What's the real problem?

We got talking about ethanol during a holiday gathering and a longtime family friend, brought up a problem in starting his lawnmower last spring.
By Susanne Retka Schill | December 31, 2012

We got talking about ethanol during a holiday gathering. (Funny, it happens a lot when people ask me what I do.) I said, “oh-oh, here we go,” to myself when George, a longtime family friend, brought up a problem in starting his lawnmower last spring. Someone had finally asked him if he had old gas in it still, which he did. He dumped that out and put in fresh gasoline and it started on one pull. “Now, why’s that?” he asked. “I never used to have that problem.”

Thankfully, the conversation didn’t turn into a trash-ethanol session. Instead, the experienced mechanics and the ethanol writer got to talking. I mentioned that I had been hearing that gasoline refiners have mostly retooled their operations to produce subgrade gasoline, and now rely upon ethanol blending to bring the octane up. In other words, if they’ve got to use ethanol, they make the cheapest gasoline they can by with, and count on the ethanol to bring it up to spec.

One of the mechanics in our conversation reasoned that years ago, if the ethanol in the gasoline evaporated during winter storage, the base gasoline was still adequate to start a lawnmower on the old fuel. Nowadays, with the base gasoline being subgrade, when the ethanol evaporates off, the lawnmower won’t work. The recommendation always has been to drain the old gasoline before long-term storage, and start with fresh gas.

I wonder how many of these “ethanol will ruin your lawnmower” stories come from people not draining their small engine tanks. So, yes, the problem is the fuel, but it isn’t ethanol’s fault, it’s the gasoline.  Fuel techies, ethanol experts, are we on the right track?

An industry fuel expert once pointed out to me that the only such additive with all sorts of restrictions and labeling requirements is ethanol. ASTM carries no other specific limitations on many of the components of gasoline, the exceptions being lead and benzene, which kill people, and sulfur, which is the main culprit in pollution and global warming. ASTM allows ethanol blending up to 10 percent, and includes no label requirement. Many states, however, do, though not all. Thus, if your state doesn’t have a law requiring an ethanol content label, you could be using E10 and never know it. 

6 Responses

  1. Bob Wills



    The problem isn't the gasoline, it's the chemical properties of alcohols. They all are hygroscopic, erosive, and ruin many plastic and rubber small engine parts. The problem with using ethanol as is in gasoline, is that it only has modest miscibility with gasoline, and can eventually ruin small engines not designed for it. The answer here isn't to pretend that there is nothing wrong with ethanol's chemistry. The answer, is to engineer a fuel from it which doesn't have these negative characteristics. Then, we can really get to maximizing our biofuels potential at the producer level. Chemistry is your friend, not your enemy.

  2. Louis Weckerling



    Smoke and Mirrors!! Ethanol is the problem!

  3. Frank B



    Did you mean "suboctane" instead of "subgrade"? I'm a big ethanol fan, but have to agree with the other commenters that this is a poorly researched article that does little to help the magazine's credibility...

  4. ed



    more of the just talk without facts, gasoline refined has to meet minimum standards and they are tested for each batch produced, they have to be transported in pipelines which require minimum standards to be met. Gasoline is tested at various stages before it gets into cars and equipment just another trash article

  5. Bobby Likis



    All "gasoline" degrades over time - with or without ethanol added. Why all the controversy re ethanol when the "standard operating procedure" re any ICE (including lawn mowers) is to prepare the unit for storage using fresh oil, new oil filter (where applicable) and 95% fresh gasoline (E-10 included) with fuel stabilizer. There are many such stabilizers on the market...sta-bil is one such gasoline treatment that was formulated in 1932. I've been in the automotive service and repair business for 41 years and never had one customer lose an engine due to ethanol. I also ran alcohol based fuels in my dragsters and never lost an engine due to fuel-related problems. I'm amazed and disheartened when I read unsubstantiated arguments against ethanol. Car makers designed ethanol-compatible fuel systems some 30+ years ago and are gearing up (as we speak) for higher compression, higher performance, higher MPG and lower emissions engines made possible by high-octane ethanol-blended fuel. Let's move on...let's use America's renewable resources to reduce offshore-cashflow.

  6. Fuel Guru



    Bob Wills had one of the best comments I have heard since 2005 when ethanol was making it's debut- 'Then, we can really get to maximizing our biofuels potential at the producer level.' Yes, Bob, that is a profound statement. In 2005 I had the pleasure of meeting the technical services manager for the then super player in the ethanol business, VeraSun Energy. We met at a 2005 ASTM gasoline sub-committee meeting. He explained to me how problems with a splash blended ethanol/gasoline blend are caused by the polarity difference between ethanol and gasoline. Essentially, they don't mix. In addition to the points you made about the 'chemistry' of ethanol blended gasoline, I would like to include a few more. I actually led off three days of technical presentations in the alternative and advanced fuels matrix at the 2010 Society of Automotive Engineers Powertrains, Fuels and Lubricants Meeting with a presentation titled "The Holistic Approach the The Worldwide Transportation Fuels Future." Part of this presentation was about how to best integrate ethanol into gasoline. I am included a few performance issues related to ethanol blended gasoline that I mentioned in my presentation that you did not mention, and have not been talked about: 1.Refinery shrinkage. On average, there is a need to take out about 3.5% clean burning natural gas liquids-butane and pentane-when ethanol is splash blended into summer RFG gasoline. Splash blending ethanol into gasoline results in shrinkage of the gasoline pool. The 'reasonable man' has trouble resolving how this loss in the U.S. gasoline pool to accommodate ethanol helps move our country towards energy independence. 2.Part of the chemistry that you talk about has to do with the fact that ethanol does blend ideally with gasoline with respect to volatility. i.e. it does not follow the Clausius-Clapeyron behavior, the transition from one state of matter to the other. In the case of gasoline this transition is from a liquid to a vapor and is a critical part of fuel and vehicle performance. This vapor to liquid ratio and the resulting volatility of the gasoline, along with how the octane component of the gasoline,(ethanol)reacts during the transition from liquid to vapor, results in a net energy loss that does not show up in a BTU energy comparison between gasoline and ethanol. Why the ethanol industry has not heeded your bulls-eye advice on what really need to be done-look at the chemistry-essentially the message that I have been promoted for the last 8 years, is a mystery to me. Hopefully an eye brow raising article like this published in a premier ethanol trade publication will move some in the ethanol industry beyond PR, politics, propaganda and denial. What I am offering to the ethanol industry is an open invitation to move beyond the above mentioned tactics, and look at what rally needs to be done to integrate ethanol into the domestic fuel supply for a sustainable fuel future. I am totally about supporting responsible U.S. farmers that want to move into the New Year with new ideas on how to build customer loyalty for their alternative to petroleum gasoline. Happy 2013!

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