Given Tuesday's train derailment and ethanol spill in downtown Jacksonville, we looked into what exactly ethanol is and how it's made available as a vehicle fuel.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, ethanol is a renewable fuel made from plant materials. Combined, they are known as "biomass." More than 95% of all gasoline in the United States has low levels of ethanol in it. This oxygenates the fuel and reduces air pollution.

Ethanol is also available in high-level blends, known as E85. This type of fuel can be used in flexible fuel vehicles, which can run on high-level ethanol blends, gasoline or any other combination of these. There are at least three steps to making ethanol available for use as fuel in a vehicle:

  • Biomass feedstocks are grown, collected and sent to an ethanol production facility.
  • Ethanol is produced at the production facility and then transported to a blender/fuel supplier.
  • Ethanol is mixed with gasoline and distributed to fueling stations.

Researchers think ethanol could substantially offset our nation's petroleum use. Studies have estimated that ethanol and other biofuels could replace 30% or more of U.S. gasoline demand by 2030.