EPA bulls forward on ethanol

Never content to let the facts stand in the way of a crusade, the Environmental Protection Agency is forging ahead with plans to increase the ethanol content in gasoline.

The new push is to raise the percentage of ethanol in gasoline from 10 percent to 15 percent. A decision by the agency is expected by mid-year.

The U.S. automotive industry has urged the EPA to reconsider, but given that two of the big three automakers are on the hook to the government for billions in loans it is unlikely they’ll push back hard. Nonetheless, C. Coleman Jones, the biofuel implementation manager at General Motors, was quoted in the New York Times recently saying that half of the engines running on 15 percent ethanol experienced some problems.

The automotive industry has urged the EPA to delay the ruling until 2011, when all of its testing will be complete. The EPA’s response: “Don’t think so.”

But even without these tests, it is ethanol problems as a fuel for internal combustion engines are well known. For example:

  • At best ethanol is a net-zero energy gain. In other words, it takes almost if not as much energy to grow and process the crops to make ethanol as that same amount of ethanol has in energy content.
  • Ethanol is hydrophilic—it absorbs and holds water. When this water enters the combustion chamber and is exposed to the ignition of the fuel it atomizes into millions of small water droplets that explode against the cylinder walls, causing pitting or what engineers call cavitation. This shortens engine life and causes them to burn more oil.
  • Ethanol sends more oxygen into the exhaust stream. This causes the O2 sensors to think the fuel/air mix is too rich and lean out the fuel. Lean running engines get hot enough to damage the catalytic converter—leading to more tailpipe pollution. The extra oxygen also creates more oxides of nitrogen, or NOx, which is the key ingredient in the creation of smog.
  • Ethanol has 30 to 40 percent less energy per gallon that gasoline or diesel and reduces the fuel efficiency of your vehicle.
  • Ethanol is a solvent. Given enough time it dissolves many plastics and fiberglass, rubber and aluminum. It’s also a drying agent and can crack or damage hoses and other fuel system components.

Small gas engines for concrete saws, generators and other portable equipment are especially vulnerable to ethanol’s problems. As opposed to vehicles which get fresh gas every week or two, the gas in small equipment and in portable storage containers may sit for several months allowing the ethanol more time to absorb water and dissolve fuel system components. Briggs and Stratton’s website offers this caution:

“Ethanol blended gasoline can attract moisture, which leads to separation and formation of acids during storage. Acidic gasoline can damage the fuel system of an engine while in storage. B&S strongly recommends removing ethanol blended fuels from engine during storage.”

Another emerging problem is that what’s labeled at the pump as 10 percent ethanol, may in fact have much higher levels.  Bloomberg Business Week in its “The Great Ethanol Scam article cites examples of a hapless auto owner whose ruined fuel system was drinking 18 percent ethanol. Another victim, this one driving a “Flex Fuel” vehicle designed to run on 85 percent ethanol, stopped dead in its tracks because the pump he used to fill it up was dispensing 100 percent ethanol. Examples of this ethanol poisoning abound. BMWs and Mini Coopers seem particularly susceptible. The average cost of repair is over $1,000.

If you’re filling up at a retail pump, you just have to take your chances. The last non-ethanol gas stations seemed to have disappeared within the last few months.  If you’re a fleet manager and buying gasoline in bulk you can protect yourself from ethanol poisoning, for now, by using one of these ethanol test kits.