Ethanol in Gas Delivering Reverse of Intended Effect

ethanol image / Credit: Cornell UniversityThe ethanol mixed with the gasoline you buy has few proponents for a number of reasons. It reduces mileage in motor vehicles. It attracts water, an enemy of fuel tanks. And it corrodes rubber, plastic and some metal parts, particularly in small engines like those in outdoor power equipment.

On the other side are big players: corn growers, for whom ethanol is a cash cow, and the Environmental Protection Agency, which says it reduces greenhouse gases. But what if research proved that biofuels like ethanol actually increase greenhouse gases—even more than gasoline by itself? That’s the conclusion of a revolutionary study from the University of Michigan.

The study, headed by research professor John DeCicco and co-authors at the U-M Energy Institute (published in the August 25 issue of Climatic Change), used U.S. Department of Agriculture crop-production data to address the underlying assumption of biofuels’ value. This assumption involves two processes. The first is that the corn, soybeans and other plants used to manufacture biofuels remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in order to grow. Second, the biofuels made from these plants emit carbon dioxide as they’re burned for fuel. The accepted truth is that the two processes, in terms of carbon-dioxide exchange, cancel one another out. Descriptions of biofuels, as a result, use terms such as “inherently carbon-neutral.”

Steps on carbon-footprint models

This is what the study challenges, and it used actual crop data rather than carbon-footprint models like those underlying the federal Renewable Fuel Standard. In fact, the researchers’ analysis shows that during the recent ramp-up of U.S. biofuel production, the increased carbon-dioxide uptake by the crops offset just 37% of the CO2 emissions attributed to biofuel combustion.

“When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline,” said DeCicco. “So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect.”

DeCicco voiced his hope that policymakers reconsider their support for biofuels. “What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet.”

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Ethanol in Your Fuel: Just Say No

Ethanol free fuel
TruFuel ethanol-free fuel at Home Depot

Gasoline with 15% ethanol (E15) has been offered for sale in America since mid-2012. But the Environmental Protection Agency hasn’t addressed the question of how to keep the average joe from putting it into lawn mowers, generators and other outdoor power equipment.

It isn’t that the agency didn’t know that gasoline with higher than 10% ethanol was bad for small engines. The Department of Energy studied that very thing in a 2008 report (PDF), with a focus not only on vehicles but also outdoor gear, including pressure washers, leaf blowers, generators and string trimmers. Among problems the researchers found when using E15 or blends with even more ethanol:

  • A Honda generator idled erratically while running fuel with 20% ethanol (E20).
  • Three Weed Eater Featherlite leaf blowers running with fuels higher than E10 failed or would not idle.
  • A Stihl FS 90 string trimmer ran at such a high idle on E15 and E20 that its clutch engaged by itself.

With all machines tested, average exhaust temperatures rose proportionately to ethanol content. In other words, the more ethanol the fuel contained, the hotter these products ran.

None of this apparently swayed the EPA, which merely says that E15, by law, cannot be used in any engines other than those in cars model-year 2001 or later, except for those of flex-fuel vehicles. But unless you’re paying attention, richer ethanol blends than E10 are bound to make it into your gear eventually. Consider, for instance, a so-called blender pump—one pump used to deliver everything from E10 to E85, the level used in flex-fuel vehicles. Even if you chose E10 to fill up your gas can, if the customer before you bought E85, what remains in the hose will make it into your can, and ultimately into your mower, string trimmer or chain saw.

But you don’t have to take it. Two options:

At the Pump

They’re not easy to find, but some gas stations do include ethanol-free fuel (called E0) as an option. Websites such as pure-gas.org and Buy Real Gas list stations that sell it. And if you live near any kind of seaport, you’ll find that gas stations serving boat owners tend to offer ethanol-free gas. In all cases, however, call first—and expect this fuel to cost more than you’re used to paying.

On the Shelf

It’s taken a few years, but it’s now hard to walk into a home center or Sears outdoor-gear department and not see multiple brands of canned ethanol-free fuel. Some is for handheld machines that require a 40:1 or 50:1 fuel-to-oil ratio; the gas includes both stabilizer and the right amount of oil for two-stroke engines. And some are for four-cycles engines like those found in mowers, snowblowers, and generators. (These products also include stabilizer.) One great feature: It lasts two years once opened. TruFuel might be the most common brand, though Sears sells it under the Craftsman brand. And most manufacturers now sell E0 in their own brands, such as Echo, Husqvarna and Stihl.

This fuel is even more expensive than marine fuel—a quart can typically costs about $6. But for a little perspective, don’t think about the national average retail price, $2.225 per gallon as of yesterday. Think instead of how much you pay for that wonderful new cold-brew coffee at Starbucks.

At an average $3.60 for a 16-ounce serving, it costs $7.20 per quart—not counting a tip for the barista—which is $1.20 more than the TruFuel. Sure, the coffee is bound to taste much better than a fluid that was never intended for human consumption. But your body can’t tell the difference between Starbucks and Maxwell House. Use only pure gasoline in well-maintained outdoor power gear, and it will thank you for years.

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