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Transportation Technology

The New Ethanol Blend May Damage Your Vehicle 375

Hugh Pickens writes writes "About 80 percent of the gasoline consumed in the U.S. is blended with ethanol, primarily with a 10 percent mix of ethanol, generally derived from corn. Now Kate Sheppard writes that the Environmental Protection Agency has approved a new policy that will allow states to raise the blend to up to 15 percent ethanol (also known as E15), approved for use for cars and light trucks from the model year 2001 and later. A few weeks ago, AAA issued a statement saying that the EPA's new policy creates the 'strong likelihood of consumer confusion and the potential for voided warranties and vehicle damage.' AAA surveyed vehicle manufacturers, and found that only about 12 million of the 240 million vehicles on the roads today are built to use E15 gasoline. The EPA will require that gas pumps with E15 bear a warning sign noting the blend and that it is not recommended for cars older than the 2001 model year. But what happens if you accidentally use it? 'Nobody really knows what negative effects [E15 is] going to have on the vehicle,' says Brian Lyons, Toyota's safety and quality communications manager. 'We think that there needs to be a lot more study conducted to make sure there are no longer term effects on the vehicle. So far everything we've seen says there will be.' The concern is that repeated, long-term exposure could cause the higher-alcohol-content fuel to degrade engine parts like valves and cylinder heads — which could potentially cost thousands of dollars to replace. Gas station owners don't like it very much either, because they'd likely have to upgrade their equipment to use it. Nor are environmental groups big fans of the EPA's decision, arguing that increasing the use of ethanol can drive up food prices, and isn't the best means of reducing our reliance on foreign fuels. The ethanol lobby is the only group that really seems to like the new rule. 'We've force fed a fuel into every American's car that benefits a few thousand corn farmers and ethanol refiners at the expense of virtually every other American,' says Scott Faber."
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The New Ethanol Blend May Damage Your Vehicle

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  • by SIGBUS ( 8236 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @09:54AM (#42386873) Homepage

    My 2010 Honda's manual very specifically says not to use ethanol blends higher than 10%. I'll trust Honda's word over those of the corn lobby.

  • by NIK282000 ( 737852 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @10:21AM (#42386959) Homepage Journal

    That's true for every gasoline engine that isn't specifically designed for alcohol. Alcohol makes rubber gaskets dry out and crack, it also does a pretty good job at taking the lubricating oil off of everything. Its a wonder that old motors last hours let alone years on the 10% stuff.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @10:43AM (#42387043)'s the fuel storage and delivery systems in the vehicle that are suffering the damage... all the rubber, plastic, and aluminum components that are getting dissolved or corroded by the ethanol.

    A piston engine can run just fine on ethanol, but everything from the tank, the pump(s), hoses, seals, fuel injectors, etc, all must be made from materials that specifically can withstand constant contact with ethanol, and ethanol with water dissolved in it, without deteriorating. Most automotive fuel system component materials really cannot withstand this (even E10 is harmful over time), and materials that can withstand the ethanol are expensive and have shorter limited service lifespan too.

    Also keeping all the water out of the fuel is problematic too. The entire fuel system must be sealed from the atmosphere since ethanol will absorb water vapor from the air anytime there is exposure to the atmosphere.... even for a few seconds.

  • by the eric conspiracy ( 20178 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @11:19AM (#42387215)

    This research:

    Ethanol Production Using Corn, Switchgrass, and Wood; Biodiesel Production Using Soybean and Sunflower David Pimentel and Tad W. Patzek Natural Resources Research, Vol. 14, No. 1, March 2005 doi:10.1007/s11053-005-4679-8

    Which was cited by the article you cited.

    Here is another discussion: []

    The latter is more interesting because not only does it point out the economic issues, but also that there are other issues such as water consumption, soil erosion, political costs etc. associated with using ethanol for fuel.

    The Oil Drum is a very worthy site because it presents a useful hard economic view of alternative energies. I think it's probably overly pessimistic, however it's probably a lot closer to the truth than a lot of the advocacy positions that appear in the media.

  • by stevew ( 4845 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @11:30AM (#42387305) Journal

    Yep - this is right up there with the MTBE debacle in CA about 10 years ago.

    The Cal EPA (yes California has it's own set of idiot Environmental Regulators) decided that we needed Oxygenation in our fuel mix. The Refiners had this great additive that they had NO market for called MTBE that they claimed would do the job. A report was done describing the effect of use of the additive. CalEPA literally removed dozens of pages of negative results from the report documenting that the additive would corrode the neoprene used in Gas Hoses in most vehicles! Did I mention that MTBE is a major carcinogen!

    So the state merrily adopts the stuff!

    Well, sure enough, CHP starts to have a huge number of car fires in their patrol vehicles as proof that the original report (the suppressed part) was correct! The bureaucrats can't sweep that CHP fleet numbers under the rug.

    Then the stuff starts showing up in drinking water all over the place!

    The bureaucrats are running around in circles (think circular firing squads) pointing fingers at each other. Turns out that once MTBE enters the Ecosystem, it doesn't leave. The bureaucrats (without any scientific basis) start banning motorboats on reservoirs arguing that they must be all leaking the stuff. Nope - rain! The stuff is in the air, and the rain is bringing it down into the entire water shed.

    Finally tally - 20K drinking wells are polluted with the stuff.

    Next - it turns out that MTBE doesn't really do the original job it was claimed to!

    Well - the public is incensed! How could this all happen! This is about the time the rest of the original report shows up documenting the fact that MTBE destroys gas engines. Everything from lawn mowers to cars had problems with the stuff. A new form of gas hosing was invented to contain this mess.

    The public outrage grows and eventually the governor decrees that the stuff will not be allowed into CA gas.

    Final insult. The biggest manufacturer of the stuff sues CA for 1 billion dollars because of voided contract with them - and wins!

    Excuse me - I've seen this movie before and know how it ends.


  • by Anonymous Coward on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @11:55AM (#42387507)

    Speaking as someone that lives in a socialist country, bills get passed that favor the politicians, not the corporations or the people.

  • Re:Why (Score:4, Informative)

    by faedle ( 114018 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @01:53PM (#42388677) Homepage Journal

    Because the power density of hydrocarbon fuels far outweighs any other technology presently available.

    10 gallons of gasoline weighs around 90 pounds. In even a fairly inefficient car (like, say my 1985 Volkswagen Vanagon Camper) that will get the car about 150 miles. Most compact cars easily get twice that from a 10-gallon tank. My other car, a Volkswagen New Beetle (which is diesel), gets close to 40 MPG (easily over if you drive conservatively), and while that's burning diesel fuel, the weight is comparable. So, 150-400 miles on 90 pounds of fuel for your "inefficient hydrocarbon burning internal combustion engine."

    By comparison, the LiIon batteries in many electric vehicles weighs in the range of 90-200 pounds, depending on the car (The Tesla, I'm told, weighs even more). At most, the range of a typical electric is 200 miles, and most manufacturers only promise between 100 and 150 miles between charging.

    CNG weighs a little less (the fuel is significantly lighter, but the tank is heavier). LNG weighs about the same as gasoline. Both will range at the lower end of the MPG figures quoted above. Fuel cells may alter the dynamics a bit, but the best sources of hydrogen for them is still hydrocarbon fuels.. they will just push the kW/gallon energy output higher, potentially increasing MPG if we can get the weight of a fuel-cell generator and electric motors to something close to an internal combustion engine.

    Pound for pound, hydrocarbon fuels provide the most bang for the pound of any power technology we presently have available.

  • by caseih ( 160668 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @02:21PM (#42388869)

    I actually farm, so I feel the need to step in here and correct you a little bit. The richest soils I know are only 5% organic matter. And while I share your concerns over ethanol production in general, you don't appear to know a whole lot about soil science in general. Continuous cropping of any kind does deplete the soil. But it doesn't deplete it in terms of organic matter (though it can affect that). It depletes the soil of macro and micro nutrients (minerals). And you are wrong about corn being produced by top soil. Crops can grow in soils without any organic matter at all (I know because I've done it), but without organic matter you have to provide 100% of the nutrients the plant needs. N, P, K, S, Cu, Bo, and a host of others. That's part of the core problem with corn ethanol in general: corn is produced by feeding the plants the vast majority of their required nutrients through synthetic fertilizers, which come from fossil fuels (natural gas is the main one).

    High organic matter soils are rich because they have a greater capacity to produce the fundamental nutrients by breaking down plant matter. But no matter how you cut it, if you aren't fertilizing in some way (synthetic or manure) you're just mining your soil of nutrients and eventually you'll run out.

    Crop rotation has little to do with organic matter or soil richness. Crop rotation is almost all about disease and weed management. Corn farmers do rotate for this reason. Usually it's corn, soybeans, wheat, repeat, which is not enough. There is a small benefit to the soil of doing rotation, particularly when you grow legumes, which fix their own nitrogen and replenish the soil's nutrient levels.

    I'm also in a position to comment on your thoughts on food production. The real problem with corn ethanol and food production is that it's driving up costs of all food commodities (wheat, beef, dairy) and inputs at a dramatic rate on a global level. This makes basic food more expensive all across the world. It's now cheaper in Africa to import grain than to grow it themselves, because of the input costs which are priced on a global market (yay for globalization). Not only is this an inflationary cycle, it also directly is affecting starvation in third-world countries who are now dependent on imports and handouts. So while starvation has nothing to do with the amount of food in the world, it's our practices that are directly contributing to it. Hence the criticisms of corn production replacing food production are indeed warranted.

  • not "small" "tweaks" (Score:4, Informative)

    by SuperBanana ( 662181 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @02:44PM (#42389053)

    Brazil has been using E20 and E25 for decades. All it requires is some small tweaks.

    If by "small tweaks" you mean replacing every single component in the entire fuel system that has rubber (which means all the seals, any lines that aren't completely metal, all the fuel injectors, the fuel pump, which is often inside the fuel tank and very difficult to reach, and the fuel pressure regulator), adjusting the engine computer's timing maps (not really possible except in vehicles made after 2000 or so, which tend to have electronically-reflashable computers) *and* better-sealing the fuel system (ethanol is very hygroscopic.) ...then yes, "small tweaks." You're probably looking at upwards of $1,000 in labor alone, and at least half that again in parts (fuel pump, injectors, fuel pressure regulator, and replacement lines, mostly. Seals are comparatively cheap.)

  • by magic maverick ( 2615475 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @03:53PM (#42389617) Homepage Journal

    Ethanol from plants may or may not be carbon neutral actually. It really depends on how much CO2 was used in the growing of the plants. If you use more fertiliser (from oil often), use heavy machinery to plant, grow and harvest the plants, etc., you may end up putting more CO2 into the air than you would otherwise if you had have just burnt the oil directly in your car. Check where your ethanol is coming from, and see whether or not subsidies are making the production inefficient and/or producing more CO2 than is otherwise saved.

  • Humidity (Score:4, Informative)

    by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Tuesday December 25, 2012 @10:24PM (#42391665)
    The stuff fresh out of the pump is perfectly fine (for a while), but in humid environments the ethanol sucks in water which can cause corrosion problems in those motorcycles, lawnmowers, chain saws etc especially if the level of the fuel is constant for days or weeks at a time. The corrosion happens in the metal adjacent to the surface of the fuel, and it's not just in the tank since there will be some fuel sitting for extended times in a lot of portions of the engine. That's why it's a bigger deal in engines that are not run a lot - it's apparently a huge deal in outboard motors for boats that are only run on weekends.
    I use ethanol fuel (E10) in my car at times but only if I know I'm going to be driving a lot and get the stuff out of the system in under a week if the weather is humid. I don't use it in my lawn mower. If I didn't live in the humid subtropics I probably wouldn't care about it. If there isn't much water in the air a few percent of ethanol alone isn't very corrosive so the time you can leave it in the tank is a lot longer.
  • by RazorSharp ( 1418697 ) on Wednesday December 26, 2012 @12:02AM (#42392053)

    Speaking as someone that lives in a socialist country, bills get passed that favor the politicians, not the corporations or the people.

    1) Everyone who lives in a first-world nation lives in a socialist country. A better retort to the parent would be, "you're making a distinction without a difference" or something similar that highlights that there are no capitalist and socialist countries -- it's just the ones that are afraid to embrace policies that are construed as socialist limit their ability to run effectively. He happens to call the countries he views favorably as socialist but any government that subsidizes anything is socialist.

    2) Speaking as someone who lives in a country that pretends it's not socialist (because that's a dirty word here), there are also many bills that get passed here that favor the politicians. For instance, congressmen vote to determine their salaries/benefits. Congressmen can use any information gained on capitol hill for financial gain whereas a Wall Street guy can go to jail for doing something analogous in his industry. What you're describing is in no way unique to socialist countries. Those in power have a tendency to use that power to their own advantage.

    3) I find it hard to believe the parliament or whatever type of legislature your country has does nothing but pass bills that make things better for politicians and bureaucrats. Of course, your'e an AC who didn't even mention the socialist country you come from, so it could be any country in the world with a functional government. I'd guess that you're a lying American trying to slander the name of socialism -- using the spelling "favor" rather than "favour" exposes you. Non-Americans are taught British English like 95% of the time and Canadians also spell it "favour." Also, American English is obviously your first language considering that you said "Speaking as someone that lives" rather than "Speaking as someone who lives." The latter is more technically correct but the former is more common amongst Americans.

    Score one for the English nerd. -1 for the American libertarian pretending to be European. The main reason I went through this thorough explanation is because I see this pattern all the time on /. Anonymous Coward says: "I live in a socialist country and the healthcare system sucks" or something similar. It's always stuff like that and the language is always suspiciously American and the socialist country in question is never named (wouldn't want to expose your claims to real scrutiny, now would you?). You /. libertarians are so funny -- a minority group on the site yet consistently the most vocal.

Basic is a high level languish. APL is a high level anguish.