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How Biofuels Have Changed the Fuels We Use Today: Part 2

Posted by: Erik Bjornstad

As a service to our customers, dealers and friends, Bell Performance hosts quarterly webinars on fuel topics of interest to them and their customers. The following is a transcript of a recent webinar I hosted on the topic of biofuels and the impact they have had on today's fuels. If you would like to view the archived webinar, please click here.

If you would like to read part 1, please click here.

Continued from Part 1.

4_Things_You_Need_to_Know_About_Ethanol_Fuel.jpgAll right, what’s good about ethanol here, let’s talk about the good and the bad. Similar to biodiesel. Number 1, we’ve already said it’s an oxygenate, reduces emissions from gasoline, reduces carbon monoxide, reduces other ground-level ozone productions. The kinds of emissions that are terrible for urban air quality, so reduces emissions and like biodiesel it volumetrically reduces the amount of oil that we’re using. If you put 10% ethanol in gasoline, that’s 10% less petroleum that you’re using. Those are the 2 main good things about it but people forget about the good things because they want to concentrate on the bad things. There’s plenty of bad things to talk about when you’re talking about ethanol.

Ethanol: The Bad

Let’s start from a consumer standpoint. Let’s start from what I term a macro-consumer standpoint. Ethanol has made food more expensive. It makes food prices go up. Depending on the source that you look at, right now, anywhere, in The United States, anywhere from 25 to 40% of the nation’s corn supply is not being used to make food anymore, it’s being diverted to make fuel and so that by simple supply and demand, that means anything that uses corn to produce food. Talking about meat, beef and dairy and pork, eggs for chickens, anything that has corn syrup and corn content, all that stuff, the food prices, the prices to make those, are going up. That is largely attributed to the ethanol fuel problem.

Energy Content

Second problem, lower energy content. Any time you have lower energy content, everything else being equal, you get less mileage. That’s the thing that resonates most directly with consumers but it’s also a business concern too. We’re going to talk a little bit about the issues of scaling, the cost of scaling here.

For a consumer, the amount of mileage that they’re losing when they’re having to use it in gasoline, that’s probably about 3 to 4%. Ethanol itself, if you compare it gallon to gallon, it has 30% less energy, but you’re not burning 100% ethanol, you’re burning 10%. A 3 to 4% reduction in fuel economy probably costs them a couple of hundred bucks a year. A couple of hundred bucks is a couple of hundred bucks you could be spending someplace else but for a lot of consumers it’s not that noticeable, but if you are a municipality, if you’re a business, you have a fleet of gas-powered vehicles, you’ve got 15 vehicles and they drive X thousands miles per year, you take that that loss and you multiple it by that scale, you’re talking about a much larger concern for businesses here.

Small Engine Damage

004gaslawnandsmallequipment.jpgMaterial damage here. This is where we start getting into, if you use ethanol in small equipment, lawnmowers, weed whackers so to speak, when ethanol contacts, stays in contact with these polymer parts, the rubber and the plastic over time, it will dissolve those polymers, it will soften them and it will cause damage. When ethanol started really spiking around 2007, 2008, one things you saw was a really sharp uptake in the business that small engine repair shops were doing because people were coming in with busted fuel lines, their seals were being eaten, they had corrosion in their small engine carburetors, it was pretty apparent. In fact, if you google it, you’ll see references on local news casts about the repair shops having to deal with this problem.

From a consumer standpoint, nobody wants to have to spend 100 bucks to get another weed whacker but from a business standpoint, again, it’s an issue of scale. If you have a municipality that has 100 pieces of equipment that they have to use to maintain municipal grounds or whatever, you start talking about the fact that they’re not looking at $100 or $200, they’re looking at thousands of dollars because of this ethanol solvency problem.

We mentioned small engines. Okay, small engines and ethanol do not play well. Ethanol causes corrosion to the carburetors as you can see and for 2-stroke engines were you have fuel oil lubrication, well, ethanol tends to attract water and that water attraction will interfere with that lubrication and can cause catastrophic engine damage and destroy that small engine. That may not seem like a big deal. Maybe that’s being overplayed you might think, but it’s a serious enough problem that small engine manufacturers are coming out specifically and warning people not to use more than 10% ethanol. This is Briggs and Stratton, an official statement from Briggs and Stratton. There are the official statements you can find. If you google it, you can find the Eco Head one as well.

It’s basically, do not use unapproved fuels such as E15 ethanol because it will damage the engine and it will void your warranty. If you’ve been in a place like Home Depot, you might have seen … I think they actually have a partnership with small engine retailers called The Look Before You Pump Campaign, just basically a little one, they have a logo, they put up signs in the small engine departments saying, “Hey if you buy this lawnmower, don’t put E15 in it because it will destroy the engine. It’s a serious enough problem that the engine manufacturers who don’t usually do this kind of thing, they’re trying to warn consumers about the problem.

That and again, a few minutes we were talking about the congressional debate over ethanol and this is one of the reasons why they have a problem, because again, less gasoline to mix ethanol in, they say, “Well, you know if we still want to use 14 billion gallons of ethanol, well then let’s just change from 10% to 15%.” Well, you can’t do that because people are going to take that E15 which is now all their going to be able to find at the pump, they’re going to fill their gas cans with it and put in their lawnmower and now they’re going to have issues. They are going to be doing exactly what Briggs and Stratton and Echo and others are warning them not to. That’s why there’s a problem with the ethanol debate that congress has to figure out an answer to.

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Click here to continue reading How Biofuels Have Changed the Fuels We Use Today: Part 3!

This post was published on June 7, 2016 and was updated on May 16, 2017.

Topics: Diesel, Ethanol, Biodiesel, Fuel Storage, Fuel and Tank Services