A Free-Market Energy Blog

Ethanol Performance: Rauch vs. Lynch (Part II)

By Robert Bradley Jr. -- September 19, 2019

This concludes the discussion/debate between ethanol proponent Marc Rauch and ethanol critic Michael Lynch. Part I was yesterday.

Lynch: Do ethanol blends burn cleanly?  At one point, you say “ethanol is clean” but then later you admit “ethanol is hardly dirty”, which is precisely my argument.  That it can be burned indoors is not evidence of its cleanliness, since kerosene lamps have long been used, and many people still have wood-fueled fireplaces.  The faults you take with my citations from the EPA website treats them as if they were the only research on the question, rather than the only articles I cited.  The EPA website has numerous links to studies showing that ethanol causes some types of emissions, such as formaldehyde, to increase, I did not choose to cite more than a couple. 

Rauch The clearest proof of ethanol’s clean burn (as compared to gasoline) is the video I cited previously. Since our discussion concerns ethanol vs. gasoline it’s only relevant to relate ethanol to gasoline; and ethanol is clearly much cleaner burning than gasoline. For many years, people did use kerosene for indoor lighting because the huge taxes placed on alcohol production caused alcohol prices to be ten times the price of kerosene. I covered this in the thesis I wrote for Rob Bradley a couple of years ago.

The price difference allowed consumers to forgive its hideous odor and black smoke. I chose to say “Ethanol is hardly dirty” as a lyrical/satirical response to your comment “Ethanol is hardly clean.” Your citations are your citations, I didn’t choose them and you could have chosen others. In fact, you could add or substitute citations at any time if you feel the need to bolster your position. Part of my sending you the unedited versions of my replies was to give you a better understanding of my position. I’m not seeking to prevail in this debate by snarkisms alone, but by positive proof. The EPA does indeed offer many studies and links, many of which prove the veracity of my position. And in the many resource citations that I offer there are examples of that.

Lynch: I agree that ethanol doesn’t “suck water out of the air,” and I shouldn’t have used the word “attract” about ethanol’s relationship with water.  But it is hydrophilic and can result in phase separation which can be a problem for engines. 

Rauch I’m glad you did use the word “attract” and I’m even happier that you agree ethanol doesn’t suck water out of the air. The reason I’m glad is that this is the word and action most often wrongly used when criticizing ethanol. If you don’t mind me saying so, having someone with your credentials admit the incorrectness is fantastic. If I garner no more points in this debate, I will consider my job accomplished.

However, let me add, that phase separation occurs because of gasoline’s inability to absorb very much water – gasoline is also a hygroscopic substance, but not as good as ethanol. As I’m sure you know, condensation can occur naturally in a tank that’s empty, a tank that contains only gasoline, or a tank that contains only ethanol (it can even occur in a tank that already contains water). The problems that can result from water forming in a fuel tank are exacerbated if there is nothing to counter the water, and since ethanol can absorb 26 times more water than gasoline, the point at which phase separation occurs with ethanol-free gasoline comes that much sooner. Adding alcohol to the fuel tank is the most common solution (all retail over-the-counter additives contain some type of alcohol). Ethanol is a better alcohol to use than others because it is more compatible with engine parts and materials than the other alcohols typically used (methanol or isopropanol). Having ethanol already in a fuel blend saves consumers money. Many “experts” say that a bottle of something like Dry Gas, HEET, or Seafoam should be added to the tank with every fill up. The cost of a bottle of any one of these is equivalent to about three gallons of gasoline. Buying ethanol-gasoline blends almost always is a net savings versus ethanol-free gasoline; if the consumer can then save another few dollars because they don’t need to use a fuel additive product it sweetens the ethanol-gasoline blend proposition.

Lynch I’m not sure how to respond to this comment:  “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.”  Gasoline powered lawnmowers were invented a century ago (according to Wikipedia); I used an old one in the mid-1960s.  This is simply counterfactual.

Rauch There’s been an explosion in the availability and use of ICE power equipment in roughly the same years as the general distribution of ethanol-gasoline blends in America and a few other parts of the world. This proliferation of small engine equipment has resulted in the concurrent proliferation of equipment problems, repair technicians, commercial quick fixes (engine/fuel treatment products), the inevitable flood of competitive marketing claims to place blame and prescribe a cure, and an increasing level of noise circulated by the “Anti-Ethanol Industry.”

I first became a home owner in the early 1970’s, but didn’t own or use a power mower and edger until the mid 1990’s. I never needed an engine repairman for my rotating blade mower or my pizza-cutter like edger. The problems encountered by ICE power equipment today are exactly the same problems as anyone might have encountered in the 1960’s. Clogs from carbon debris, corrosion of hoses, etc. Ethanol was not responsible for any of that in 1960’s America (needless to say), and ethanol is also not responsible for any of that today (I also say).

Ethanol does not create the carbon debris that clogs engines. Ethanol is compatible with more types of rubber, plastic, and metals than gasoline and aromatics. These are simple facts. The “counter facts” – if you will – are that you can buy any number of products over the “counter” that claim to solve problems caused by ethanol. Yet, all of these products simply contain ingredients that are merely variations of ethanol. They absorb water from condensation and dissolve the gunk/goo/crud that is caused by gasoline’s inefficient burning.

Gasoline detergents, which predate the general use of ethanol-gasoline blends in America by 40 or 50 years are intended to accomplish the same cleaning and water removal tasks. They do so with the same type of ingredients as used in some aftermarket additives. Regardless of how many people come forward to claim that ethanol creates carbon deposits, or causes accumulation of water in fuel tanks, it is impossible.

If there is a way to somehow ascribe some tidbit of blame to ethanol, then every single engine treatment product and all gasoline detergents would also be guilty of causing the problem. Does this ultimately mean that all engine and fuel treatment products are just placebos? I’d say that might be one of the more polite words to use.

Lynch I have not been able to find much about testing of higher blends than E15, except that emissions of substances like formaldehyde seem to increase.  Your citation of an audio with Ms. McCarthy is not very conclusive; she talks about models 2007 and more recent being tested for E20, but only 12 of 19 models (in response to your question, I note).  She also mentions the problems with smaller engines which you don’t seem to agree with.

Rauch There is a paucity of negative information about higher levels, there’s a plethora of positive information about testing high levels of ethanol. This is mainly because there’s very little factual negative results to report. This is not to say that ethanol is completely non-corrosive, for example, but all liquids are corrosive (plain ordinary water is extremely corrosive).

At issue is the relative corrosiveness of ethanol compared to gasoline, or the relative harmful emissions released by burning ethanol versus the harmful emissions released by burning gasoline. There are no instances of any governmental actions being taken to stop the use of ethanol as a fuel along the lines of those actions taken to curtail the use of gasoline with tetraethyl lead or MTBE.

Ethanol levels of 5%, 10%, and 15% (E5, E10, E15, respectively) are arbitrary levels set to appease the oil industry. These low levels led to the invention of the imaginary “blend wall” as a bogeyman to keep ethanol production and acceptance to a minimum in contemporary times. Ethanol (alcohol) was the first fuel used in the first internal combustion engine; it was the fuel used in Otto’s first automobile; it was the first fuel used in Ford’s quadricycle. Ethanol engine fuel and ethanol-gasoline blends were discussed in great detail during the Congressional Free-Alcohol Hearing in 1906 that resulted in the removal of the usurious tax on alcohol production. The transcripts of the Hearings recount tests on blends that equaled or exceed E15, as well as the stand-alone use of ethanol. The accounts of the exhaustive testing done by the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Navy circa 1907-8 provide the same positive results.

These tests were less focused on blend levels of ethanol mixed with gasoline, than with testing done on varying alcohol strength (proof levels) to determine if a tank of 70% ethanol 30% water will be as good as 90% ethanol and 10% water. Guys like Henry Ford and Harry Ricardo weren’t quibbling over a few percentage points in a fuel blend, they were interested in testing the efficiency of ethanol as a stand-alone fuel – not ethanol as a minor additive to gasoline. Consequently, in 1906 Ford didn’t say “Alcohol in small quantities mixed into gasoline will revolutionize the American industrial situation.” He said “Alcohol will revolutionize the American industrial situation.”

The manual controls on the Model T automobile and then on the Fordson Tractor allowed for the vehicles to run on mixed blends, but the primary purpose of the manual controls was to permit a complete quick change over at any given time from gasoline to another fuel like ethanol or kerosene.

More than 100 years ago public newspapers and technical publications cited story after story of the use of ethanol. For example, a newspaper story on page 4 of the Manchester (UK) Guardian, May 23, 1913, reports on the use of a fuel blend containing 25% alcohol achieving ordinary performance results compared to non-ethanol gasoline. The same newspaper story states that a 50/50 blend (ethanol-benzol) was used successfully in Paris for motor-buses. The same story reports on “30 distinct and separate tests” in America on eight different engines. The tests compared gasoline, paraffin, and ethanol as stand-alone fuels. The results from the tests were that any modern engine could be run on ethanol without any material change to the construction of the engine.

On page 303 of the book “Denatured Or Industrial Alcohol” written by Rufus Frost Herrick in 1907, the author writes that tests on engines and fuels conducted at a 1902 International Competitive Exposition in Paris found that the best results were obtained using an E50 blend (alcohol with a “hydrocarbon” fuel).

Harry Ricardo’s THE HIGH-SPEED INTERNAL – COMBUSTION ENGINE, first published in 1923, praises alcohol fuel and specifies several examples of its superiority to gasoline. Ricardo patented the two-stroke engine, and he developed  the ethanol-gasoline fuel that would become known as Cleveland Discol Power Alcohol, which was the leading ethanol-gasoline fuel sold for six decades in Great Britain. Cleveland Discol was acquired by Standard Oil, and all power-alcohol fuels sold in Great Britain were marketed as superior to regular gasolines without ethanol. The ethanol-gasoline blend levels in these Power-Alcohol fuels ranged from E10 to E30.

Professor William Kovarik’s essay “Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and the Fuel of the Future” written for Automotive History Review, Spring 1998, provides numerous citations of high ethanol-gasoline blend level use around the world.

To the above must be added the history of Brazil’s use of ethanol-gasoline blends. The current mandate in Brazil is for E27. Brazil has a history of using ethanol fuel that dates back to 1919. Beginning in 1978, Brazil mandated the use of E15 and above. At each step along the way, the Brazilian government has conducted significant trials and testing to determine the safety and applicability of ethanol (as a blend with gasoline and as a stand-alone fuel). English language reports of these studies include: this, this, and this.

The successful results of these studies led to the steady increase in the level of ethanol in ethanol-gasoline blends to the current E27. It’s expected that Brazil will move up to E40 in the next few years. Brazil’s “flex fuel” is not E85, it is E95.

A significant detail related to the extensive use of the ethanol-gasoline blends in Europe and Brazil for all these years is that before the Anti-Ethanol Industry got revved up inventing lies about ethanol, there were virtually no published reports in the automotive media that claim any of the ethanol engine damage problems that are a mainstay of modern ethanol criticism. There are stories from the old days praising ethanol, however. See here, here, here, here, here, and here.

Numerous additional information about the successful testing of higher level ethanol-gasoline blends are quite easy to find. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here here, here, here, and here.

Yes, that was my voice in the audio of the 2010 EPA press conference announcing their approval of E15. As a member of the automotive media I get invited to these events. I did ask the question about E20 testing because I wanted the issue brought out. I had already known of government lab testing on E20 that reveals E20 is no more harmful in any way than any lower blend. You seem to feel that Gina McCarthy was less than convincing. But she acknowledged they included E20 and at no time during the conference was there any discussion of E15 causing any problems compared to E10 or lower. If E20 would have been problematic, she would have said something about it.

However, you don’t have to rely on my speculation of what Ms. McCarthy should or shouldn’t have said, you can read the 2009 report from the National Renewable Energy Labs (one of the reports and one of the laboratories that the EPA relied on for their decision). The report includes testing E20 and reports that E20 results were the same as E10 and E15. Moreover, they concluded that blends higher than E10 showed no further increase of formaldehyde emissions with increasing ethanol content.

Lynch Ultimately, we seem to agree that ethanol is a useful fuel component, but not without disadvantages. The only reason to support efforts to legislate increased use of ethanol in transport appears to be as a favor to the farm lobby. 

Rauch It’s encouraging that you feel there is some usefulness to ethanol in light of your previous editorials published in Forbes, which discount ethanol altogether. But considering that petroleum oil fuels are the cause of engine problems, pollution problems, health problems, economic problems, and so many wars, I don’t see the ethanol disadvantages that you suggest.

If there is a perfect fuel, or a perfect solution that can propel vehicles down the road that would make ethanol’s characteristics seem to be a disadvantage, I’d love to know what it is – I’m in the automotive news business and I would gladly report on it. But there is no petroleum oil fuel that fits the bill. As for the second part of your last statement, if ethanol was as bad as gasoline and the tipping point was who should be favored, the oil industry or the ethanol industry, I would say what I have often said: “I’d rather have my fuel money go to American farmers than to foreign dictators and enemy regimes.”

Lynch I will rest my case with a let-the-market-decide opinion about ethanol. Rather than have experts debate, let the market collectively express its opinion of the quality and economics of ethanol as a motor fuel alternative, not just additive.


  1. Fletch  

    My question to Mr. Lynch is which market does he want to decide this?

    A monopoly market or a free market? Many are confused between the two.


  2. Dale Christensen  

    I agree with the idea let the market decide, but with limited infrastructure for higher blends of ethanol and the current mandate of 90% Gasoline, hard to let the market decide! Gasoline Gate and its 90% mandate are in control. I agree wholeheartedly, I prefer to spend my Dollars here in the USA and if it helps farmers, wouldn’t that be great. We have not had any soldiers, that I know of, guarding corn fields. !


  3. Denis Rushworth  

    Ethanol-gasoline blends are prohibited for use in aircraft. One wonders why.


  4. Fletch  

    Hi Denis Rushworth,

    Rotax aircraft engines use E10.

    1990 Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) were granted for a series of aircraft engines to run on ethanol fuel.

    Because it was so successful, in 1996 the FAA granted the world’s first full certification for an entire series of aircraft to run on ethanol.16

    That fuel is AGE85 which is 87% ethanol, 12% pentane, and 1% biodiesel.

    The Japanese Zero used ethanol for fuel and there is an ag spray plane in Brazil that uses E100 hydrous ethanol also.

    One wonders why you felt the need to make your incorrect and untrue post.

    Lead is still used in aircraft fuel which is a crime against humanity and one wonders why we still use it.

    A team of MIT researchers has conducted the first assessment of the nationwide annual costs of IQ losses that can be attributed to aviation lead emissions.

    The team found that each year, these IQ losses result in about $1 billion in damages from lifetime earnings reductions, with an additional $0.5 billion in economy-wide losses due to decreases in labor productivity. Its findings appear in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.


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