Ethanol in Position to Win the Fuel Duel

Article excerpt

Gasoline is the automobile fuel of choice, but it might have been different -- when the Model T was designed, Henry Ford expected ethanol to be the major automobile fuel.

Gasoline took the lead both because of the ease of operation with the existing technology, and the ample supply provided by increased oilfield discoveries. Now, provincial and federal governments are looking toward ethanol production, and the second-fiddle fuel is set to make a comeback for a variety of reasons.

First of all, while gasoline supplies are limited, ethanol is a renewable resource. More than five billion litres of ethanol are used in gasoline in Canada and the United States each year. This represents about one per cent of the gasoline volume. Most of the ethanol is used in "low-level" blends of five- to 10-per-cent ethanol in gasoline.

Wheat, corn, and even wood chips are being used to produce ethanol. Grains are processed with enzymes and the "mash" is distilled to produce a high-quality alcohol. Fuel-grade ethanol is about 99-per-cent pure alcohol and it's an excellent fuel additive for automobiles. By-products of the fermentation process are also valuable and include carbon dioxide, corn oil, high fibre/protein food additives (from wheat), and high-protein animal feed supplements.

There is an energy gain in the production of ethanol and its by-products. After calculating the energy needed to grow the raw materials and produce the ethanol, there is a net energy gain of 151 per cent.

This brings us to the second advantage of using ethanol as a fuel -- the environment. Ethanol is made of 35-per-cent oxygen and, when it is blended with gasoline, it encourages a more complete combustion. A 10-per-cent blend of ethanol with gasoline results in a 25- to 30-per-cent reduction in carbon monoxide emissions. Compounds such as carbon monoxide, benzene, nitrogen oxides and unburned hydrocarbons react with sunlight to form ground-level ozone.

This type of ozone reacts with sunlight to cause smog, and is not to be confused with ozone in the stratosphere, which is beneficial. Smog causes human respiratory problems and damages plants. The benefits of using ethanol include a substantial reduction in emissions that contribute to ground-level ozone -- carbon monoxides in particular.

As a fuel, ethanol burns cooler than gasoline. This reduces emissions, cleans and prevents engine deposits, and acts as a gas-line antifreeze. It also raises octane levels. At 10-per-cent blends, ethanol has an octane rating of approximately 94, which translates into performance. Race-car drivers have used ethanol for years as a performance fuel because of its high octane value.

All major auto manufacturers warrantee their vehicles for the use of E10 (10 per cent ethanol/ 90 per cent gasoline) and all automobiles made since the 1970s can use up to 10 per cent ethanol without requiring engine modifications. …