Provincial Governments are looking at legislating the addition of alcohol to gasoline as a way of reducing our dependency on gasoline and to help cut harmful tailpipe emissions. Saskatchewan has legislation pending as early as next month. The Ontario government has pledged that gasoline in that province will contain five percent ethanol by 2007, and 10 percent by 2010 and Manitoba has considered mandating the addition of alcohol more than once. Why not? Minnesota has already mandated that gasoline sold in that State contain 2.7 percent oxygen by weight, and ethanol is Minnesota’s oxygenate of choice. It seems to work there. Will it work here?
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There are two distinct sides to the use of alcohol, typically ethanol, as an additive to gasoline. One side says it is great. The other side claims there are no real savings or benefits. Who is correct? Let’s look at the arguments.
Henry Ford thought ethanol would be the fuel of choice since it produces jobs for distillers and farmers. It is a renewable resource that can be produced by growing a new crop next year. This thought still holds true today. It is estimated adding ethanol to gasoline in Ontario would create 3000 jobs in that province’s rural communities alone. Expand this scenario across the country. Farm income could rise. Rural employment would increase and gasoline prices could perhaps be stabilized.
While Ethanol can be made from a wide variety of biological materials, grains and straw are the most common materials used to produce the alcohol. Canada has a surplus of grain, so food supplies would still be more than enough. While critics claim the energy costs of producing ethanol are higher than the energy gain of the fuel, most government research shows that by using lower grades of grain and efficient methods of distilling, it takes less energy to produce the ethanol than it provides. The costs of producing ethanol vary widely depending on what energy source is used for the distilling process. The use of coal or natural gas to distil the fuel increases the cost, but wind, water and solar power reduce the costs significantly.
Adding 10% ethanol to gasoline will lower driving costs, but not necessarily. Ethanol contains less heat energy than gasoline but this reduction in power is minimal compared to the decrease in fuel economy because of the additional oxygen released from the ethanol in the combustion chamber. Adding oxygen in the fuel improves combustion efficiency, but on modern fuel injected cars, this extra oxygen passes out with the exhaust gases and the oxygen sensor detects it. This is reported to the fuel injection computer which calculates the engine is operating in a lean fuel mixture state and add more fuel to compensate. Fuel mileage drops.
While fuel injected engines with oxygen sensors can automatically compensate for the leaner fuel mixture, other engines will operate too lean. This may not be a problem on vehicles already operating on the rich side, but other engines such as snowmobiles, motorcycles, ATV’s and boat engines may operate lean enough to damage internal engine parts. Reprogramming injection computers or increasing carburetor jet sizes could be necessary for many of these if ethanol is added to gasoline.
Ethanol also cleans fuel systems. This sounds good, but it can cause problems with older vehicles, as deposits in fuel tanks plug fuel filters. Additional maintenance may be required.
Ethanol acts like gas line anti-freeze. Adding additional gas line anti-freeze won’t be necessary in winter, but keeping the water out of the fuel becomes very important. When a 10% ethanol blend is contaminated with over .5% water, the ethanol and water mixture will separate from the gasoline and fall to the bottom of the gas tank. This can cause the vehicle to run poorly or stall. The water can come from condensation inside the tank, bulk storage tanks or even your local filling station. Normally, any water sits at the bottom of the filling station tanks and doesn’t mix with the gasoline, but when 10% alcohol is added, the water and alcohol do mix with the gasoline. The water ends up in your tank. Filling your vehicle at carefully monitored filling stations could be important.
Finally, there may be an extra cost to supplying fuel to the consumers and this cost would likely be passed on. Currently, filling stations have two fuel grades � regular and premium. If you want mid-grade fuel, the two fuels are mixed together in the pump as it is delivered to your car. Unfortunately, this doesn’t necessarily work when ethanol is added to the regular fuel. The ethanol may not be compatible with additives in the Premium fuel, so either the mid grade fuel will not be available or the filling station will need additional fuel storage tanks for three grades of fuel.
Ethanol is a renewable fuel. That is the best argument for using it. There are many lobby groups in support of using ethanol, but if you look carefully, they will benefit at least as much if not more than the consumer. Others say ethanol is just too costly to produce. If governments really want us to switch to using ethanol, lower the taxes on gasoline with ethanol added. Drivers that can benefit will use it. Others will still be able to buy regular gasoline. I think we will use more ethanol as fuel in the future, but that it is not going to reduce the costs of operating our vehicles. It just means we may be able to operate vehicles in the next century.