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Ethanol 101

Millions of people live, work and play near major highways. And half of all Americans are exposed to unhealthy levels of air pollution each day. This close proximity to high traffic areas can have a negative impact on air quality and overall public health. This is due to exhaust from our cars and trucks being more dangerous than people realize. You can do something about it simply by changing the way we fill our gas tanks.

Most vehicles either run on gasoline or diesel. Both of these fuels combust and produce a lot of harmful emissions that have an adverse effect on the environment. This is due to toxic compounds added to gasoline that are called aromatics. Aromatics include carcinogens such as benzene, toluene, and xylene, which can reduce engine knock but cause further damage to the environment.

Most people are concerned with the dangers of fossil fuels but may not realize they have access to fuel blends that are environmentally friendly and renewable.


Ethanol: Sustainable and easier on the pocket

Ethanol is a natural alcohol created by fermenting plants like corn, sugar cane, and barley. It is a biofuel that boasts greater octane numbers and does not impact our health like aromatics. Using ethanol blends is not only good for the environment, it doesn’t burn a hole in your pocket.

All cars today run on a 10% ethanol blend. It is the regular fuel you find at the gas station. Using this alternative and cost-effective fuel has its benefits. In this article, we’ll take a brief look at them.


What are the most common ethanol blends?

In the United States, ethanol blends vary from 10% to 85% and are available in almost all cities.

Following are the most commonly used blends you’ll find:

E10: Marked 87 or unleaded at almost all gas stations. This fuel has 10% ethanol in it, unless it says otherwise. All vehicles can and do currently run on it.

E15: Marked unleaded 88 at many gas stations. This is the newest fuel being added by many retails. As its name suggests, the ethanol content is 15% in this blend. It can be used any model above 2001.

E20: This blend is found only at blender pumps and would be marked as a 91 octane. The ethanol content in this blend is 20% and it costs less than regular. A blender pump allows the retailer to blend the fuel right there at the pump.

E30: Marked 93 on a blender pump. This is the super-premium blend with 30% ethanol.

E85: The most affordable blend you’ll find at the pump. The ethanol content is 85% so you’ll see a decrease in mileage if your vehicle is not suited for this octane. This blend is only currently suitable for flex-fuel designated cars.

E15 is the fastest growing ethanol blend available for consumers. It can be used in cars 2001 and newer. E20 and E30 have more limited availability but also run well. With any of these blends you will not see a mileage loss, they will cost less and have fewer emissions. The higher the blend the cleaner the fuel.


Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs)

Commonly referred to as flex-fuel vehicles, they are designed to run on a high concentration of ethanol. E85 blend can only work on these vehicles. While all vehicles can benefit from ethanol blends, an E85 fuel should only be used in FFVs. You must remember that the overall energy content of ethanol is lower than gasoline. This difference is noticeable in the E85 blend as it gives a lower miles per gallon average. However, in the case of blends like E20 and E30, the mileage loss is negligible in any vehicle.


Is ethanol good for my car?

The short answer is Yes. ethanol blends work well in your car. Everyone already is running 10% Ethanol in their car whether they know it or not. Ethanol blends are available at a lower price and help in cleaning the engine which improves its performance. Many researchers studied the effect of ethanol content on the performance of internal combustion engines and concluded that mid-level ethanol blends like E15 and E20 are the best choice.


Some pros and cons of using ethanol as a fuel

Today, the United States and Brazil are the two biggest consumers of ethanol fuels. Europe and Australia are also working on legislation to make a certain percentage of ethanol required in order to get rid of the harmful aromatic compounds. Ethanol blends reduce pollution and are good for the environment. Here are several pros and a couple cons of using ethanol blends. Let’s take a look at them.




Reduces tailpipe emissions

Ethanol is often talked about for its ability to decrease harmful emissions by replacing toxic aromatics traditionally used in gasoline to boost octane. Biofuels like ethanol can reduce greenhouse gases by 39 percent compared with gasoline.

Environmental benefits

Ultra-fine particulates or (UFP’s) are coming out of our vehicle’s tailpipes, these microscopic particles are created in car’s engines during an incomplete combustion of toxic aromatics. These particles are so small that we don’t see them, and they are able to penetrate into our lungs and cause damage to vital organs. Ethanol is proven to significantly reduce aromatics in gasoline, which in turn reduces these harmful UFPs. The higher the ethanol blend, the cleaner the fuel. 

Ethanol a food and a fuel

In addition to being beneficial for the environment, ethanol production is useful for a lot of industries. The most prominent byproducts of ethanol production are DDGs or distillers’ grains. The production process of DDGs is extremely efficient and nothing gets wasted. Nutrients like fibers and proteins are extracted from every single kernel after ethanol production to obtain DDGs which are then used in animal feed and fertilizers.

Positive energy balance

Critics of ethanol blends argue that using it is not logical because producing ethanol requires more energy than what can be extracted from it. Research, however, contradicts this claim and shows that ethanol has a positive energy balance. The USDA states that ethanol reduces greenhouse gasses by 39 percent compared to gasoline. In addition, ethanol production creates a lot of usable byproducts that make it an economically viable option.

Easy to implement and transport

Another benefit is the required infrastructure already exists so there’s no need to invest a large amount of capital to implement ethanol distribution. Additionally, we can tweak the existing network of pumps to make them compatible with ethanol blends.

Ethanol easier on your wallet

Ethanol is naturally available and a renewable source of energy that is cost-effective. It is also easier to produce and transport which makes it a great alternative fuel. Renewable Fuels Association believes that with the addition of ten percent ethanol in gas we are saving retailers around $39 Billion in the United States due to the lower wholesale prices, this in turn translates to you saving a few hundred dollars a year at the pump. Switching to higher ethanol blends could increase that savings even more.




Small Engines

As far back as 2001, all vehicles have computers that assist in optimizing engine fuel intake, allowing our cars to run well with ethanol-blended gasoline. Unfortunately, as efficient as ethanol is in our vehicle’s engines, higher ethanol blends like E20, E30 and E85 are not recommended for some small engines, like lawnmowers and other small equipment. These engines do not have the support of a computer to help regulate fuel optimization.

Limited availability

E10 is readily available everywhere in the United States and E15 is growing in popularity. Minnesota is even pushing to make E15 the new regular across the nation in traditional pumps. However, blender pumps that sell higher blends like E20, E30, and E85 are harder to find. There are blender pumps in almost all the major cities of the USA but there is still some work to be done in order to make the network of blender pumps as extensive as traditional pumps.


Key takeaways

Ethanol blends play a significant part in reducing the harmful toxins associated with gasoline and they are compatible with the existing transportation infrastructure, so no drastic changes are necessary to incorporate more use of this renewable fuel. While electric vehicles may be the future, liquid fuels are not going anywhere, and ethanol can continue to help make a cleaner gasoline and bridge the gap while we make the considered transition. Even though there are a few disadvantages when it comes to ethanol blends, the pros will always outweigh the cons and make ethanol one of the best alternative fuels available today.