Editor Note: An interesting historical note is that ethanol as a motor fuel was victimized by Prohibition, a subject discussed back in 2016 by Marc Rauch. In this discussion/debate, ethanol-proponent Rauch and ethanol-critic Michael Lynch share their thoughts on the quality and competitiveness of ethanol as a viable alternative to petroleum-based transportation products. Part II tomorrow concludes this series.
Lynch Technically, a wide variety of engines and fuels can be used to power vehicles, from steam and electricity to hydrogen and even water. At present, although compressed natural gas and electric vehicles are in use, most road transport remains powered by gasoline or diesel. For its part, gasoline must have a certain octane level or it burns imperfectly, creating engine knock. A number of additives have been used historically to ensure the octane rating is high enough for best engine performance, including lead, MTBE, and ethanol.
Rauch Understanding the issues related to ethanol versus petroleum fuels requires historical background to explain how and why gasoline and petroleum diesel became the primary fuels for internal combustion engines (ICEs). In 2016, my interpretation was published at MasterResource.
Petroleum oil companies can produce a higher octane gasoline product to quell engine knock. This was true 100 years ago, and is true today. That product, however, would come with a significantly higher price tag as well as a marked increase in the amount of “aromatics,” all of which are highly poisonous and add to the hazards of ICE emissions.
When the oil industry was required to remove tetraethyl lead (TEL) from most gasoline in the U.S., they needed a new oxygenate additive. One safe option was ethanol. Instead, the oil industry chose to stay in-house with another additive produced from their own crude oil, another poison called Methyl tert-butyl ether (MTBE). When the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) was enacted a couple of years later, it required greater amounts of a cleaner, renewable, domestically produced fuel additive to also lessen U.S. dependence on foreign fuels. Ethanol was the only alternative that met the criteria.
Lynch A blend of 10% ethanol allows gasoline with an octane of 87, the most common fuel sold. In the United States, the Renewable Fuel Standard requires refiners to blend a certain number of gallons of ethanol into gasoline sold every year and the farm lobby (especially corn growers) and ethanol producers would like to increase its consumption.
Rauch In the United States, the best, easiest, least expensive source for ethanol is corn grown by American farmers. This meant that American agricultural entrepreneurs and farm workers (living in America) might benefit from the RFS biofuel mandate, thereby fulfilling the spirit and the intent of the RFS.
Lynch A certain amount of ethanol is necessary in modern gasoline blends, but it also has drawbacks. Ethanol blends have different emissions than gasoline without ethanol; as an EPA article puts it, “Higher ozone, peroxy acetal nitrate (PAN), and volatile carbonyl concentrations in urban air are associated with ethanol fuel combustion in vehicles.” Another EPA study found, “For the majority of the vehicles, total hydrocarbon, and carbon monoxide exhaust emissions as well as fuel economy decreased while NOx and acetaldehyde exhaust emissions increased as the ethanol content in the test fuel increased.” Ethanol isn’t necessarily worse than gasoline in terms of emissions, then, but it is hardly “clean”.
Rauch: Burning ethanol does have different emissions than gasoline, very different. Ethanol burns clean, so clean that ethanol can be safely used indoors for cooking and illumination. Gasoline fumes are poisonous and explosive.
The first “EPA” report cited by Michael Lynch was not an EPA sanctioned study. The authors of the report relied on suppositions by Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor at Stanford University. Professor Jacobson’s conclusions and analyses were later called into question by 21 fellow professors in a rebuttal that was published in 2017. In 2015, a report prepared by the Renewable Energy Action Project rebuked Professor Jacobson’s studies and conclusions.
The second “EPA” document provided to by Michael Lynch was published 25 years ago. The same REAP document from 2015, noted above, challenges the conclusions in this 2nd ‘EPA’ document. Reports issued after 1995 from U.S. Department of Energy, U.S. Department of Agriculture, National Renewable Energy Laboratory , and Argonne National Laboratory, all provide conclusions that ethanol is substantially cleaner than gasoline. Earlier this year, the USDA confirmed ethanol’s contributions to clean air. Comparative burn tests between ethanol and gasoline provide indisputable proof that ethanol is cleaner than gasoline. Instead of saying “ethanol is hardly clean.” I say ethanol is hardly dirty. Ethanol doesn’t have to be 100% squeaky clean, just a better choice.
Lynch For smaller engines, such as those found in lawn mowers, there are also operating problems. NAPA for example says: “Since the fuel burn is less precise in 2 stroke vs 4 stroke engines and cannot be adjusted via computer controls, ethanol-heavy gasoline can leave significantly more deposits behind inside a cylinder after it is ignited.
When acting as a solvent, like any alcohol, ethanol in gasoline also runs the risk of breaking down engine sludge and sending it through the fueling system, where it can clog injectors and ports. That same solvent behavior also attacks plastic and rubber components, causing them to dissolve over time (especially on older engine designs).
Finally, ethanol also attracts water, which means ethanol blended fuel can introduce moisture into a engine and lead to corrosion of the metallic surfaces inside the cylinder as well as in fuel lines and the fuel tank.” Note, gasoline without ethanol can also have water in it, so it’s not perfect either in that regard.
Rauch The carbon debris that builds up (gunk/goo/crud/gum/sludge) to foul engines is caused by gasoline. When left for an extended time the gunk hardens into a hard varnish-like substance. This problem has existed for all the years before the use of ethanol-gasoline blends in America, and in internal combustion engines of all sizes and purposes: 2 strokes, 4 strokes, 6 strokes.
The solution was to regularly replace or clean parts, and oil companies added detergent (a solvent) to their gasoline to keep gunk from building up. Gasoline and aromatics are solvents, but they muck up the works more than they clean the muck. Ethanol is a better engine cleaning solvent because it doesn’t leave debris, it just combusts and cleans.
The greatest growth in the use of small ICE devices and vehicles occurred during almost the exact timeline of the use of ethanol-gasoline blends in America. People of a certain age don’t recall their fathers and uncles complaining about small engine problems because they didn’t have any. Lawn mowers consisted of rotating blades and were pushed by hand. Hand saws, not chain saws were used. Snowmobiles were sleds that you dragged with a rope or pointed down hill.
If small ICE equipment existed in the 1930’s to 1980’s they would have been susceptible to build-up of gunk in the engines, and the cause would have been gasoline. It’s incorrect to blame ethanol causing small engine problems. The incidence of wrong diagnosis is compounded by the abundance of poorly trained and crooked mechanics.
Gasoline with detergent, and aftermarket fuel system cleaners use solvents. These solvents are either alcohols or petroleum distillates. If the alcohol used is not ethanol, it is typically methanol or isopropanol. Non-alcohol liquid solvents could be acetone or turpentine. If the solvents are petroleum distillates, they are benzene, toluene, xylene, naphtha, kerosene, mineral spirits, and even gasoline. Ethanol is compatible with more types of rubbers, plastics, and metals than methanol, isopropanol, benzene, toluene, xylene, naphtha, kerosene, mineral spirits, acetone, and turpentine. This means that ethanol is less corrosive.
All manufacturers of aftermarket engine treatment products claim that the solvents they use in their engine/fuel injector cleaners will not harm the engines or any parts. They guarantee their products to work in any ICE of any size, any configuration, any age. If their solvents don’t hurt engines and engine parts in any type of ICE device then ethanol can not possibly harm the engines and engine parts. Auto parts retailers like NAPA sell and endorse these products.
Ethanol does not “attract” water. Ethanol absorbs some of the water that it comes in contact with. Ethanol does not suck water out of the air. As Mercury Marine, the world’s largest manufacturer of boat motors, stated it in their Ethanol Webinar:
“There is no active transfer mechanism for ethanol molecules to reach out and ‘grab’ water molecules out of the air…The primary cause of water collecting in fuel tanks is condensation from humid air.”
Condensation is naturally occurring, and it occurs just as naturally when there is no ethanol or no other liquids present. Ethanol does not increase the likelihood for condensation to occur. The traditional solution to engine problems that are caused by condensation is to add a product like DRY GAS or HEET to the fuel.
The manufacturers guarantee that their product will not harm any internal combustion engine it is used in regardless of size, age, configuration. The active ingredient in these products is alcohol – methanol or isopropanol. All brands of liquid products designed to remove water from the fuel system contain alcohol. As already shown, ethanol is more compatible (less corrosive) with all engine parts. These products claim they “Restore combustive power to gasoline spoiled by water.” Ethanol in ethanol-gasoline blends has exactly the same effect.
Lynch Higher blends of ethanol, from E15 to E85, are a somewhat different matter. The primary concern has been their tendency to degrade some fuel system components like gaskets and seals, but mainly in older vehicles, and some manufacturers warn that warranties will be voided by its use. The potential damage to two-stroke engines is worsened by E15 and higher grades of ethanol blends, since ethanol burns hotter and those engines are more likely to be idle for extended periods, during which a “brown goo” forms which can clog fuel systems. The EPA suggests that motorcycles and heavy duty engines like school buses and delivery trucks, as well as off-road motors (chain saws, lawnmowers, etc.) should not use it.
Rauch Flex fuel (E85) cars and light trucks are manufactured exactly the same as their non-flex fuel models. The sole difference is the on-board computer software program. Virtually all ICE devices can safely and economically use ethanol-gasoline blends that exceed E10 and E15. This is proven by the use of these same devices in Brazil, where the mandated fuel is E27. The manufacturers warranty devices for E27 in Brazil, although they only warranty them for E10 or E15 in the United States. Product warranties are like insurance policies; they try to limit their liability exposure (pay outs), to only what they are legally required to do in specific countries. Since Brazil has an E27 fuel mandate, they extend the warranty to E27.
For more than six decades (1920’s-1970’s), ethanol-gasoline blends were sold throughout Great Britain as “power-alcohol.” These blends ranged from E10 to E30. They were sold by some of the biggest oil companies in the world. Power-alcohol was marketed as being superior in every way to gasoline without ethanol. Other European companies had similar experiences for many decades.
Virtually all the great classic cars from Europe could have safely used ethanol-gasoline blends at one time or another. If ethanol caused an undue amount of damage there would be reams of literature from the UK, Europe, and Brazil attesting to the ethanol caused damage…but there isn’t any. There isn’t any because the entire war on ethanol was invented by the oil industry after Prohibition was ended to disparage ethanol’s use in America. All anti-ethanol claims are marketing lies.
When the EPA announced its approval of E15 for use in all ICE cars and light trucks manufactured after 2001, they acknowledged that they had also tested E20, and that E20 had similarly passed all its tests. They only approved E15 because they had only been asked to approve E15. Consequently, their approval of E15 was tantamount to approval of E20.