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Water, Energy, and Carbon Footprints of Bioethanol from the U.S. and Brazil

  • Mesfin M. Mekonnen*
    Mesfin M. Mekonnen
    Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska 68583, United States
    *Phone: +1-402-472-5392; e-mail: [email protected]
  • Thiago L. Romanelli
    Thiago L. Romanelli
    Department of Biosystems Engineering, College of Agriculture “Luiz de Queiroz” (ESALQ), University of São Paulo, São Paulo 13418-900, Brazil
  • Chittaranjan Ray
    Chittaranjan Ray
    Nebraska Water Center, Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska 68583, United States
  • Arjen Y. Hoekstra
    Arjen Y. Hoekstra
    Twente Water Centre, University of Twente, P.O. Box 217, 7500 AE Enschede, The Netherlands
    Institute of Water Policy, Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, 469A Bukit Timah Road, 259770, Singapore
  • Adam J. Liska
    Adam J. Liska
    Department of Biological Systems Engineering, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska 68583, United States
  • , and 
  • Christopher M.U. Neale
    Christopher M.U. Neale
    Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Nebraska 68583, United States
Cite this: Environ. Sci. Technol. 2018, 52, 24, 14508–14518
Publication Date (Web):November 14, 2018
Copyright © 2018 American Chemical Society

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    Driven by biofuel policies, which aim to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and increase domestic energy supply, global production and consumption of bioethanol have doubled between 2007 and 2016, with rapid growth in corn-based bioethanol in the U.S. and sugar cane-based bioethanol in Brazil. Advances in crop yields, energy use efficiency in fertilizer production, biomass-to-ethanol conversion rates, and energy efficiency in ethanol production have improved the energy balance and GHG emission reduction potential of bioethanol. In the current study, the water, energy, and carbon footprints of bioethanol from corn in the U.S. and sugar cane in Brazil were assessed. The results show that U.S. corn bioethanol has a smaller water footprint (541 L water/L bioethanol) than Brazilian sugar cane bioethanol (1115 L water/L bioethanol). Brazilian sugar cane bioethanol has, however, a better energy balance (17.7 MJ/L bioethanol) and smaller carbon footprint (38.5 g CO2e/MJ) than U.S. bioethanol, which has an energy balance of 11.2 MJ/L bioethanol and carbon footprint of 44.9 g CO2e/MJ. The results show regional differences in the three footprints and highlight the need to take these differences into consideration to understand the implications of biofuel production for local water resources, net energy production, and climate change mitigation.

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