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What is Ethanol Used For Today?

Race car running on E15

Ethanol is considered today a high-tech biofuel used in race cars and dragsters to increase their performance or as a gasoline additive to lower emissions and slightly improve the performance of the vehicles.

What is Ethanol? – Definition

Ethanol or ethyl alcohol, is the same type of alcohol found today in alcoholic beverages such as beer and wine, but is also used as an alternative fuel replacing partially or almost completely the gasoline percent in the blend.

How is Ethanol Produced?

Ethanol can be produced in two different ways: from petroleum or from grains and energy crops.

The ethanol produced from petroleum through the chemical transformation of ethylene, is ethanol produced from fossil fuels.

Bioethanol is the name of the alcohol produced from grains and energy crops.

This biofuel is produced through the sugar fementation process of starch and sugar-based feedstocks such as: corn, sugarcane, rice straws, wheat, willow, poplar tree, reed canary grass, cordgrass, Jerusalem artichoke, Miscanthus and sorghum plants.

The most common way to produce ethanol today is through the dry mill method, which involves the use of a grinding mill that turns the grains into a powder. The grain powder obtained this way is mixed with water and an enzyme, and the entire mixture is introduced into a high heat cooker.

The fermentation process

The role of the enzyme in the mixture is to convert the starch into sugars, which are required in the fermentation process.

Yeast is added to the sugar mixture to begin the fermentation process. The yeast will digest the sugars, breaking them down into alcohol (ethanol) and carbon dioxide.

The dehydration process

The fermentation process is followed by the dehydration process in which water is removed from the separated ethanol.

Often, small amount of gasoline is added to the ethanol produced this way to make it non-potable.

Despite the fact that ethanol is an alcohol produced mainly from corn, this doesn’t mean that should be consumed by people.

Ethanol produced through the fermentation process of sugars, is a clear and colourless liquid that should be used only as a green alternative or as an additive for the gasoline produced from petroleum.

Is Ethanol The Same As Alcohol?

Being produced using the same fermentation process of sugars, ethanol is an alcohol made of corn, sugarcane, rice straws, wheat, willow, poplar tree, or any other starch and sugar-based feedstock used in the process.

The result is a colorless and flammable liquid (slightly toxic and biodegradable), which can be found today in popular beverages such as beer, wine and liquor.

Giving the fact that ethanol is already present in these beverages, you don’t have to drink it.

The main purpose of ethanol is to be used in combination with gasoline to lower emissions and improve the performance of the modern vehicles.

What Are Common Ethanol Blends in the U.S.?

To become fuel for vehicles, ethanol is mixed with gasoline in different blends containing more or less ethanol.

Ethanol blend in gas is labeled as E10, E15 and E85. The number that appears after the letter ‘E’ is showing the percentage of ethanol by volume.

E10 contains 90 percent gasoline and 10 percent ethanol. All automakers approve E10 in their gasoline vehicles.
In 2011, EPA has begun to allow the use of E15 (15 percent ethanol and 86 percent gasoline) in model year 2001 and in newer gasoline vehicles.

E85 contains up to 85 percent ethanol and at least 15 percent gasoline and is called a flex fuel because can be used in flex fuel vehicles that are specifically designed to run on gasoline alone, E85, or any other blend of the two fuels.

By volume, ethanol (C2H6O or CH3CH2OH) contains about 33 percent less energy than gasoline, however, some fuel flex vehicles perform better (more torque and more horsepower) when running on E85 compared to gasoline.

Ethanol Can Damage Your Car?

In newer gasoline engines, E10 (oxygenated gasoline) can be safely used, and the only drawback would be only the decreased fuel efficiency.

However, older gasoline engines were not designed to use ethanol, so it is very possible that they will not resist the damaging effects of ethanol fuel.

Ethanol attracts and absorbs water (including water vapors from the air). Fuel-water contamination occurs when the car sits for a while. The gas in the water forms layers in the gas tank and when you start the engine, water is sucked into the engine producing damage to the engine.

Being an alcohol, ethanol can cause corrosion in the fuel system, metal parts can rust and plastic forms can be damaged (deformed).

If you drive your car enough and your vehicle is quite new, you probably don’t need to worry about using a blend of ethanol that much.

Ethanol also reduces the lubricating properties of gasoline, however, you should worry about this only if you have an older engine, and in this case you have to put some oil in the gasoline to restore the lubricating properties of the fuel.

Ethanol Production: Food versus Fuel

Making ethanol an important player in the fuels industry, could generate some serious drawbacks.

Ethanol from corn uses a large volume of corn to produce a small amount of ethanol.

Ethanol from sugarcane

Ethanol can also be produced from sugarcane, image source:

Thanks to a research performed at the Cornell University, we know that 1 acre of land can yield about 7,100 pounds of corn (3,225 kg), which, if used for biofuel production, will generate only about 328 gallons of ethanol (1240 liters).

This means that 1 acre of land produces only 328 gallons of ethanol. To generate billions of gallons of ethanol every year, a very large surface of land would be needed, which is unproductive because the corn produced on that land will be used mainly for human consumption instead of biofuels production.

With All These Drawbacks, Why Is Ethanol Still Used Today?

Despite the corrosion caused to older gasoline engines, ethanol is a neutral fuel (does not pollute) that can increase the performance of the vehicle while lowering the emissions.

This biofuel is also extremely resistant to pre-ignition.

E85 is like an 105 octane gasoline, so if you have a race car that is tuned to run on ethanol-rich fuels, you don’t have to worry about engine wear, corrosion and things like that.

Ethanol Burns Cleaner Than Gasoline

Ethanol is less flammable compared to gasoline and burns cleaner.

When burning ethanol the carbon dioxide released in the air does not pollute the environment because that carbon is the same carbon stored over time by the plants used as feedstock for the production of ethanol.

As a result of this, ethanol can cut a car’s greenhouse gas emissions. The more ethanol in the blend, the less emissions will your car produce.

The addition of ethanol in gasoline makes it an oxygenated fuel, which satisfies the requirements of the Clean Air Act.

Ethanol is an alternative fuel that will be used in gasoline engines until electric or hydrogen-based vehicles will become more popular on the planet to make the vehicles with combustion engines obsolete.

It Is Safe To Drink Ethanol?

Despite being an alternative fuel, ethanol is mostly used today in the production of alcoholic beverages.

Ethanol can also be found in nail polish removers, perfumes, preservative for biochemical samples, medicines, cleaning products, beauty products, solvents, etc.

However, ethanol can’t be drunk because is a dangerous chemical. Ethanol created with the purpose of being used as fuel is excluded from human consumption by adding a small amount of gasoline in it.

The amount of ethanol in alcoholic beverages is very small, so if you try to drink ethanol alone, this could cause coma and even death.

Being a toxic chemical that can be carcinogenic, ethanol should be properly treated and handled both at home and at work.

To safely handle ethanol, you should use long rubber gloves, a respirator, boots, industrial aprons, overalls, chemical safety goggles and a face shield.

Final thoughts

If your car uses gasoline to run, you can use E10 to lower the emissions, and slightly improve the performance of the vehicle. If you have a race car created for ethanol use, try to use E85 to increase its performance while lowering the emissions.

Try to never drink ethanol alone because suffering will be much greater than the pleasure.

Article written by:

I am a writer and reporter for the clean energy sector, I cover climate change issues, new clean technologies, sustainability and green cars. Danny Ovy

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