Ethanol lives in a universe of myth and reality. It could be a great alternative to reduce pollution and costs, but it has been held back by consumer fear of damaging their car. We went into the kitchen of an ethanol factory, accompanied by experts from the U.S. Grains Council in Indianapolis, to find out what is and what is not possible with this biofuel.

What exactly is ethanol?

Ethanol has been with us much longer than we imagined. In fact, Henry Ford’s first Model T was designed to run on ethanol, although it ended up going the way of gasoline because it was more profitable at the time.

Ethanol is a biofuel produced from plants. In the United States it is produced from corn, but since in Mexico corn is sacred to our entire diet, we turn to sugar cane as an alternative. In fact, the boom in calorie-free sweeteners has reduced the demand for sugar, so surplus cane production could find its solution in ethanol.

Its production process reminded me of tequila or beer: corn grains are crushed and left to ferment until they produce alcohol, from which other substances are removed to create something similar to a corn distillate. The big difference from a distillate is that in this case no substance is added to reduce the alcohol content, only a special oil is added to make it unfit for human consumption.

Ethanol itself has an octane rating of 113 and, unlike gasoline, its chemical composition already includes oxygen, which promotes better combustion. It is often used as a gasoline oxygenator, thus reducing unburned hydrocarbon and carbon monoxide emissions.

It is true that the energy density of ethanol is lower than that of gasoline, that is, you will get less heat from burning a drop of ethanol than a drop of gasoline, however, the lower cost of ethanol will cause you to end up traveling more miles for less money. For example, a 15% ethanol blend will cost you 3 to 5% less, but you’ll have 98.5% of the energy compared to a 10% blend.

You’re going to pay less

When talking about ethanol, the consumer cares about two things: how much you will pay and how it will affect your car’s engine. Let’s talk about money first. Ethanol is cheaper to produce and can be combined with low octane economy gasoline; the mixture, in the end, leaves the fuel with the necessary octane to run the engine optimally. Gasoline in the United States near the Mexican border is cheaper because of taxes and because it is blended with 10% ethanol.

Ethanol-blended gasoline is already used in 65 countries, including Brazil, Colombia, Canada, England, the United States, and the European Union. Even China, Costa Rica and Bolivia are already evaluating fuel blending and production programs.

There are different types of blends, such as E10, E15 and even E85, whose number indicates the percentage of ethanol included. The United States Department of Energy conducted a study in which they found that the materials used in the mechanical components of cars from 2001 onwards are capable of supporting up to 15% ethanol. Flex Fuels are capable of supporting up to 85%.

There are two reasons why a high ethanol blend in a regular vehicle could be harmful if it is not endorsed by the manufacturer: on the one hand, water, a residue from ethanol combustion, could corrode some parts, on the other hand, an excess of octane could damage the engine; cars are designed to run with a certain octane range. Blends of 10 to 15% are safe for any vehicle.

High octane levels allow engines to run at higher pressures and therefore increase efficiency and power. That’s why some Flex Fuel models in the Brazilian market report higher power figures than in the rest of Latin America, even when it’s the same engine: with ethanol you can get a little more power.

The war against ethanol

If ethanol brings all these benefits, why isn’t it being used? The answer is simple: In Mexico, another substance is used as an oxidizer for gasoline. It is called MTBE (methyl tert-butyl ether) and, although it works, it is harmful to health and the environment.

MTBE has been banned or limited in the United States for several years. In 1998, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) discovered that MTBE was polluting water supplies, so in 2000 it announced its phase-out from the United States. It was replaced by ethanol.

Since MTBE has no future in fuels in the United States, Mexico became its main market. In 2018, 65% of U.S. production of this chemical was sold to Mexico, more than 80% imported from Houston. Since ethanol is not allowed in large cities like Mexico City, Monterrey or Guadalajara, MTBE becomes the only option.

Some studies mentioned by MTBE representatives stated that the introduction of ethanol increases greenhouse gas emissions, however, the Mexican Petroleum Institute showed in 2017 that a 10% ethanol blend in gasoline would not produce more ozone and that it actually reduces suspended PM10 and PM2.5 emissions, which are responsible for respiratory cancer.

A more environmentally friendly fuel

Many of us associate ethanol with poorly regulated emerging markets, yet its production principles are even contemplated in the Paris COP21 agreement, where it is also mentioned that it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 40 to 90%.

In more terrestrial numbers, the Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) of the United States managed to reduce 589.33 million tons of carbon emissions during its first 10 years, that is, the equivalent of having taken 124 million cars off the road, all this according to figures from the Biotechnology Innovation Organization.

Reducing pollution also has a positive impact on health. The University of Illionois conducted a study on ethanol emission reduction in five major cities in the United States. E10 blends reduced by 15.2%, while E20 blends brought it down to 31.7%.

A biofuel that we must not ignore

The correct 15% blend of gasoline with ethanol has no negative effect on vehicles from 2001 onwards. The octane rating is maintained – or raised – while the cost of production and sale is reduced and emissions of polluting gases are lowered. The decision is left to the government, which must regulate ethanol production and how gas stations blend it.

If your car is not prepared to burn more than 10 or 15% ethanol, don’t do it. The indicator that it can do so is a Flex Fuel plate – commonly found on Ford or General Motors models – however, there are no gas stations that sell the 85% ethanol blend that these models can handle.