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Renewable Energy Vision
Expert analysis on the most pressing issues facing the renewable energy sector in the U.S and abroad from ACORE staff, members and supporters.

American Ethanol: Power And Performance For Your Engine

Published on 01 Oct 2013  |   Written by    |  

By Bill Holmberg and Contributing Authors 10/2/13

America has always been the vanguard for innovation in the automobile industry, particularly in regards to the development of high octane alcohol fuels. Unfortunately, the oil industry has been successfully able to suppress the wider implementation of many of these high octane blends including ethanol dating back to the 19th century.

 Higher octane fuels enable cars to run better and more efficiently. For nearly a century—beginning with Henry Ford and the founders of General Motors—automakers have asked fuel providers to include octane boosters in their gasoline. The U.S. car companies continue to petition the EPA Administrator to require higher octane gasoline permitting them to design engines to more effectively meet strict new fuel efficiency, cleaner burning and carbon reduction rules. 

Ninety years ago, Ford and GM researchers ranked the three top octane boosters. They found that 30% ethanol (E30) had the same octane punch as 3 grams of lead, or 40% aromatic compounds (made from crude oil). Both Henry Ford and GM scientists recommended ethanol as the superior octane enhancer, for its performance benefits and its health advantages. However, to the detriment of tens of millions of people whose health was severely damaged over the next 70 years, oil interests paved the way for lead to become the dominant octane booster. It was not until 1990 that the disastrous human health effects convinced Congress to finally ban its use in the Clean Air Act Amendments (CAAA). In the process of debating the leaded gasoline ban in the 1990 CAAA, Congress wanted to make sure that EPA did not allow poisonous lead to be replaced by something as bad, or worse. As the Congressional Record debates make clear, Senators and Congressmen were especially concerned about the use of toxic aromatics to boost octane levels. Often known as BTX (for benzene, toluene, xylene) Group Compounds, these octane enhancers are synthesized from crude oil, and are the most toxic, carbon intensive, and costly gasoline components. Nevertheless, petroleum refiners prefer aromatics over ethanol, since they produce them, and profit from their use at levels that today range from 20 – 40% of U.S. gasoline.

The oil industry will counter by claiming the alcohols should not be supported by the government with the RFS or its equivalent, and with FFVs/ blender pumps. They neglect to recognize that the oil industry has been subsidized since 1862 when ethanol used in "spirit lamps" was taxed at $2.08 a gallon and kerosene, its competitor, was taxed at $.10 a gallon. A 90 million gal/yr ethanol industry essentially died over night. Even today the oil industry enjoys billions in various tax incentives.

As Henry Ford knew, high octane ethanol is a superior molecule for use as a spark ignition transportation fuel due to its excellent chemical properties. It is a low-carbon, ultra-low sulfur component that does not produce harmful particulate matter, highly toxic benzene, or PAHs. Ethanol’s high oxygen content substantially reduces carbon monoxide emissions, and its cooler temperatures lead to lower NOx emissions. Ethanol’s extremely high chemical octane, charge cooling, and sensitivity are the reason auto industry experts call it a superior octane enhancer, especially when used in advanced higher compression, turbo-charged, direct injection engines needed to comply with the new GHG – CAFE rules.

Simply stated, adding ethanol and other alcohols to gasoline improves it entirely. If EPA properly enforced Sec. 202(l) of the 1990 CAAA, the door would be open to both U.S. and Brazilian ethanol producers (exporting to the US) to benefit from a steadily increasing demand for substituting low carbon, environmentally safe, cost-effective ethanol for high-carbon, toxic aromatic compounds. Many of the same benefits accrue to the other alcohols. RFS targets would be met by market-based demand forces while consumers, car makers, the environment and public health would all benefit.

The oil industry has tried to marginalize the ethanol industry to protect its market share by portraying ethanol as an industry that cannot survive without government assistance. Notwithstanding ethanol no longer receives government subsidies, even though oil continues to receive billions of dollars from the government. Yet the ethanol industry continues to thrive as it has done for over the last 100 years. The time is now to take a stand for ethanol and support the RFS as it continues to drive our nation towards cleaner high octane fuels and reduced foreign oil dependence. This will also pave the way for the other alcohols and help lay the groundwork for all of the other energy systems to power our overall transportation network. When international oil has to compete with the system in an open market, the world will advance towards sustainability.

By ACORE’s Bill Holmberg and contributing authors Benjamin Lang and James Hewett

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