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Published on December 14th, 2009 | by Nick Chambers

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Study Finds Ethanol Use Increases Ozone and Carcinogen Pollution

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In a nice reminder of the fact that we can never predict the unintended consequences of even small changes to a complex system, researchers at Stanford University have found that using high blends of ethanol fuel in vehicles will likely increase health problems related to ozone as well as increase the amount of certain cancer-causing chemicals in the air we breathe when compared to the use of gasoline.

E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) produces higher amounts of a group of chemicals known as aldehydes than gasoline when burned. In addition to likely being carcinogens, aldehydes are also a precursor to the formation of ozone. Breathing ozone has been shown to cause severe respiratory problems—which is why those ionizer air cleaners that are so pervasive these days are a complete crock; they may clean particles out of the air, but they generate ozone in the process.

In any event, while the burning of gasoline also produces ozone, the researchers found that the burning of E85 in a combustion engine produces significantly more aldehydes and ozone than gasoline—especially during the winter months when temperatures are below freezing.

Using a well-established model to run some scenarios, the team calculated that at temperatures from freezing to 105°F, E85 raised the concentration of ozone in the air by up to 7 ppb more than gasoline. At temperatures from freezing down to -52°F, they found E85 raised ozone levels by up to 39 ppb more than gasoline. The model was run using predictions about how many E85 capable vehicles will be on the road in 2020, as well as estimations that vehicle emissions would be about 60% less than today, because automotive emissions reduction technology will likely improve in the next 10 years.

The scientists were quick to point out that the model is not meant to be an absolute prediction of what might happen if gasoline is replaced with E85. “What we are saying with these results is that you see an increase,” said Diana Ginnebaugh, a doctoral candidate in civil and environmental engineering. “We are not saying that this is the exact magnitude you are going to get in a given urban area, because it is really going to vary from city to city depending on a lot of other factors such as the amount of natural vegetation, traffic levels, and local weather patterns.”

Clearly the aldehyde-ozone production aspect of ethanol use is only one small part of the all the factors that need to be weighed when considering a switch to a different system. For instance, my guess is that all the other positive aspects of ethanol use (I’m talking second generation non-corn ethanol here folks), when weighed on an overall impact scale, far outweigh the negatives of continuing to use gasoline.

Ultimately, what this study does clearly point out is that, regardless of the type of fuel you are burning, the burning of things always causes the creation of nasty chemicals. This will always be the main reason that encouraging a switch to EVs has many greater benefits than simply changing one liquid fuel for another. As I’ve said in the past, I think there is a place for biofuels—clearly our shipping industry could benefit from their use and it will take decades to switch out our current fleet of internal combustion cars. But in the end, without the switch to plug-ins, my kid will still be standing at the street corner sucking in carcinogens and ozone from that tailpipe.

Source: EurekAlert!



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About the Author

Not your traditional car guy.



  • http://solarchargeddriving.com Christof

    Nick,

    Nice analysis. Gotta agree with you on EVs: In terms of emissions, they’re far and away the best way to go — especially if they’re solar-charged ;-)

  • http://solarchargeddriving.com Christof

    Nick,

    Nice analysis. Gotta agree with you on EVs: In terms of emissions, they’re far and away the best way to go — especially if they’re solar-charged ;-)

  • http://www.cleanairchoice.org Robert Moffitt

    I am familar with Prof. Jacobson’s computer models (Ginnebaugh is one of his students) for E85 emissions. I have even attended one of his lectures on the subject.

    I disagree with his conclusions abour E85 and air pollution, and I’m not alone.

    In an earlier report that found similar findings about E85 emissions, the findings were questioned by U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Lab, National Renewable Energy Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab, Pacific National Lab and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  • http://www.cleanairchoice.org Robert Moffitt

    I am familar with Prof. Jacobson’s computer models (Ginnebaugh is one of his students) for E85 emissions. I have even attended one of his lectures on the subject.

    I disagree with his conclusions abour E85 and air pollution, and I’m not alone.

    In an earlier report that found similar findings about E85 emissions, the findings were questioned by U.S. Department of Energy, Argonne National Lab, National Renewable Energy Lab, Oak Ridge National Lab, Pacific National Lab and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

  • Tim Cleland

    Not that you could put me in the pro-ethanol camp (although I’m open to anything that weans us off fossil fuels while making economic sense…should ethanol ever reach that level), but ozone is such a reactive molecule, I bet there would be a relatively simple fix for this (i.e. either a fuel additive or even an exhaust chamber treatment). Regardless, 7 ppb really doesn’t sound like all that much of a problem. I’m willing to bet there are jobs (welding comes to mind) where ozone concentration is way higher than that with no harm to the workers.

  • Tim Cleland

    Not that you could put me in the pro-ethanol camp (although I’m open to anything that weans us off fossil fuels while making economic sense…should ethanol ever reach that level), but ozone is such a reactive molecule, I bet there would be a relatively simple fix for this (i.e. either a fuel additive or even an exhaust chamber treatment). Regardless, 7 ppb really doesn’t sound like all that much of a problem. I’m willing to bet there are jobs (welding comes to mind) where ozone concentration is way higher than that with no harm to the workers.

  • Carbon Buildup

    I agree completely with Tim on this. Plus, if E85 (or E100, for that matter) was to come into large-scale use, we could get around the aldehyde formation problem by increasing combustion temperatures and/or compressions. Higher combustion temperatures should reduce the formation of aldehydes, which are after all another type of carbohydrate (not technically, but they are made up of C, O, and H).

  • Carbon Buildup

    I agree completely with Tim on this. Plus, if E85 (or E100, for that matter) was to come into large-scale use, we could get around the aldehyde formation problem by increasing combustion temperatures and/or compressions. Higher combustion temperatures should reduce the formation of aldehydes, which are after all another type of carbohydrate (not technically, but they are made up of C, O, and H).

  • JIm

    A couple things that you forgot to mention-

    1. The study’s author, Diana Ginnebaugh, previously was employed by….the Exxon Corporation in 1998 and 1999. And Dow Chemical Company. See her

    http://www.stanford.edu/~moongdes/workexp.html

    Diana Ginnebaugh also lists her participation with “Oil Shockwave”, a program put on by “Oil Shockwave, a program sponsored by Securing America’s Future Energy. Who are members of “Securing America’s Future Energy?” http://www.muckety.com/Securing-Americas-Future-Energy/5013852.muckety

    You will find the name Frederick W. Smith? A member of the National Petroleum Council. http://www.muckety.com/Frederick-W-Smith/6282.muckety

    Follow the money trail.

    This study is bought and paid for by the National Petroleum Council.

    Diana Ginnebaugh admits on her website that she lobbied on Capitol Hill. Her site says “Helped lobby on the 2005 energy bill by contacting congressional staff”. Yes- that’s right- she lobbied in support of big oil.

    http://www.stanford.edu/~moongdes/workexp.html

    Follow the money trail.

  • JIm

    A couple things that you forgot to mention-

    1. The study’s author, Diana Ginnebaugh, previously was employed by….the Exxon Corporation in 1998 and 1999. And Dow Chemical Company. See her

    http://www.stanford.edu/~moongdes/workexp.html

    Diana Ginnebaugh also lists her participation with “Oil Shockwave”, a program put on by “Oil Shockwave, a program sponsored by Securing America’s Future Energy. Who are members of “Securing America’s Future Energy?” http://www.muckety.com/Securing-Americas-Future-Energy/5013852.muckety

    You will find the name Frederick W. Smith? A member of the National Petroleum Council. http://www.muckety.com/Frederick-W-Smith/6282.muckety

    Follow the money trail.

    This study is bought and paid for by the National Petroleum Council.

    Diana Ginnebaugh admits on her website that she lobbied on Capitol Hill. Her site says “Helped lobby on the 2005 energy bill by contacting congressional staff”. Yes- that’s right- she lobbied in support of big oil.

    http://www.stanford.edu/~moongdes/workexp.html

    Follow the money trail.

  • philippe boileau

    Ozone at ppb levels? who cares! Toxicity for ozone starts at 10x the level at which you can smell. And you can smell ozone after a thunderstorm, in the office photocop center, etc. Ozone is known as a disinfectant. Less known is that it agglomerates particles together making them them less likely to penetrate deeply into lungs. We need to differentiate ozone at surface level vs the ozone layer.

    One nice place to check this would be Brazil. Somehow I doubt that it created any issues.

  • philippe boileau

    Ozone at ppb levels? who cares! Toxicity for ozone starts at 10x the level at which you can smell. And you can smell ozone after a thunderstorm, in the office photocop center, etc. Ozone is known as a disinfectant. Less known is that it agglomerates particles together making them them less likely to penetrate deeply into lungs. We need to differentiate ozone at surface level vs the ozone layer.

    One nice place to check this would be Brazil. Somehow I doubt that it created any issues.

  • Logic

    The if you’re concerned about ozone a switch to EV’s would be a bad choice wouldn’t it? As you mention those air purifiers crease ozone by ionizing oxygen as the molecules pass by. This same feat happens any time there is any sort of electrical contact with air, which is going to happen any time electriciy is used, (hence the ozone smell by the copier). And also, as philippe points out at ppb levels the concern over ozone is about the same as my concern over getting cancer from my microwave.

  • Logic

    The if you’re concerned about ozone a switch to EV’s would be a bad choice wouldn’t it? As you mention those air purifiers crease ozone by ionizing oxygen as the molecules pass by. This same feat happens any time there is any sort of electrical contact with air, which is going to happen any time electriciy is used, (hence the ozone smell by the copier). And also, as philippe points out at ppb levels the concern over ozone is about the same as my concern over getting cancer from my microwave.

  • Martin Fraguio

    Dear NIck,

    I read the paper and you are forgetting to mention that in order to get the increse in aldehydes and ozone from the tailpipe, the researchers disconnected the catalytic converter.

    these people are not serious, please don´t republish their stuff.

    regards

  • Martin Fraguio

    Dear NIck,

    I read the paper and you are forgetting to mention that in order to get the increse in aldehydes and ozone from the tailpipe, the researchers disconnected the catalytic converter.

    these people are not serious, please don´t republish their stuff.

    regards

  • AK

    Ethanol Burns Way Cleaner Than Gasoline

    The title of the above article distorts the truth. Ethanol use does Not increase Carcinogen Pollution. Just the opposite – Ethanol decreases them, because it displaces gasoline. And gasoline is far more carcinogenic than ethanol. In fact, gasoline is an alphabet soup of many Carcinogens and Neurotoxins:

    To name a few – (1) Benzene – (aromatics) which can actually kill you, and causes leukemia, especially in children. This includes toluene, ethyl benzene, meta-xylene, para-xylene, ortho-xylene ethyltoluene, trimethylbenzene, trimethylbenzene. (2) Toxic olefins. (3) Dibromoethane (EDB). (4) N-Nitrosodiethylamine. (5) Ethylene dibromide. (6) Ethylene dichloride. (7) Toxic n-paraffins. (8) Toxic iso-paraffins: methylbutanes, methylpentanes, methylhexanes, dimethylpentanes, trimethylbutanes, trimethylpentanes. (9) Cycloparaffins: cyclopentane, methylcyclopentane, cyclohexane, methylcyclohexane. (10) Toxic metal deactivators, deposit modifiers, gum inhibitors, freezing point depressants, corrosion inhibitors, and dyes…and the list goes on.

    The Stanford study is blowing the ethanol aldehydes issue way out of proportion. 7 parts per billion for the warmer temperatures and 39 parts per billion for cold temps – These are Not carcinogenic in such tiny, minute concentrations. The Stanford study was also not conducted in multiple, varied, real-life environments. It was conducted in a highly controlled laboratory setting, which is not how we normally use the two fuels. There are so many changing variables when it comes to the effects on the environment – humidity, location and juxtaposition to other unrelated pollutants, wind, clouds, precipitation, what day of the week, what time of the day, what time of the year, etc…

    Also different brands of gasoline vary in composition and how they react with the ethanol. The types of engines used would also have a big influence on the data. They engines Stanford used in the study were designed for gasoline – not ethanol. They were ethanol compatible engines – But they were not the “Ethanol-Optimized” engines that are coming. These are high compression, turbo-charged engines, with a much higher power to weight ratio, that produce lower levels of emissions and ozone, and get more power and better mileage than gasoline.

    Give the Stanford study the sniff test. Have one person sniff gasoline every 60 seconds, and have another person sniff ethanol every 60 seconds. And see which one drops dead first. Gasoline is the killer, not ethanol. And you don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a PhD to figure that out.

  • AK

    Ethanol Burns Way Cleaner Than Gasoline

    The title of the above article distorts the truth. Ethanol use does Not increase Carcinogen Pollution. Just the opposite – Ethanol decreases them, because it displaces gasoline. And gasoline is far more carcinogenic than ethanol. In fact, gasoline is an alphabet soup of many Carcinogens and Neurotoxins:

    To name a few – (1) Benzene – (aromatics) which can actually kill you, and causes leukemia, especially in children. This includes toluene, ethyl benzene, meta-xylene, para-xylene, ortho-xylene ethyltoluene, trimethylbenzene, trimethylbenzene. (2) Toxic olefins. (3) Dibromoethane (EDB). (4) N-Nitrosodiethylamine. (5) Ethylene dibromide. (6) Ethylene dichloride. (7) Toxic n-paraffins. (8) Toxic iso-paraffins: methylbutanes, methylpentanes, methylhexanes, dimethylpentanes, trimethylbutanes, trimethylpentanes. (9) Cycloparaffins: cyclopentane, methylcyclopentane, cyclohexane, methylcyclohexane. (10) Toxic metal deactivators, deposit modifiers, gum inhibitors, freezing point depressants, corrosion inhibitors, and dyes…and the list goes on.

    The Stanford study is blowing the ethanol aldehydes issue way out of proportion. 7 parts per billion for the warmer temperatures and 39 parts per billion for cold temps – These are Not carcinogenic in such tiny, minute concentrations. The Stanford study was also not conducted in multiple, varied, real-life environments. It was conducted in a highly controlled laboratory setting, which is not how we normally use the two fuels. There are so many changing variables when it comes to the effects on the environment – humidity, location and juxtaposition to other unrelated pollutants, wind, clouds, precipitation, what day of the week, what time of the day, what time of the year, etc…

    Also different brands of gasoline vary in composition and how they react with the ethanol. The types of engines used would also have a big influence on the data. They engines Stanford used in the study were designed for gasoline – not ethanol. They were ethanol compatible engines – But they were not the “Ethanol-Optimized” engines that are coming. These are high compression, turbo-charged engines, with a much higher power to weight ratio, that produce lower levels of emissions and ozone, and get more power and better mileage than gasoline.

    Give the Stanford study the sniff test. Have one person sniff gasoline every 60 seconds, and have another person sniff ethanol every 60 seconds. And see which one drops dead first. Gasoline is the killer, not ethanol. And you don’t need to be a rocket scientist or a PhD to figure that out.

  • CNCMike

    The problem is not with the ethanol. The crap that the oil companies sell the ethanol manufacturers to denature the ethanol is not even gasoline. It’s natural gas condensates which are much more volitlie than gasoline. In fact they are so volitile that they cause vapor lock conditions even in fuel injected engines. You can bet that was the intention of the oil companies, to give people a bad experience when they use E-85 so they will switch back to pure gassoline.

    Actually there is no such thing as pure gasoline anymore. The oil coming out of the ground now is so crappy that the best gasoline they can produce is 67 octane so about 30% of every gallon of gas you buy is actually toluene, Xylene and benzene used to raise the octane. All are very toxic, carcinagenic substances.

  • CNCMike

    The problem is not with the ethanol. The crap that the oil companies sell the ethanol manufacturers to denature the ethanol is not even gasoline. It’s natural gas condensates which are much more volitlie than gasoline. In fact they are so volitile that they cause vapor lock conditions even in fuel injected engines. You can bet that was the intention of the oil companies, to give people a bad experience when they use E-85 so they will switch back to pure gassoline.

    Actually there is no such thing as pure gasoline anymore. The oil coming out of the ground now is so crappy that the best gasoline they can produce is 67 octane so about 30% of every gallon of gas you buy is actually toluene, Xylene and benzene used to raise the octane. All are very toxic, carcinagenic substances.

  • http://www.azchiropracticandrehab.com April

    This is very alarming.Not only is the environment in danger but people breathing in the air, are also going to have health risks. So, I think electric cars should be in place asap!!!Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.azchiropracticandrehab.com April

    This is very alarming.Not only is the environment in danger but people breathing in the air, are also going to have health risks. So, I think electric cars should be in place asap!!!Thanks for sharing!

  • Bill

    This “study” is just repeating the laughable study by Mark Jacobson and used the same data he did from 1990’s era automobiles which would not be certified to run on E85.

    A more complete report here: http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/ethanol-powered-vehicles-generate-more-ozone-gas-powered-ones-28405.html

    states:

    “Ginnebaugh worked with Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, using vehicle emissions data from some earlier studies and applying it to the Los Angeles area to model the likely output of pollutants from vehicles.”

    and:

    “We found a pretty substantial increase in ozone production from E85 at cold temperatures, relative to gasoline when emissions and atmospheric chemistry alone were considered,” Ginnebaugh said. Although ozone is generally lower under cold-temperature winter conditions, “If you switched to E85, suddenly you could have a place like Denver exceeding ozone health-effects limits and then they would have a health concern that they don’t have now.”

    “The problem with cold weather emissions arises because the catalytic converters used on vehicles have to warm up before they reach full efficiency. So until they get warm, a larger proportion of pollutants escapes from the tailpipe into the air.”

    The data from earlier studies (-ies?) comes from Jacobson’s phony study of about a year ago.

    Here’s what the NRDC said about the Jacobson study’s data:

    http://docs.nrdc.org/air/files/air_07042601A.pdf

    “the study further magnifies small differences by ignoring the fact that most emission from cars is due to older vehicles that would be incapable of

    running on E85. By 2020, CARB estimates that less than 25% of the on-road passenger vehicle NOx and hydrocarbons emissions are from cars 16 years and

    newer (see Figure 1).5 This mistake alone exaggerates the emission impacts by a factor of about four.”

  • Bill

    This “study” is just repeating the laughable study by Mark Jacobson and used the same data he did from 1990’s era automobiles which would not be certified to run on E85.

    A more complete report here: http://www.scienceblog.com/cms/ethanol-powered-vehicles-generate-more-ozone-gas-powered-ones-28405.html

    states:

    “Ginnebaugh worked with Mark Z. Jacobson, professor of civil and environmental engineering, using vehicle emissions data from some earlier studies and applying it to the Los Angeles area to model the likely output of pollutants from vehicles.”

    and:

    “We found a pretty substantial increase in ozone production from E85 at cold temperatures, relative to gasoline when emissions and atmospheric chemistry alone were considered,” Ginnebaugh said. Although ozone is generally lower under cold-temperature winter conditions, “If you switched to E85, suddenly you could have a place like Denver exceeding ozone health-effects limits and then they would have a health concern that they don’t have now.”

    “The problem with cold weather emissions arises because the catalytic converters used on vehicles have to warm up before they reach full efficiency. So until they get warm, a larger proportion of pollutants escapes from the tailpipe into the air.”

    The data from earlier studies (-ies?) comes from Jacobson’s phony study of about a year ago.

    Here’s what the NRDC said about the Jacobson study’s data:

    http://docs.nrdc.org/air/files/air_07042601A.pdf

    “the study further magnifies small differences by ignoring the fact that most emission from cars is due to older vehicles that would be incapable of

    running on E85. By 2020, CARB estimates that less than 25% of the on-road passenger vehicle NOx and hydrocarbons emissions are from cars 16 years and

    newer (see Figure 1).5 This mistake alone exaggerates the emission impacts by a factor of about four.”

  • CharliePeters

    Fuel ethanol increase ozone?

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