When you pull up to the pump, you have a lot of options. One fuel choice that’s gained traction since the turn of the century is ethanol fuel. What is ethanol, and is this flex-fuel right for you?
What is Ethanol Fuel?
Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, the same alcohol found in alcohol drinks. Bioethanol, or ethanol fuel made from organic sources, is produced through the fermentation and distillation of sugar, typically from feedstocks like corn. Popular flex-fuels run from E10 to E85. The amount of ethanol in these fuels is indicated by the number that follows the E, so E10 has approximately 10% ethanol, while E85 has 85%.
Burning alcohol as fuel dates back to one of the first mass-produced cars, the Ford Model T, which was the first mass-produced flex-fuel car. The first car mass-produced car to run solely on ethanol was the Brazilian 1978 Fiat 147. Brazil is home to the most flex-fuel vehicles which run on ethanol on Earth and Brazil and the United States produce some 87% of the world’s ethanol fuel.
E85, Engine Performance and Health
Fueling your car with ethanol can provide performance gains and contribute to your engine’s health. While ethanol alone is less efficient to burn by volume when compared to pure gasoline, ethanol boosts engine performance. With an octane rate of approximately 95, ethanol increases compression and torque, putting its efficiency on par with premium gasoline blends. While you may have to refill more with E85 fuel, it’s typically cheaper than unleaded gas and is considered a high-performance fuel.
Ethanol can help to act an an antifreeze during winter, and it burns cleaner than gasoline, meaning less buildup and deposits in your fuel system.
Proponents of bioethanol cite the fact that it comes as a renewable source and can be used to lessen the use of gasoline, while its critics say that large-scale bioethanol production can impact food prices. Currently burning ethanol may produce more emissions than gas, but its production process significantly reduces carbon dioxide emissions associated with vehicles. As bioethanol production has matured, sustainable methods of manufacturing it have emerged. Brazil has been credited for having the world’s first sustainable bioethanol economy.
The Future of E85
Bioethanol may not be the sustainable solution everyone is hoping for, but that may change. Chemical companies are hard at work developing ethanol fuels from cellulose (plant cell) sources. This would mean plant wastes called “biomass” would be converted into ethanol fuel, instead of the food crops used today. The fuel is the same, but the process used to produce it cuts greenhouse emissions and saves food.