Target Grade Level / Age Range:

High School: 9-12


50 Minutes


As a result of this lesson, the student will …

  1. Identify what materials can be utilized to produce ethanol.
  2. Identify characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of fermentation in raw materials.
  3. Identify and recognize the factors that play an integral role in ethanol production.


  • Writing surface
  • Overhead projector
  • Ear of corn
  • Jar of soybeans
  • Apple (or other type of fruit)
  • Sugar Beet
  • Potato
  • Fast food sack
  • Ethanol Product Matrix Characteristics Cards

Suggested Companion Resources


  • Fermentation- Any of a group of chemical reactions induced by microorganisms or enzymes that split complex organic compounds into relatively simple substances, especially the anaerobic conversion of sugar to carbon dioxide and alcohol by yeast.

Interest Approach or Motivator

Place the following items in the front of the room: Ear of corn, jar of soybeans, apple or other type of fruit, sugar beet, potato, and a fast food sack. Ask students which items they think could be made into ethanol? Explain that all the items could be made into ethanol. Which one of these items is the best item to make ethanol from? Allow students to answer. The answer to that question can change. It depends upon several factors some of which might be economics and availability.


OBJECTIVE 1. Identify what materials can be utilized to produce ethanol

Explain to students that the production of ethanol comes from the fermentation process. Define fermentation and have the students write the definition in their notes. There are many products as you have already seen that can go through the decomposition process to produce ethanol.

  1. Ethanol is a product of the fermentation process of a variety of raw products.
    1. Definition of fermentation : A chemical decomposition which takes place in an organic substance exposed to the air, due to the action of microscopic organisms.
    2. Ethanol production product categories
      1. Feedstock: Raw materials that are readily converted to fermented sugars.
        1. Sugar- sugar beets, sugar cane, sweet sorghum, ripe fruits.
        2. Starch- grains, potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes
      2. Wastes: Forest material, garbage, sewage, crop residue
        1. Cellulose- stover, grasses, wood

Those products can be placed into two categories - feedstock and wastes. All the products in those two categories can be further classified into three types. Those types are sugar, starch or cellulose. How would each of the products in the front of the room be classified?

Pass out the ethanol inputs worksheet to help students identify the characteristics of these inputs.

OBJECTIVE 2. Identify characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of fermentation in raw materials.

Have students work in groups of three to match certain products used for ethanol production with specific characteristics, advantages and disadvantages. Give each group a set of characteristic cards. When student have correctly matched the products with the characteristics have them raise their hands and check their answers. Pass out the ethanol inputs worksheet and have them use the cards to capture the information. Then work through the right hand columns with the students to identify advantages and disadvantages for each product.

  1. There are many characteristics, advantages and disadvantages of using different materials for the production of ethanol.
    1. Sweet sorghum
      1. Sorghum bicolor
      2. Produced in past in small production for table syrup
    2. Jerusalem artichoke
      1. Produces sugar in the top growth- and stores it in the roots and tubers
      2. Perennial so it comes back year after year.
    3. Sugar cane
      1. Sugar cane is only grown in four states in the United States
    4. Fodder beets
      1. Promising sugar crop due to its high yield.
      2. Popular in the UK
      3. Higher fermentation than sugar beets and comparable high resistance to loss of fermentable sugars during storage
    5. Sugar beets
      1. Can be frozen in cold winters as cheap storage
      2. Requires only one gallon of water to make a gallon of ethanol
      3. Feedstock is 19% sugar
    6. Fruit crop
      1. Use of grapes, apricots, peaches and pears.
      2. More valuable at the raw stage then converting them into ethanol.
    7. Starch crops- In starch crops, most of the 6-carbon sugar units are linked together by enzymes that break down long chains into short 6-carbon chains or pairs.
      1. Two subcategories of starch crops:
        1. Grains- corn, sorghum, wheat, barley
        2. Tubers- potatoes, sweet potatoes
      2. Relative ease in which these products can be stored with minimal loss during production.
      3. Additional equipment needed
      4. Additional labor
      5. Additional energy costs with breaking down the chains
    8. Crop residue
      1. The backbone of sugar and starch crop’s- stalks, leaves
      2. Composed of mainly cellulose
      3. Cellulose must be broken down into sugar before it can be used by yeast and produced into ethanol.
      4. Breaking of cellulose bonds are more costly and complex than the breaking of starch bonds.
    9. Forage crops- forage sorghum, Sudan grass
      1. Forage sorghum, Sudan grass, switchgrass, miscanthus
      2. Holds promising future
      3. Several perennial species that can be harvested every year
      4. More efficient, very little lignin in composition
      5. Contains quantities of starch and sugar in addition to cellulose.

As you can see there are several positives and negatives to the products. These become factors in the decision making process as to which product is the best to use.

OBJECTIVE 3. Identify and recognize the factors that play an integral role in ethanol production.

Many factors play into the decision of what product to use when producing ethanol. In your notes, add in the following factors beyond the advantages and disadvantages that your team just discovered.

  1. There are many factors that play an integral role in ethanol production.
    1. In choosing which crops that are made into ethanol, individuals must look at both yield and economics.
      1. 1 acre sugar beets = 727 gallons ethanol
      2. 1 acre of sugarcane = 584 gallons ethanol
      3. 1 acre of sorghum = 374 gallons ethanol
      4. 1 acre of corn = 354 gallons ethanol
      5. 1 acre wheat = 110 gallons ethanol
    2. Production requires a steady source (i.e. food waste could be inconsistent)
    3. Distance feedstock travels to ethanol plant determines feasibility (usually not more than 30-40 miles is considered economically viable)
    4. Distance from ethanol plant to end user (60 to 100 miles is considered economically feasible)
    5. Economy-supply and demand curve. The price of gasoline is a determining factor of whether or not to turn crops to gas.
      1. Example of sugar beets: Prices are low, demand is low, and sugar refineries are closing their doors; resulting in a higher alcohol per acre yield.

Which product should be used to produce ethanol? As you can see it depends. As a decision maker one must look at the advantages, disadvantages, yield potential, and economics just to name a few. It is not an easy decision but one that must be carefully analyzed and continually evaluated to produce the best results.


Give students 10 minutes to write a story describing an ethanol feedstock product as the main “character” and the process that it goes through. Students can be creative with their character names: Cornelius Corn, Sally Sugar Beet, or Sam Sugar Cane. The story should include who the star character is and their category and classification as an ethanol feedstock. The advantages and disadvantages they face should come out in the story and why they were chosen to be the ethanol star.

Allow students to prepare their stories and help them through the activity as needed. Upon completion have the students share their stories with the class.

Today we learned about products that can be used to produce ethanol, advantages of certain products, disadvantages of certain products, and some of the factors that go into deciding what the best product to use to produce ethanol is. All of these items continue to add to your growing knowledge about ethanol.

Answers to Evaluation:


  1. Sugar
    1. Sugar beets
    2. Sugar cane
    3. Fruit
  2. Starch
    1. Potatoes
    2. Corn
    3. Barley
    4. Jerusalem artichoke
  3. Cellulose
    1. Grasses
    2. Stover

Short Answer:

  1. Supply and demand, economy
  2. Sweet sorghum, Jerusalem artichoke, fodder beets

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • 1 bushel of corn can produce approximately 2.6 gallons of ethanol
  • 1 acre yields approximately 160 bushels of corn
  • 1 bushel of soybeans can produce approximately 1.4 gallons of biodiesel
  • 1 acre yields approximately 46 bushels of soybeans

Extension Activities

  • Facilitate a debate in the classroom based upon different products used for ethanol production. Have some students take the advantage or pro side for a product and have other students take the disadvantage or con side of a product. Allow them to debate back and forth with a moderator giving them the opportunity to further develop their understanding of the lesson.
  • Research and potentially begin a way to collect and transport products that could be used to produce ethanol. This may be similar to a recycling project but rather used to supply raw materials to an ethanol facility. This could be viewed as a community service project or as a fund raiser depending upon the available resources and products.
  • Pick a product that is used to produce ethanol that was mentioned in the lesson. Research more into the product and determine how much it would cost to provide that product to an ethanol production facility and if the income from the product would justify the decision to embark upon the endeavor. Put together draft financial paperwork to justify your recommendation.


  • Adapted from Renewable Fuels Instructional Materials: Copyright © 2009 by National FFA Organization. Used by permission.
  • E-Moments® is a registered trademark of the National FFA Organization. Copyright © 2004 by National FFA Organization. Used by permission.
  • New materials, updates and revisions were funded in part by a grant from the Iowa Energy Center as a special project of the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation.


Will Fett

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • Theme 4: STEM
    • Provide examples of how processing adds value to agricultural goods and fosters economic growth both locally and globally
    • Identify current and emerging scientific discoveries and technologies and their possible use in agriculture (e.g., biotechnology, bio-chemical, mechanical, etc.)
    • Evaluate the benefits and concerns related to the application of technology to agricultural systems (e.g., biotechnology)

Education Content Standards

  • HS-ESS3-2. Evaluate competing design solutions for developing, managing, and utilizing energy and mineral resources based on cost-benefit ratios.*
  • HS-ETS1-3. Evaluate a solution to a complex real-world problem based on prioritized criteria and trade-offs that account for a range of constraints, including cost, safety, reliability, and aesthetics, as well as possible social, cultural, and environmental impacts.

Common Core Connections

  • W.9–10.4 Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
  • W.9–10.10 Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.
  • NL-ENG.K-12.4. Communication Skills.
  • NSS-EC.9-12.2. Effective Decision Making.

Creative Commons License

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