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Ethanol as a Fuel for Our Automobiles

Updated on December 18, 2017
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Science, nature and the environment, with regard to human impact, are subjects to which Chris applies his passions for research and writing.

Ethanol as a Fuel Source for Automobiles

This hub explores the subject of the bio fuel, ethanol. Where do we get ethanol? how is it utilized in fuel? why has it been chosen as the primary bio fuel? These are questions dealt with here as well as the positive and negative aspects of ethanol as a fuel source in automobiles.

Ethanol Plant in Turner County, South Dakota, United States


Mankind Still Burns Material in Order to Produce Energy.....Just like Cavemen Did

As I write this article, I am more or less neutral on the subject of ethanol being used as an automobile fuel. Ideally I’d like to see mankind get to the place where we aren’t burning stuff to get our energy. In that regard we haven’t progressed one bit since a caveman first saw a tree get struck by lightening and took a piece of the burning timber home so he could heat the cave and cook his dinner.

Bio Fuel Field

Footpath through bio-fuel field
Footpath through bio-fuel field | Source

The Source of Ethanol

Ethanol comes from feedstocks, the edible parts of plants such as corn and other grains as well as sugar cane. As these feedstocks go through the processes of fermentation, distillation and dehydration they become ethanol. The same ethanol that winds up in a shot glass ends up in a gas tank.

Current Use of Ethanol in Our Gasoline

We’ve all seen the signs on gas pumps that inform us there is up to 10% ethanol in the fuel we are currently pumping. Notice it says “up to 10%." It could be 0 or 10 or anywhere in between. Ten percent is the legal, upper limit for light duty vehicles in the United States. It’s 10% in Finland, France and Germany as well. Sweden permits 5-15%. The rest of the EU allows five percent.

There are vehicles, mostly in federal government fleets, that run on E85 fuel, or fuel that is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.

An ED95 fuel also exists, but it does not contain gasoline. It is 95% ethanol with performance improvers and a denaturant added. That fuel is used in modified diesel engines.

In the United States, the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) requires fuel refineries to blend ethanol with their gasoline. They do not mandate a certain percentage, but require the blend to approach ten percent.

Ethanol Fuel Mixtures for USA, Europe and Brazil


Why Is Ethanol Considered to be a Good Energy Source?

But why has ethanol even been considered as a viable source of energy, even as a replacement for gasoline in automobiles? Ethanol combusts at a cooler temperature and has a higher octane rating. The octane rating refers to how much a fuel can be compressed before it ignites via the compression rather than by the spark from the spark plug. This causes a miniature explosion, or engine knocks in the cylinder which can damage the engine. The more pressure the fuel can withstand, the more power it can deliver. Ethanol will produce more power and less engine knock than gasoline because of its higher octane rating. And it does this as it burns at a cooler temperature. These two points, cooler combustion and higher octane rating leading to a higher compression ratio are what make ethanol a desirable fuel.

USPS E85 fuel, St Paul, Minnesota


Does Ethanol Pollute the Air?

More engine power may sound like it comes with a price. Does ethanol pollute the air when used as a fuel for automobiles? The alcohol itself burns completely. There is very little pollution in that regard. But alcohol is never absolutely pure. There are contaminants which pollute the air when ethanol is used as a fuel for automobiles. These contaminants are formaldehyde and acetaldehyde. The bottom line is that these pollutants produce smog, especially in large cities with a lot of automobiles in a confined area. Surface ozone levels also increase. Ozone filters harmful solar radiation when it is way up in the stratosphere. But near the surface of the earth it is harmful if breathed. So ethanol power does not come without a price.

Ethanol Plant in West Burlington, Iowa


Ethanol and Auto Manufacturer Engine Warranties

AAA claims that a proposed 15% ethanol/gasoline blend will seriously damage millions of automobiles across the U.S. They also report that the warranties by auto manufacturers would be void if E15 was used in one of their cars.


The Future of Ethanol as a Fuel Depends on New Technology

What does the future hold for ethanol as a fuel for our automobiles? As automakers design engine parts that can withstand the high corrosive effect of ethanol, higher percentages of ethanol to gasoline can be used. Eventually there is the possibility that the average automobile could run only on ethanol. The one thing preventing that from happening is the corrosiveness of alcohol on engine parts.

Currently ethanol is being used as an additive to gasoline. Research is being done that involves holding gasoline and ethanol in separate tanks in vehicles. The two fuels are then injected into the cylinders separately. During low power and low compression performance, only gasoline would be injected. During high power, high compression performance, ethanol and gasoline would be injected, taking advantage of the properties of ethanol. This technology would combine the strengths of both fuels. Ethanol has the added benefit of holding more oxygen which reduces engine knock which has already been discussed in this article. This would be a much more efficient use of ethanol in combination with gasoline.

Feedstocks are the current source of ethanol, but great headway is being made to produce ethanol from the fiberous parts of plants called cellulose.

The Negative Side of Ethanol

  • Low atmospheric levels of ozone.
  • Aldehydes as pollutants.
  • Farm land used for energy production rather than for food.
  • Depletion of farm soil of innate nutrients for plants.

The Positive Side of Ethanol

  • Combusts at lower temperature causing engine parts to last longer.
  • Carries more oxygen than gasoline which creates less engine knock.
  • Has a higher octane rating which leads to greater power per gallon.
  • Does not add carbon dioxide to the atmosphere as a result of burning.
  • Comes from plants which means it is a renewable resource.

Still on the Fence


Still on the Fence

Here I am at the end of this article, and I haven’t swayed myself either way. I’m still on the fence when it comes to the use of ethanol as a fuel for automobiles, but I am hopeful that technology will solve some of the negatives. It would be a great thing for our planet if we had a renewable resource from which to produce our energy needs. I for one am still hoping for the day when we don’t have to burn stuff to produce energy. It would be nice to leave that in the past with the cavemen.


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    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      6 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      My pleasure Chris. Thanks for checking out my article.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      6 years ago from Traverse City, MI

      Kristen, thanks for reading and commenting on my article. Watching the unfolding of the future of energy is exciting and sometimes frustrating. One energy source looks promising then disappears. I'm going over to read your article now.

    • Kristen Howe profile image

      Kristen Howe 

      6 years ago from Northeast Ohio

      Chris, this was a great and informative hub on ethanol. I have a similar hub on ethanol, too, that I posted last fall, too. The debate is still on for ethanol these days. Voted up for interesting!

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Traverse City, MI

      Deb, Ditto to everything. Someone we both know has written a couple of hubs on the possibilities of helium3 as a source of energy.

    • aviannovice profile image

      Deb Hirt 

      7 years ago from Stillwater, OK

      There are positive and negative effects to everything, but let's face it, it is mighty nice to have a fast renewable energy source. Bamboo, for example, grows like a weed, and is durable. That';s why flooring and cutting boards are made from it. We can't continue with carbon fuels. They are too expensive, create too much pollutant, and are nearly gone. We need to look outside the box now, which is LONG overdue.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Traverse City, MI

      Hi Bill, I know how you feel. these things come on the scene and get us all hoping that we've finally found an energy source with no negative effects. Of course there will never be anything like that, but maybe we can get close. Thanks for reading and saying hello.

    • billybuc profile image

      Bill Holland 

      7 years ago from Olympia, WA

      I'm still not sure how I feel about ethanol...same with wind turbines....I'm waiting for definitive proof on both. Until then, I'll keep reading articles like this one. Thanks for the info.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Traverse City, MI

      Jodah, I'm with you, I can't decide. I think at low percentages it is actually good for the engine because it stops the knocking, which is damaging. Environmentally, I think the future is going to bring some resolutions to some of those issues. Take care of that car. Mine is at 260K, so I'm not too worried about what ethanol is doing to it.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Traverse City, MI

      Erockfishe, Thanks for reading my hub and thanks for all the additional, helpful information. Welcome to HubPages.

    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 

      7 years ago from Queensland Australia

      Goos interesting and easy to read hub Cam. I still can't decide if it's good or bad. I guess if they develop engine parts that can withstand the corrosion it is positive. I haven't been using ethanol added fuel in my present car yet, as I'm not convinced of its worth and want to protect my engine. Voted up.

    • profile image


      7 years ago

      In the USA alcohol was first use at 5% in California to replace an additive called MTBE. MTBE was used to clean the injectors of cars, it was requirement by the USA to keep engines running cleaner thereby less smog. MTBE is now banned. Later during a fuel crisis of a sort ethyl alcohol was proposed as a way to reduce our dependence on imported oil. Because it takes fertilizer made from oil, lots of farm equipment burning oil, and a distilling process using lots of natural gas the net energy gain was nothing.

    • cam8510 profile imageAUTHOR

      Chris Mills 

      7 years ago from Traverse City, MI

      I agree on all points. We have the same kind of thing here with leaving land unproductive. Some call it "government land." Thanks for reading Mark.

    • Mark Lees profile image

      Mark Lees 

      7 years ago

      Provided it is being used from surplus farm land (and we actually can produce enough food for the entire world, in Europe governments pay farmers NOT to grow anything on some fields) and it is controlled to reduce engine wear it is good. Although it does produce fumes it is less than from traditional carbon fuels.

      The other benefit is an ecologist has found a way to get ethanol from the sap of a deep routed tree which will actually protect forests and reduce the overall environmental effects.

      Until they get hydrogen fuel working well I think it is a great idea.


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