Ethanol: Environmental Concerns, Vehicle Damage, and Economic Reasons

Automobiles that burn non-renewable fossil fuels and damage the environment have been a cause of concern for many. Ethanol has been touted by some as a solution to this problem. Ethanol is a renewable, grain-based alcohol that can be added to gasoline and can vary in content. However, what is ethanol exactly, and does it address the problem adequately?

The Good News

Ethanol is renewable. The alcohol is often made from corn, but can be made from other grains as well. The process leaves a “distilled grain” byproduct, which can be used to feed livestock, as it retains most of its nutrients after the process of creating ethanol is complete. The ethanol itself is blended with gasoline and used to run internal combustion engines; for most people, this means their cars. Most cars can handle some blend of ethanol in the gasoline. Designations such as E-15 or E-85 tell the consumer how much ethanol has been blended in. E-15, for instance, contains up to 15 percent ethanol, and the EPA has decreed that automobiles produced from 2007 forward should be able to handle E-15 blends without modifications.
Ethanol reduces the need to import petroleum, which is a term covering both crude oil and the products derived from it. Gasoline is a petroleum-derived fuel, and the United States imports a significant amount of foreign oil, creating a dependency that needs to be eliminated. Ethanol blends result in the purchase of fewer barrels of foreign oil. The dependency on imported petroleum registers at about 45 percent of the nation’s total need, which is down significantly in recent years. Ethanol has played a role in the reduced need for imported fossil fuels.
The use of ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions. Ethanol blends burn cleaner than traditional gasoline, and the current result is equivalent to taking more than five million cars off the road every year. Ethanol has a high level of oxygen, about 35 percent, which accounts for a more complete combustion of fuel. This, in turn, results in cleaner tailpipe emissions. Moreover, as funds continue to be routed into ethanol technologies, efficacy levels and energy production ratios continue to rise, making ethanol an increasingly viable option.

The Bad News

Not everyone agrees with the EPA. Complaints of fuel system issues already existed with the E-10 blend, which had been previously approved for all cars built after 2001, and appears now in gasoline around the country. E-15 is an optional blend, backed as a clean option for post-2007 vehicles. However, automobile manufacturers have filed a lawsuit against the EPA, alleging that E-15 damages vehicle engines. In addition to stopping up the fuel system, it can potentially cause phase separation issues if vented air adds too much moisture to the fuel. However, not all cars are the same, and some seem better able to handle the higher levels of ethanol than others.
The reduction of need with regard to foreign oil is also an important topic, and could be driving the ethanol industry. In addition, closed-loop fuel injection systems can replace the need for high oxygen levels in fuel, effectively burning fuel more completely without ethanol, and these systems have been prevalent for about twenty-five years. If true, and if ethanol is damaging engines, then ethanol becomes an ineffective fuel used only politically to reduce foreign oil consumption, the cost of which is passed on to individual citizens by way of an increase in car repairs.
Ethanol requires grain, and plenty of it. Detractors claim that the massive tracts of land dedicated to ethanol production would be better used producing food, and that more energy is expended creating ethanol than is gained by the product. Billions of dollars of federal subsidies make ethanol possible as a solution, without which the costly industry could not sustain itself.

As ethanol and other bio-fuel technologies continue to advance, and as an increasing number of vehicles are produced specifically to make use of these fuels, ethanol may play an increasingly substantial role in reducing the negative impact of fuel combustion on the environment. In addition, it could pave the way for a reduction of foreign oil dependence and increase the use of renewable fuel sources. Currently, gasoline with a high concentration of ethanol, such as E-85, will not run in cars that are not designed to use it. On the other hand, gasoline with lower concentrations of ethanol content, such as E-10 and E-15, may cause problems for some car owners using traditional, unmodified automobiles. Ethanol also consumes land and taxpayer money in the form of subsidies.