What is Ethanol?

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, essentially 200-proof grain alcohol used as a motor fuel. An ethanol plant (production facility or "biorefinery") produces pure fuel-grade ethanol, and then that ethanol is blended in a percentage with gasoline to create a finished motor fuel. A small amount of gasoline is blended into the ethanol at the plant to denature it (to make it unfit for human consumption).

Ethanol can be blended into varying percentages in gasoline, the two most common blends being 10% and 85%.

E10 — 10% ethanol and 90% unleaded gasoline — is the most common way ethanol is available to motorists. All automakers approve ethanol blends up to this 10% level by warranty, no matter the make or model of the vehicle. About 99% of America's ethanol is retailed as E10.

E85 — 85% ethanol and 15% unleaded gasoline — is an alternative fuel for use in Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs). FFVs can use unleaded gasoline or any blend of ethanol up to this 85% level.

Other ethanol blends are possible. California's gas, for example, contains 5.7% ethanol instead of the more common 10% blend. In addition, the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) is advocating the research of blends of ethanol beyond 10% in standard, unmodified vehicles. In the near future, blends such as E15 (15% ethanol), E20 (20% ethanol), E30, E40, or E50 may be feasible and available for motorists.

In 2007, about 6.5 billion gallons of ethanol was produced and consumed in the United States. Today, ethanol-blended fuel is available from nearly Coast to Coast. Ethanol is blended into 70 percent of America's gasoline.

E85 is always labeled at the pump because it is an alternative fuel for use only in Flexible Fuel Vehicles. Because up to 10% ethanol can be used in any vehicle, labeling of this fuel is a decision made locally or by state. Some states require labeling of ethanol blends, and some states say it is not required or that it is voluntary. To determine your state's labeling requirements, visit ACE's state-by-state ethanol handbook by clicking on "Ethanol Stats & Laws" at the bottom of Ethanol.org's homepage.

A link to a complete list of gas stations offering E85 can be found at the Flex Fuel Finder. Today there are more than 2000 gas stations across the nation offering E85 and that number is increasing quickly.

Ethanol is a very diverse industry, not controlled by any one company. Over the past decade, the industry's growth has been driven by farmer- and locally-owned cooperatives or limited liability companies; taken together, these companies comprise nearly half of today's U.S. ethanol industry. The other half of the industry is made of privately held agriculture or ethanol companies and some publicly traded ethanol companies.

What is the relationship between ethanol and biodiesel? Ethanol and biodiesel are both domestically produced renewable fuels that seek to add to the fuel supply and reduce dependence upon petroleum-based fuels. Ethanol is blended into gasoline for gasoline engines and biodiesel is blended into diesel for diesel engines. Like ethanol, biodiesel can be blended in varying percentages to make a finished fuel — examples include B2 (2% biodiesel, 90% petroleum diesel), B5, B20, etc. B100, or pure biodiesel, can also be used as a finished fuel. Biodiesel is typically made from soybeans, though it can also be produced from other sources. Visit http://www.biodiesel.org/ to learn more.

Ethanol is a much cleaner burning fuel than gasoline, offering a significant reduction in carbon monoxide and hydrocarbon tailpipe emissions. Research shows that every city and state that has switched to ethanol-blended fuel has experienced improved air quality. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in 2005 alone ethanol-blended fuels reduce CO2-equivalent greenhouse gas emissions by 7.8 million tons — this has the effect of removing the annual GHG emissions of more than 1 million automobiles from the road.

Ethanol production has a large positive impact on the U.S. economy, especially in the rural areas where most ethanol production takes place. An ethanol plant makes a large difference to the economy of its local area. A study conducted in 2002 found that an average sized ethanol plant (40 mgy) would: generate a one-time boost of $142 million through its construction; expand the local economic base by $110 million, generate an additional $19.6 million in household income and at least $1.2 million in new tax revenue.

Every gallon of ethanol we produce here in the U.S. means that less gasoline will need to be used, thereby reducing our demand for crude oil. Research has determined that 1 barrel of ethanol (1 barrel = 42 gallons) can displace 1.2 barrels of petroleum at the refinery.

Is it true that ethanol is driving up prices at the grocery store? No — the role of corn and ethanol in grocery prices has been grossly exaggerated by critics who have much to gain in keeping ethanol's potential limited. Corn prices, made higher lately in part due to ethanol demand, do have some impact on foods in which corn is an ingredient — namely meat, dairy, and poultry. Energy prices have a much more dramatic impact on food prices because all foods are dependent upon this expensive energy for processing, packaging, and transportation. Research shows that energy prices have at least twice the impact as corn prices in the grocery aisle.

What does "net energy balance" mean? What is ethanol's energy balance? Net energy balance is a term used to describe how much energy is needed to produce a product versus how much energy that product provides. Two professors that are long-time critics of ethanol claim that ethanol has a negative energy balance, but this is simply not true and has been debunked again and again by science. Scientific study after study has proven ethanol's energy balance to be positive. The latest USDA figures show that ethanol made from the drymill process provides at least 77% more energy as a fuel than the process it takes to make it. The bottom line is that it takes about 35,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) of energy to create a gallon of ethanol, and that gallon of ethanol contains at least 77,000 BTUs of energy. The net energy balance of ethanol is simply a non-issue.

Ethanol adds to the overall supply of motor fuel in the U.S. and helps keep pump prices competitive and affordable. The blender's tax credit is usually passed down to consumers in the form of more competitive prices at the pump. An Iowa State University study shows that ethanol has saved American motorists up to 40 cents per gallon at the pump over the last several years.

What about ethanol's impact on fuel economy? There is virtually no difference in fuel economy between unleaded gasoline and E10, the 10% blend most commonly available to motorists. Research shows that, on average, the difference is only 1.5% — a negligible amount, much less than the impact of wind speed, stop-and-go driving, and tire pressure.

E85 (85% ethanol 15% gasoline fuel) does typically generate slightly lower fuel economy than E10 or unleaded, but this loss is made up for in the fuel's high performance and high octane rating (at least 105 octane), cooler burn and longer engine life for the vehicle, and more economical price at the pump.

The above was adapted from Ethanol FAQ.

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