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Ethanol Problems

We are long past the point where we're talking about ethanol gasoline as a new thing. Ethanol is a fact of life now with 10%-15% ethanol blends having been commonplace for a number of years. The renewable fuels mandates that are the legislative foundation for all the ethanol and biodiesel in our nation's fuel supply are aimed at improving air quality and reducing air pollution from fuel emissions. But for all its good points, ethanol fuels are associated with certain problems, whether for consumers, (who face loss of mileage and a tendency for ethanol to corrode plastic and fiberglass tanks and parts) or businesses (who face ethano phase separation problems in storage).


Popularity Of Alternative Fuels And Oxygenates

In many states, it’s nigh on impossible to find a gas station that isn’t selling at least 10% ethanol in their gasoline; you see the warning stickers on all of the pumps. Popular websites like www.pure-gas.org show that there are less than 8,000 stations in North America where you can find ethanol-free gasoline. In fact, there are probably more gas stations that have added ethanol-free gas options than stations that don't sell ethanol gasoline.

Most people don’t really know why it’s put into gasoline; they just know they may have heard bad things about it. Ethanol is classified as an “oxygenate”, meaning it increases the oxygen content of the fuel that it is blended into. More oxygen in the fuel means more oxygen is present in the exhaust after it's burned. This usually means those emissions are cleaner and better for the environment.

Ethanol in gasoline is a great example of the free market being forced by government mandates (as allowed by the Clean Air Act) to force the introduction of oxygenates into gasoline as a way to help reduce emissions like carbon monoxide and improve urban air quality.

There are three pieces (arguably, four) of legislation that were the biggest influencers in the rise of alternative fuels like ethanol. President Carter, some of you may remember, talked during his presidency about reducing the US dependence on oil imports, and one of his efforts was spearheading the 1980 Synthetic Fuels Act – one of the initial efforts to get people to think differently about the fuels they use. Unfortunately, its momentum was thwarted when the price of oil plummeted in the 1980s, and alternative fuels kind of dropped off the radar – gasoline and diesel were too cheap for people to seriously consider using other things. That's how these things always have gone - when gas is cheap, people don't think about alternatives. When gas is expensive, they do.

Three pieces of legislation followed in the years coming. The 1988 Alternative Fuels Act required government agencies to purchase vehicles that run on alternatives and provided financial incentives for automakers to develop more vehicles to run on these fuels. This was a big step of faith at the time because ethanol and biodiesel really weren’t widespread in availability.

The 1990 Clean Air Act gave the EPA authority to push for mandates (like requiring the use of alternative fuels) in order to make air quality better.

The 1992 Energy Policy Act codified a long-term goal that by 2010, non-petroleum alternative fuels would have penetrated 30% of the fuels market.

These changes really lead us up to 1992 and the big changes in the mainstream fuel supply.  It was in that year that MTBE (which had already been used in the 1970s as an anti-knock agent in gasoline) began being blended into gasoline to help cut harmful emissions. At its peak in 1999, 200,000 barrels (8.4 million gallons) per day of MTBE were being produced, all being added to gasoline at a 10% treat ratio. Unfortunately, in the late-90s scientists began to find evidence that MTBE was linked to ill-health effects, and also found it easily contaminated groundwater; these led to its widespread withdrawal from the market. This is what allowed ethanol to displace MTBE as the dominant oxygenate of choice to blend into gasoline to keep it satisfying the EPA emissions requirements. Is MTBE completely gone? For the most part, though there are still some states like Florida where MTBE can be found in “off-road” gasoline – for boats and small equipment. Just not for cars and trucks on the highway.

The Good – Ethanol Advantages

Lower Emissions

To be sure, ethanol imparts some advantageous qualities when blended into gasoline. First and foremost are reduced emissions. These may not be so important to the average consumer (unless they are concerned about going green), but this is the advantage the EPA and environmental scientists like. Ethanol blended into gasoline at a 10-85% ratio makes fuel that, when burned in an internal combustion engine, produces lower levels of carbon monoxide, unburned hydrocarbons, particulate matter (another form of unburned fuel), and harmful aromatic compound emissions (which have been linked to cancer) than pure gasoline will. All of these together offer positive effects on smog and pollution levels in urban areas that may have traditionally struggled with this problem. These urban areas, if they aren’t concerned about their citizenry, at least have a financial incentive to care about the problem, because areas out of compliance with Federal air quality standards (hence, the EPA’s jurisdiction applies here) can be at risk of losing access to important federal funds for the many things they use federal money to pay for.

Higher Octane

Oxygenates like ethanol and MTBE already had historical use before the 1992 Clean Air Act as octane improvers. Pure ethanol has an octane rating of 113, while E10 blends have the octane rating listed at the pump, which is usually the same as regular or premium gasoline. Unfortunately for the consumer, it is likely because, despite the ethanol additive having a high octane rating, the fuel blender uses a lower octane base gasoline in order to end up with the same octane rating in the E10 blend as they had before. So the consumer doesn’t really get an added octane benefit in an E10, despite the ethanol fraction having a higher octane rating.

Renewable Fuel

Ethanol is made in the United States from corn (in Brazil it is made from sugar cane), making it a renewable fuel that reduces (somewhat) our dependence on oil imports. This is a big plus for a lot of people who want to go more “green”.

Flex-Fuel Vehicles

These are vehicles that have had engine modifications to enable them to run on either gasoline or a high concentration of ethanol like E85. Putting such a high concentration of ethanol in an engine that has not been modified is never a good idea – flex-fuel vehicles have special fuel sensors to properly read the ethanol-fuel mixture and special fuel injection changes to ensure the mixture isn’t too rich or lean. Without these modifications, the vehicle won’t run right and you can very easily get a damaged engine over time.

The Bad – Ethanol Problems For Consumer

Loss Of Mileage

Loss of mileage from the use of ethanol blends results from the ethanol molecule containing less energy value than gasoline. The energy value in petroleum fuels is a function of the number of carbon bonds in the molecule. Gasoline molecules are much longer with more carbon bonds than the small ethanol molecule, so you have less energy potential in that blended fuel. Pure ethanol has a gross BTU value of 35% less than the equivalent amount of gasoline. However, most cars don’t run on pure ethanol–in fact, running on higher than 15-20% ethanol concentration can cause engine damage because the engine has to be adjusted to account for the differing combustion property of that concentration. The commonly found E10 blend only has 10% ethanol, so the actual drop in energy value is more along the lines of 3.5%-5.0%.

In October 2010, Congress dropped the hammer to start raising ethanol levels from 10% to 15%. As this happened, fuel mileage drops became even larger. 5% may not seem like that much, but consumers have already demonstrated that they are extremely price conscious and do not take any added expense lightly in this economy.

Water Attraction

Pure ethanol has a strong ability to absorb water from the atmosphere around it. We say absorb because "pulling" water from the air isn't quite the right way to describe it (and pro-ethanol people do get hung up on the details of how this is described). Ethanol absorbs water so well that chemical producers cannot even sell 100% pure ethanol – it is always 99.8% or less because there will always be at least a tiny bit of water. As you may expect, the attraction of water is an even bigger problem for marine users of E10-E85 than it is for on-road drivers. When water accumulates in a fuel or storage tank, it sinks to the bottom of the tank because water is heavier than fuel. It then contributes to a whole host of fuel problems and issues for all types of engines(big and small) that use ethanol. These can be summarized here below.

Breeding Ground For Microbes

Microbes like bacteria and fungi all need an accumulated water phase in order to grow and thrive in a fuel storage tank. The bacteria live in between the water and fuel, feeding off of both materials, growing and multiplying, and giving off the harmful by-products of their life cycle. If an infestation takes hold, problems with corrosion, filter plugging, and reduction in fuel quality can follow. However, ethanol blends, like gasoline, tend to be used quicker than stored diesel fuels, so this is not so much of a problem in actual practice for end users. But it is a concern for fuel handlers, refiners, and distributors, many of whom have to use millions of dollars a year of biocide to keep the problems in check.

Phase Separation

Phase Separation means the ethanol ‘phase’ separates from the gasoline ‘phase’ and results in two layers of two different compounds, instead of a homogenous mixture of gasoline and ethanol. At this point the ethanol will sink below the gasoline phase and mix with any more accumulated water, making an ethanol-water phase mixture that sits on the bottom of the tank where the fuel pickup line locates. Ethanol fuel that has phase-separated cannot be put back together because the ethanol and water have combined into a seamless layer. But that’s the least of the worries when this happens. You can have...

Loss Of Octane

When ethanol separates from gasoline, it causes a loss of 2-4octane points in the fuel mixture; in effect, as it separates, it drags the octane value of the gasoline by dissolving some of the organic fuel molecules that normally contribute to the octane rating of fuel. Those important molecules leave with the ethanol-water and the octane rating of the remaining gasoline drops to an unsatisfactory rating. An 87-octane fuel that separates can have its octane rating drop to 83-84, which is unsatisfactory for most vehicles and will cause performance issues.

Potential For Equipment Damage

An ethanol blend that has separated will have the ethanol and water mixture settled at the bottom of the tank, where the fuel line is. The fuel line potentially can suck this mixture up into the combustion chamber, where it will burn like an overly lean mixture (lean = not enough gasoline). Because it is not mostly gasoline now, burning this kind of fuel gives the real potential for valve damage. This becomes an expensive proposition.

Oxidation And Deposit Buildup

Water is one of the impurities that will accelerate oxidation reactions in any petroleum-based fuel, whether gasoline, diesel, biodiesel, or ethanol blends. Oxidation reactions are responsible for fuel stratification and the fallout of heavy ends from the fuel mixture. These heavy fuels can build up in the bottom of a fuel storage tank, and when they are injected as fuel, they do not burn like pure fuel but will leave deposits in all parts of the combustion system–combustion chamber, valves, and fuel injectors. At best, you get raised emissions to the catalytic converter, rough running, and poor engine performance, while at worst you get a drop in mileage.

Ethanol Solvency

Boat owners in the northeast can readily testify how ethanol blends up to E85 attach and dissolve rubber and plastic parts, even fiberglass fuel tanks. Ethanol has always been an excellent solvent and unfortunately, this is not a good thing for engines and fuel delivery systems that rely on rubber and plastic parts for their function. Repeated exposure over time will cause the plastic resins to dissolve in the ethanol; they subsequently build up as new deposits on valves, causing the same kind of performance issues as carbon deposits can.

Combating Ethanol Issues In Fuel

All of this is well and good, to know what the problems are. But we all want to know how to fix and prevent these problems. What can you do about them?

As you may have guessed, Bell Performance has been manufacturing custom fuel treatments for ethanol and other fuels for years. For many years, consumers relied on Mix-I-Go as a multi-function treatment for gas and ethanol that cleaned engines, restored mileage and prevented ethanol problems like water accumulation.

In May of 2012, Bell Performance went a step further with a new formulation called Ethanol Defense, which was designed to provide the same benefits of mileage improvement, detergency, and protection against ethanol damage that consumers are demanding, but all of this is also combined with six times the water controlling power of previous treatments. As ethanol levels in gas rise to 15% and beyond, consumers are demanding treatments that work and put money back in their pockets. They don't want snake oil. They want performance and they want results. Bell Performance has been around for over 103 years because the Bell Performance company makes problem-solving fuel treatments that do what they promise. Ethanol Defense makes the next generation of fuel treatment from Bell Performance.


In exchange for becoming more “green”, consumers face a trade-off with certain problems that ethanol blends can cause in their vehicles and boats. The EPA’sincrease of ethanol concentration to 15% in all reformulated on-road gasolines will only increase these problems. Subsequently, there is a substantial market for additives out there to treat ethanol blends and blunt these problems.

Some of them are better than others. The best ethanol additives will contain combustion improvers to blunt the mileage drop, detergents to clean out deposits and any dissolved resin buildup, an ingredient to disperse and control water buildup, and an ingredient to protect rubber and plastic parts from ethanol solvency. Beware of products that make outrageous claims and guarantees–if it seems too good to be true (guaranteed 35% mileage increase?), then it very likely is too good to be true.

Ethanol Defense