Even more Ethanol in Gasoline?
Written by Dr. Klaus L.E. Kaiser
According to the Worldwatch Institute, the US Department of Agriculture Secretary, Tom Vilsack, is pushing for an increase of the current maximum of 10.2% ethanol in gasoline to 15-20%. Much of that is supposed to come from corn and, later, from cellulose (wood).
Under the current federal “Renewable Fuel Standard” the US is already slated to increase its use of biofuels from 9 billion gallons in 2008 to 36 billion gallons by 2022. That standard does not even include the proposed increase of the ethanol content of common gasoline.
The proposed revision would be a really bad idea and let me tell you why.
To begin with, the idea is a red herring. There is no shortage of automotive fuel or its precursor, crude oil. The production of crude oil in the US already has substantially increased as shown in the graph below and continues to expand. Current predictions are that the US will actually become a net oil EXPORTER in a few years’ time.
For that reason alone, there is absolutely no need to “adulterate” good gasoline with ethanol. However, there are far more compelling reasons to steer away from the ethanol mandate altogether.
There is no shortage of potential engine problems with such a mandate. You may as well kiss your car/pickup/motorcycle/ATV, lawnmower, outboard, generator and other engines good-bye. Gasoline with that kind of ethanol content will kill most of them in short order, especially in areas of colder climes. To begin with, many engine and connecting parts cannot withstand the corrosive or solubilizing properties of ethanol when present at higher than 10% in gasoline. For example, gaskets and the like in older engines (pre-2000) cannot withstand its effects. Furthermore, gasoline, at any temperature and level of activation will not react with aluminum but alcohol (ethanol) will when the metal’s protective oxide layer is compromised. Without that protection, for example, aluminum would readily dissolve in water.
Increasing the ethanol level in gasoline would lower the resistance to that type of chemical attack on the metal or alloy. More corrosion problems would ensue.
I wrote about that before. Gasoline Phase Separation (GPS) is a real concern especially with two-cycle engines as commonly found in outdoor equipment, like small snowplows, ATVs, outboard motors, lawn mowers and other machinery. The required addition of lubricating oil to that gasoline decreases the solubility of the ethanol in the gasoline, hence increases the tendency for GPS to occur.
That tendency is further increased with falling temperatures. Therefore, anyone living in an area where temperatures can approach the freezing mark or may drop below freezing should take precautions to avoid GPS.
So, unless you live year-round in the tropics, the best way to avoid GPS is to buy gasoline with no or as little ethanol as available.
The energy content of (pure) ethanol versus that of (pure) gasoline is another problem. A given amount of ethanol simply does not have anywhere near the same energy content as an equal amount (either volume or weight) of straight gasoline. That’s a consequence of its chemical composition. This is nothing new whatsoever, as, in simplistic terms, ethanol is nothing but partially burnt gasoline.
If the potential problems mentioned above are of no concern because you happen to live in a place with a year-round warm climate, such as Brazil, you may get away with filling your truck’s “gas-tank” even with pure ethanol. That fuel though will not drive you as far uphill as actual gasoline would, just because of its lower energy content. There is no way to get around that lower energy content of ethanol versus gasoline.
The ideas by the Agriculture Secretary are well meaning – especially for farmers dependent on selling crops to feed the “ethanol-bandwagon.” For everyone else they would be a disaster. The idea of “growing fuel” has long been abandoned when crude oil became a widely available commodity.
For example, in Germany, following WWII, breweries installed small “wood-coking” ovens on their trucks to deliver the vital suds to local establishments. The truck drivers had to start early in the morning, stoking the ovens and lighting the fires underneath. After an hour or so, enough gas would be emanating to drive the trucks slowly along the streets. Going uphill with a heavy load was more problematic.
The photosynthesis process all life on earth depends on creates energetic material by converting the sun’s radiation and (atmospheric) carbon dioxide to plant matter. Whether that matter is kernels of corn, switch grass or woody plants, basically it is all the same and the radiation energy conversion rates are quite similar as well. Therefore, it hardly matters which one of these natural starting materials are used for ethanol production. Overall, the amount of obtainable (or useful) energy (such as for automotive propulsion) is much the same, regardless of the particular plant used.
From a societal perspective, “growing” fuel rather than having to buy it sounds great. In fact, most of the government programs by western world governments that are supporting such ideas relish in that thought. There is just a little problem with such thoughts. The total amount of energy needed for the functioning of advanced societies is much larger than the amount of energy “deposited” through photosynthesis in its plant matter over an equal time.
Of course, any society dependent on another country’s natural resources (either in the form of a particular element, mineral or hydrocarbon deposit) may find it beneficial to find a way around such a dependency. However, energy cannot be created from wishful thinking. There are laws of nature which cannot be circumvented. US President W. G. Harding expressed it very clearly with “No statute enacted by man can repeal the inexorable laws of nature.”
Unfortunately, Harding’s wisdom still seems to escape many modern-day politicians.
The idea that “growing fuel” would be without any detrimental environmental effects and consequences is ludicrous as well. Nature depends on many, constantly interacting players. From the lowliest soil bacterium to the top predators, they all rely on a system of energy (from the sun) and carbon dioxide (from the atmosphere) input to sustain life.
The term “food chain” describes that interdependence of organisms along nature’s hierarchy of “who devours what.” Without the minute photosynthetic algae in the ocean, top predators like the Great White Shark or Polar Bears would be toast. The predators depend on a food-chain which relies on abundant algae. On land, the same system prevails, just the species are different. You could substitute the sharks with cougars or lions, the polar bears with Kodiak bears and so forth. From a larger perspective, it’s all merely semantics.
The critical thing here is that there is a WHOLE chain of organisms relying on each other for sustenance. If you take out just one critical niche (organism) the entire chain may collapse.
Therefore, substitution of any area’s balanced agricultural ecosystem with a type of restrictive monoculture in order to “feed” the “ethanol-bandwagon” may just be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. For example, the Monarch butterfly population in North America relies on a multi-generational migration to Mexico. Its larvae feed primarily on the milkweed plant which used to be abundant at the periphery of farm fields and forests in the northeast of the continent but are no longer. The conversion of any, even vaguely useful agricultural land to full-blown “energy-production” (such as corn fields for bio-ethanol) has eliminated much of that niche. Milkweed plants are becoming a rarity and with that the Monarch butterflies.
Of course, many readers will be aware of the claims that bio-fuel growing and associated “carbon-footprint-reducing-activities” are necessary to “protect” the environment or the world’s climate. Unfortunately nothing could be further from the truth.
Recent media reports are full of such terms as “carbon bubble” and “stranded carbon” deposits. Moreover, if we just went back to live like our cave-man ancestors of a few ten-thousand years ago, we would all be better off. Some people are proud to not own a car, relying on other people’s transportation and tax-supported public utilities instead. It may work for them but could not do so for the majority of working people. Their argument is just as faulty as the idea that vaccination against childhood diseases is unnecessary as they have nearly been eradicated. The sole reasons for their decline are the generally applied vaccinations against such diseases.
Read more from Dr Klaus Kaiser here.