Target Grade Level / Age Range:

High School: 9-12


50 Minutes


As a result of this lesson, the student will …

  1. Identify the positive impacts that ethanol has on the economy.
  2. Identify the negative impacts that ethanol has on the environment.


  • Writing surface
  • Projector
  • Screen

Suggested Companion Resources

Interest Approach or Motivator

Who has seen the show “MythBusters”? What happens on that show? Elicit responses (the cast determines whether an “urban legend” is myth or fact.)

Have students determine if a series of statements about ethanol and biofuels are fact or myth. Have students fill in the correct answer on the worksheet. Work through each myth, and then summarize the content from the activity sheet.

Display each myth on the screen one at a time and have students read through each statement silently. As we read through them, encourage them to decide if the statement is a myth or a fact. If you think it is a myth, write an M next to the statement. If you think it is a fact, write an F next to it.

Once students are finished, have student volunteers read the information about each statement. Then allow time for students to write down pertinent information about each statement. Encourage students to abbreviate instead of writing the information word for word.

As the class reads through each one, take a poll by show of hands who thinks the statement is a myth and who thinks it is a fact. Once the supporting information is read, discuss if it is a myth or fact.

Ethanol Myth Busters:

Ethanol raises the cost of gasoline. (Myth)

While many predicted the switch from MTBE to ethanol would increase gas prices, there has been no negative impact on gasoline supplies or the cost per gallon of gasoline. Ethanol is less expensive than other additives. In fact, ethanol is usually less expensive than ordinary gasoline. The net effect of blending ethanol with gasoline is normally a product that costs less. A May 2005 report by the Consumer Federation of America notes drivers everywhere would save as much as 8 cents per gallon if petroleum marketers would simply blend more ethanol into gasoline.

Biofuels like ethanol contribute to global warming. (Myth)

Because the energy balance of ethanol production is positive (1.67 to 1), greenhouse gas benefits are also positive. The Argonne National Laboratory has demonstrated that using ethanol produces 32 percent fewer emissions of greenhouse gases than gasoline for the same distance traveled. Ethanol also reduces emissions of other harmful pollutants such as carbon monoxide — and it dilutes and displaces components of gasoline that produce toxic emissions.

Ethanol harms car and truck engines. (Myth)

Every major automobile manufacturer approves the use of ethanol blends up to 10 percent (E10) under warranty. In fact, many auto manufacturers go so far as to recommend the use of clean, renewable fuels such as E10. Cars built since the 1970s are fully compatible with E10. In addition, ethanol in gasoline: Adds oxygen to the fuel, raising the air/fuel ratio for more complete combustion; eliminates the need and expense of adding a gas line antifreeze, since ethanol in gasoline absorbs more water than a small bottle of isopropyl; prevents burning of engine valves because ethanol burns cooler than gasoline; prevents build-up of olefins in fuel injectors, keeping the fuel system cleaner. Ethanol takes more energy to produce than it contributes. USDA recently determined the net energy balance of ethanol production is 1.67 to 1. For every 100 BTUs of energy used to make ethanol, 167 BTUs of energy is produced. The USDA findings have been confirmed by additional studies conducted at several universities and government laboratories. These studies take into account the energy required to plant, grow and harvest the corn — as well as the energy required to manufacture and distribute the ethanol. The net energy balance of ethanol production continues to improve because ethanol and corn production are becoming more efficient. For example, one bushel of corn now yields 2.8 gallons of ethanol — up from 2.5 gallons just a few years ago.

Ethanol production wastes corn that could be used to feed a hungry world. (Myth)

Corn used for ethanol reduction is field corn typically used to feed livestock. Wet mill ethanol production facilities, also known as corn refineries, also produce starch, corn sweeteners and corn oil — all products that are used as food ingredients for human consumption. Ethanol production also results in the production of distiller’s grains and gluten feed — both of which are fed to livestock, helping produce high-quality meat products for distribution domestically and abroad. There is no shortage of corn. The corn produced for human consumption has remained steady (1.4 billion bushels). The corn use to feed livestock has increased. In 2014, U.S. farmers produced 14.2 billion bushel corn harvest — and some 5.1 billion bushels (about 36 percent) were used in ethanol production. There is still room to significantly grow the ethanol market without limiting the availability of corn. Steadily increasing corn yields and the improved ability of other nations to grow corn also make it clear that ethanol production can continue to grow without affecting the food supply.

Ethanol does not benefit farmers. (Myth)

The ethanol industry opens a new market for corn growers, allowing them to enjoy greater profitability. Studies have shown that corn prices in areas near ethanol plants tend to be 5 to 10 cents per bushel higher than in other areas. This additional income helps cut the costs of farm programs and add vitality to rural economies. The additional profit potential for farmers created by ethanol production allows more farmers to stay in business — helping ensure adequate food supplies in the future. Ethanol production also creates jobs, many of which are in rural communities where good jobs are hard to come by. A 2015 study by the Renewable Fuels Association found the biofuels industry powered the U.S. economy by creating more than 280,000 jobs.

Ethanol adds to air pollution (Myth)

Because ethanol-blended gasoline is cleaner than conventional gasoline, it emits less hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide and hydrogen. Cellulosic biofuels can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 60% compared to petroleum-derived gasoline. Biofuels capture and store carbon dioxide during growth. There are carbon dioxide emissions created during harvest, conversion, distribution, and use. Recent studies suggest that cellulosic biofuels produced using sustainable practices may be able to reduce carbon dioxide emissions by as much as 86%. This means that the same amount of energy can be produced with significantly less climate-disrupting pollution.

Ensure students have recorded key information on the activity sheet.


OBJECTIVE 1. Identify the positive impacts that ethanol has on the economy.

Split the class into pairs. One of each pair will be Professor and the other Expert. The instructor display the first set of information on slide #8. The Professors will teach the content to the Experts. Our first objective is to identify the positive impacts that ethanol has on the economy.

  1. The economy benefits many ways through ethanol production and utilization.
    1. Billions of dollars have been invested in 100+ biofuels production facilities in the U.S.
    2. Biofuels contribute approximately $6 billion in direct economic output and is expected to rise to $17.4 billion in 2016 and $37 billion by 2022. The goods and services purchased by ethanol producers represent increased demand for other industries. These include purchases of grain, natural gas, electricity, water, communications, accounting and legal services.
    3. Between 2006 and 2010, corn prices rose as ethanol production rose resulting in higher incomes from corn production.
    4. Energy and agriculture markets are linked. Changes in prices of fossil fuels like crude oil shift the demand for corn and other biomass.

Facilitate a discussion with the entire class to ensure comprehension of each of these points. Then students will switch roles, the instructor will display the next section on slide 9. Experts will teach the content to the Professors.

  1. Increased demand for grain grown by American farmers provides market support for prices and incomes.
  2. The biofuels industry supports nearly 83,900 direct jobs with total job creation at approximately 295,300 jobs. The spending by ethanol manufacturers on goods and services indirectly supports these jobs as well as research, construction, and management.
  3. The biofuels industry added $52 billion to the nation’s Gross Domestic Product
  4. The biofuels industry has boosted household income by $26.7 billion.

Facilitate a discussion of the entire class to ensure they understand all points. Have students switch roles again. Their task is not to just share this information with their partner. Don’t let their partner just copy the information. Engage in conversation with your partner, helping them understand the information.

  1. The tax payer benefits through:
    1. The partial excise tax exemption for ethanol blends available to gasoline marketers saves money.
    2. A GAO study has shown that reduced farm program costs and increased income tax revenues offset the cost of the incentive.
    3. According to the USDA, if ethanol use does not continue to grow, “deficiency payments for corn and other program crops will increase.”
    4. The economic activity caused by the ethanol industry will generate $3.5 billion in additional income tax revenue over five years.
    5. GDP and household income supported by the ethanol industry contributed $5.7 billion in tax revenue to the Federal Treasury in 2014.

Facilitate a discussion with the entire class to ensure comprehension of each of these points. Then students will switch roles, the instructor will display the next section on slide 9. Experts will teach the content to the Professors.

  1. Consumers benefit from ethanol through:
    1. Ethanol reduced gasoline prices saving the average American family as much as $1,200 per year.
    2. Ethanol and ethyl tertiary butyl ether increases oxygenated supplies, reducing the need for MTBE imports and helping to reduce the costs.
    3. Ethanol is a high octane blending component used by many independent gasoline marketers. ETBE is a low volatility oxygenate which provides refiners a cost-effective means to meet Clean Air Amendment standards.

Ethanol guards against gas line freeze by absorbing moisture that may get in the tank during cold weather.

Facilitate a discussion with the entire class to ensure comprehension of each of these points. Explain that while all the benefits that ethanol has on the economy are good, there are some serious concerns about ethanol and the environmental impacts that it may have.

OBJECTIVE 2. Identify the potential negative impacts biofuel production can have

Discuss the potential negative impacts of producing biofuels, clearing up any misconceptions that students may still have. Identify with students that most of the negative impacts have not yet been proven, but are just concerns rather than fact based. Have students capture the following information in their notebooks.

  1. Concern caused by diverting land and other productive resources away from food crops and towards energy resources.
    1. Concerns that the need for more corn product will become necessary, in which forest lands and grasslands will be converted to farmland to raise corn, thus allowing for less carbon cycle to occur and greater environmental impacts.
    2. Even though there is a minor impact on the industry with the use of ethanol for fuel, this issue impacts American’s views on the ‘food vs. fuel’ debate.
    3. Reduced MPG - Based on 2009 flex fuel vehicles, E85 miles per gallon is expected to be roughly 28.5% lower in the city and 26.5% lower on the highway. This means it takes 1.35 to 1.40 gallons of E85 to equal the mileage of 1.00 gallons of gasoline.
    4. Increased fertilizer use to grow corn can lead to fertilizer runoff into waterways.

Students will create icons or pictures to visually represent the components of the information and draw the representations in their notebooks next to each statement. Guide students through the process by using examples. The instructor can use the first example to prime students’ creative thinking or work through all examples as a class.

Possible visual representations:

  1. Bulldozer converting grassland to farmland
  2. Outline of the United States with glasses (views) on food and fuel
  3. Automobile emissions contributing to the ozone
  4. Fertilizer polluting rivers

While there are a few concerns about ethanol use, it’s important to remember that they are just concerns and haven’t been proven. We must also remember all of the positive impacts that ethanol can have.


Use the student learning objectives to summarize the lesson. Have students explain the content associated with each objective. Student’s responses can then be used to determine which objectives need to be reviewed and which ones are fully understood.


Using the same pairs as were previously established, have students tell their partner that one important point learned today.

Answers to Assessment:

  1. Answers will vary

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

Extension Activities

  • Using the Internet as a reference tool, students can identify careers created from the demand for ethanol. Students can choose a career and create a career profile on the selected career and share it with the class.
  • Students can write a prepared public speech on the positive and potentially negative impacts of ethanol.
  • Students with an interest in grain production can research corn and other grain prices for ethanol and determine increased profits from selling grain to an ethanol production facility.


  • 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 5: Culture, Society, Economy, & Geography
    • Communicate how the global agricultural economy and population influences the sustainability of communities and societies
    • Discuss the relationship between geography (climate and land), politics, and global economies in the distribution of food
    • Provide examples of how changes in cultural preferences influence production, processing, marketing, and trade of agricultural products

Education Content Standards

  • SS.9-12.9. Present adaptations of arguments and explanations that feature evocative ideas and perspectives on issues and topics to reach a range of audiences and venues outside the classroom using print and oral technologies and digital technologies.
  • SS.9-12.7. Construct arguments using precise and knowledgeable claims, with evidence from multiple sources, while acknowledging counterclaims and evidentiary weaknesses
  • SS.9-12.8. Construct explanations using reasoning, correct sequence, examples, and details with significant and pertinent information and data, while acknowledging the strengths and weaknesses of the explanations given its purpose.

Common Core Connections

  • NL-ENG.K-12.2. Reading for Understanding.
  • NSS-G.K-12.5. Environment and Society.
  • SL.9–10.1 Initiate and participate effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one–on–one, in groups, and teacher–led) with diverse partners on grades 9–10 topics, texts, and issues, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
  • SL.9–10.4 Present information, findings, and supporting evidence clearly, concisely, and logically such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, substance, and style are appropriate to purpose, audience, and task.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.