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Corn Ethanol: Using Corn to Make Fuel?

Co Authors:

Joshua D. Hartman
Department of Chemistry
University of California, Riverside

Jack F. Eichler
Department of Chemistry
University of California, Riverside


This problem-based case study guides students through a systematic exploration of the scientific issues surrounding the production and development of bio-fuels. A PowerPoint presentation introduces a New York Times article outlining the impact current Federal renewable-fuel standards have on the allocation of our annual corn crop. The article argues that our current policy, which diverts approximately 40 percent of the annual corn crop towards ethanol production, is based on unfounded claims that such a practice will decrease our reliance on fossil fuels, decrease the cost of gasoline, decrease carbon dioxide emissions and increase the overall supply of gasoline. Students are next given two primary literature articles that address relevant scientific and technical considerations. The case study is designed to illustrate the direct application of chemical kinetics and catalysis to a timely issue with important political and economic ramifications. This case study is designed for a second semester/second quarter general chemistry course, and is generally presented after the units on chemical kinetics and rate laws have been covered.

  • Highlight the relevance of chemistry to current world issues.
  • Apply basic chemical knowledge to complex, multifaceted problems.
  • Develop the ability to critically analyze primary literature and draw conclusions based on the data and evidence contained therein.
  • Develop the ability to communicate scientific and technical concepts in both written and verbal form.
  • Foster the development of fundamental chemistry skills such as the kinetic analysis of chemical reactions, balancing chemical reactions, partial pressures, and calculations involving fractional distillation.
Keywords: Chemical kinetics; catalysis; stoichiometry; fractional distillation; bio-fuels; ethanol; renewable fuel; corn; sustainability
Topical Area: Policy issues
Educational Level: Undergraduate lower division
Formats: PDF, PowerPoint
Type/Method: Analysis (Issues), Journal Article, Problem-Based Learning
Language: English
Subject Headings: Chemistry (General)   Environmental Science   Botany / Plant Science   Chemical Engineering  
Date Posted: 7/25/2014
Date Modified: N/A
Copyright: Copyright held by the National Center for Case Study Teaching in Science, University at Buffalo, State University of New York. Please see our usage guidelines, which outline our policy concerning permissible reproduction of this work.

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