous gasoline use.

Ethanol is also a renewable fuel source, important in these days of depleting fossil fuel supplies. And since it isn’t a fossil fuel, burning it does not release greenhouse gases or deplete the ozone layer. Using ethanol as a gasoline will also reduce emissions released by most fossil fuels, such as carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, cancer-causing benzene and butadiene, ground-level ozone, nitrogen oxide, and carbon monoxide. Also, since it is made from plants, ethanol is quickly biodegradable. In water, it breaks down into nontoxic compounds, preventing it from contaminating water supplies. This means fewer oppurtunities massive oil spills and environmental disasters.

The best thing about ethanol is it can be produced locally, using whatever biomass is available. So, if you can’t wait to stop harming the environment with expensive gasoline, one Web site, Journey to Forever, tells you how to make it in your backyard. Of course, you will need a still, and a “small fuel producer” permit from the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. (Then you could benefit from the tax credits too!)

For more information on ethanol (or to find out how to produce your own) visit For more information about ethanol in Hawai‘i, visit



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