EPA Dives Head First Into The Ethanol/High Octane Debate


High compression engines make more power with fewer carbon emissions. But they also can suffer from pre-ignition or knocking that causes internal engine damage unless they burn fuel that is up to the task. One way to make higher compression ratios possible is by increasing the octane rating of the fuel we feed our infernal combustion engines. One way to do that is to increase the amount of ethanol that gets blended into  the gasoline we use here in the United States.

ethanol pump via foter

Dan Nicholson, vice president of global propulsion systems for General Motors, tells Automotive News he could boost fuel economy in most engines by about 5 percent if America had the same higher octane gasoline as Europe. Gasoline on the Continent is 5 to 6 octane points higher than it is in the US.

Speaking to a conference of automotive industry executives and engineers recently, Chris Grundler, director of the EPA’s office of transportation and air quality, said his agency realizes that fuels have a role to play in enabling automakers to meet tougher fuel economy and emissions regulations. The EPA has been collecting relevant data about ethanol for a number of years.

“After 2025, we should talk about what the future fuels should look like and what is the optimum mix of vehicle and fuel technologies. It is not as simple as the automakers might think it is under the law, and we have to follow the law. We have had requests to regulate octane for many years.“ There are some provisos,” he added. “For us to intervene and set fuel standards, we need to show that there is an air quality benefit or that, absent regulations, that it is somehow inhibiting the after-treatment or other parts of the vehicle. And that the benefits outweigh the costs.”

“[Octane] will have to be part of the conversation,” said Mike McCarthy, CARB’s chief technology officer at the conference. “I think it has to be on the table.”

Blending more ethanol into gasoline is not a straight forward proposition, however. Yes, ethanol makes more power. That’s why Indy Car race engines burn a mix frequently known as E85 that is 85% ethanol and only 15% gasoline. But ethanol also lowers gas mileage. The tradeoffs may make the cure worse than the disease. One consideration is the source of the ethanol. Higher compression ratios may make more powerful engines, but they also lead to higher NOx emissions. That’s the nasty stuff that got Volkswagen in so much trouble with its diesel engines. It would be irresponsible to lower carbon emissions by raisning NOx emissions, wouldn’t it?

In the US, much of our ethanol comes from corn. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if corn is being used to make fuel, it can’t be used to feed people or animals. That means the price of food goes up for everybody. Agribusiness loves the current mandate that all gasoline contain at least 10% ethanol and would like to see the percentage increased. It likes that the government requires everyone to buy its products. Talk about your socialism!  But ethanol can be made from almost any plants, including those normally considered trash weeds, like switch grass.

It can also be made from hemp, but in America we have this insane idea that hemp and marijuana are the same thing. (They are genetically related.) It’s as if people believe just standing downwind of a field of hemp would cause people to go into a psychedelic trance like the hordes of humanity at Woodstock. The entire nation could soon start to resemble the audience at a Grateful Dead concert. It really is time for America to grow up.

There are many stakeholders in the ethanol sweepstakes. Some corporations stand to make enormous profits if the federal government mandates a higher percentage of ethanol in our nation’s gasoline. But no matter what happens, the EPA’s Grundler says no action is likely on ethanol until after 2025, when the next round of fuel economy/emissions regulations are scheduled to take effect.

For the moment, car makers are reluctant to make engines that need higher octane premium gas, which averages 50 cents or more higher than regular gas at the pump. Americans are lovin’ on their low gas prices. Woe betide anyone who messes with our God given right to cheap gasoline!

Source: Automotive News    Photo credit: lincolnearthday via Foter.com / CC BY



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I have been a car nut since the days when Rob Walker and Henry N. Manney, III graced the pages of Road & Track. Today, I use my trusty Miata for TSD rallies and occasional track days at Lime Rock and Watkins Glen. If it moves on wheels, I'm interested in it. Please follow me on Google + and Twitter.
  • Ken

    You didn’t mention the massive fossil fuel funded disinformation campaigns against ethanol fuel.

    It also should be noted that there probably isn’t a use for corn that is less efficient than as food for beef cattle. Beef production is a huge water usage waste and huge generator of GHGs so making less corn available for beef might be considered a very good thing.

    I’d put the “corn for ethanol creating food shortages” in the category of disinformation. The ethanol fuel mandate is always adjusted after the fact to match the actual production so it isn’t really forcing corn production into ethanol. Rising corn prices in the past have actually been due to weather and commodity speculation by institutional investors rather than shortages due to fuel production. Lots of noise was made about world prices and biofuel but in fact the USA exports only about 13% of its corn minimizing its impact on world prices.

    • curly4

      But the corn will still cost the food industry. If there is a mandate to use ethanol as a fuel then the ethanol industry will have the raw material to create this ethanol. If corn supplies are tight they will have to offer more for what there is so to compete the food industry will have to pay more for it also.

      • PrezNixon

        The United States has a massive corn surplus, and so much extra farm land that we have to pay farmers not to grow more corn.

        Even when we had record flooding in corn states a few years ago, failed to deplete our corn surplus. Prices went up do to speculators in the corn commodity market, not because we ran out of corn.

  • curly4

    If one looks at the fuel millage posted on the new car price information attached to the window one will fine that a car gets many fewer miles per gallon on E85 than on straight gasoline. If one takes in the fuel it takes to make the ethanol along with the need for high ammonium fertilize which is a water pollutant to grow it the environmental cost in using ethanol is not environmentally friendly a fuel.
    The only thing that is causing the EPA to consider this is corn growers are voters and are more likely to vote for the politician that increases their income. However if they politicians would consider the number of people who depend upon the petroleum industry have many more voters but they are not concentrated in a few states. So, I guess, it is a net benefit for the politicians to do this for the corn growers will help greatly to elect the politicians form those states which will give the party that supports this an advantage.

  • Shiggity

    I’m waiting for EV’s to become popular then a company advertising it’s electricity as ‘better’ for EV’s than normal electricity.

  • Erocker

    The picture on the gas pump says: Ethanol the power of choice? I”m sure that is posted by the ethanol lobby or federal government. This is a mandated product people you have no choice.

    • bioburner

      Yes you do. The picture clearly shows a “blender” pump. It dispenses regular E10 or other blends up to E85. Your choice you pick the one you want.

      • Erocker

        I did not see a non ethanol choice.

        • bioburner

          Ethanol is added to gasoline for many reasons. Emission reductions is one of them. That’s why you don’t see an “non-ethanol choice”

          • Erocker

            You don’t see a choice because of an ethanol mandate enforced by the US federal government

          • bioburner

            I see it as a good thing. You apparently do not. End of discussion.

          • Erocker

            Forcing no choice and saying you have a choice is lying.

          • Jacque

            B/S all premium gasoline is sold without ethanol added!

        • PrezNixon

          You don’t see a zero ethanol choice because ethanol replaces MTBE, which replaced Tetraethyl lead as and oxygenate.

          Which of those two other choices do you miss?

          • Erocker

            Popular Science says that modern fuel injection engines lean the mixture so well that oxygenators are no longer a benefit to reduce CO2. Federal government agrees and not longer requires an oxygenator in gasoline.

          • PrezNixon

            The federal gov’t has NEVER mandated an oxygenator in gasoline. That is because all of the mandates are state mandates due to either a region in a state or the whole state failing to meet federal air quality standards.

            And the record is very clear. In places where it is mandated, the impact is easily measured in air quality samples, and shows significant improvement in air quality. This remains true, no matter what Popular Science claims.

          • Erocker

            The use of ethanol in fuel in now banded in 3 large Mexican cities because it is feared the ozone level would go up with it’s use.

          • 19kilo

            I think erocker is a paid troll with the API very dificult o argue with

          • Erocker

            Hey 19kilo. I am a Sierra Club member and own 3 electric cars no API association. Hope that helps you with you effort at insulting people since you seem to be into that not into discussions.

          • 19kilo

            No offense I just find your anti-ethanol copy and paste Rants in discussions that have no mention of ethanol except for your statements to be a little odd my example a article about solar panels and your commenting not so much about solar panels but about ethanol The amount of money the oil companies are using to literally poison the earth and the amount of money that they use against ethanol seems to go hand-in-hand

          • Erocker

            I am against having a drop in replace for gasoline like corn ethanol which is worse than gasoline in many ways. Gasoline needs to go as soon as possible. I have an off grid solar house and another solar house in town with solar hooked to the grid so I do comment on that subject too. My college degree and background is the study of energy.

          • 19kilo

            The problem I see is without using ethanol as a transition Big oil will just continue to do what they do best what’s the solution we go back to MTBE because oil companies would love that in my opinion the ideal thing would be an ethanol electric hybrid using all kinds of ethanol cellulosic we’re going to raise corn no matter if We make ethanol or not

          • Erocker

            MTBE in not coming back in USA the law suits have ended that thought and no federal law requiring it since 2006. The internal combustion engine causes a reaction with nitrogen which is a big drawback to this type of power production no matter what the fuel type. Hydrous ethanol might be good as a reformer for a fuel cell car so this might be a good future for ethanol. The environmental damage create and to come by corn ethanol has been terrible and some cases irreversible. I tried to send you a link to a new PBS special report on ethanol, it came out about a week ago but this sight would not let it go through.

          • 19kilo

            I have been trying to sit down and watch that just have not had the time I watch part of it felt like he was a little biased but I’m not sure if it was my bias making me think he was biased. I want to look into a study about how many pounds of meat are grown per bushel of corn versus the equivalent of DDG. And the one thing I did notice they talked about the CRP program the main reason acres are coming out of the Crp program is because the government is limiting the acres of CRP available. I don’t understand why those guys in the eastern cornbelt won’t do reduce tillage or no till farming but That land is so productive that even without ethanol they’re still going to be the dead zone problems in the gulf and Lake Erie. I did appreciate that the knowledged how little of your food is actually farm gate price did you know that a sack of Fritos corn chips the sack cost more than the corn one thing I did noticehe used one of pimentel’s misconceptions that all corn for ethanol was irrigated The actual numbers about 15% also Pimentel did not give any credit for dry distillers grain also figured the caloric intake of the farmer now I don’t know maybe the farmer will just die if he doesn’t raise ethanol if I remember correctly he tried to do a hostile takeover of the Sierra Club and him or his partner believes the human population should be below 2 billion people this is off the top of my head so forgive any errors but I will spend the time to watch that entirely and point out in discrepancies on both sides

          • 19kilo

            Well credit where credit is due I commend you on your off grid solar home have you read The article in phy. about using nano spike catalysts and using off-peak solar and wind energy to convert carbon dioxide into ethanol as a storage mechanism since we are a long ways from superconductors at room temperature I think this is very exciting

          • 19kilo

            It did not let me send that last message a few days ago because of the link

  • Gnällgubben

    In Sweden, a couple of years ago there used to be a big push towards using E85 for regular cars. It was seen as the environmentally friendly fuel for tomorrow’s cars. Today that market is practically dead and nobody talks about it anymore. High price and low mileage made it obsolete, along with issues with fuel injectors (even on cars supposedly capable of using it). You used to get a big cashback bonus for buying cars that could run on E85, then they discovered that people bought these cars but ran them on regular gasoline anyway as that was more cost effective.
    So forget E85. It’s a dead end, battery electric vehicles will take over before E85 gets any significant use.

    • Steve Hanley

      Interesting. Thanks for sharing. And I hope your prediction is correct — for all our sakes!

      • kevin mccune

        Actually the ethanol doesnt decrease cattle feedstocks,it actually makes a feed the cattle can more readily assimilate,you can find about any scat containing corn and the corn will germinate(its that tough in kernel form) so aside from tacos and cornflakes the production of alcohol doesnt decrease food supply.But the large problem with the E85 is the horrible mileage (about half of straight gasoline ) ,but its a lot cleaner burning.So I am all for E10(only about a 3% decrease in mileage) but in higher concentrations ,no thanks ,as someone said it takes more ammonium fertilizers to increase corn yields ,which in turn consumes a lot of natural gas
        So there are pros and cons .