The Evil Ethanol

Ethanol: Whats It All About?

Chemistry is not one of my strengths so I will keep it simple. Ethanol is alcohol, the same stuff that is in your martini. You can drink it, you can pour it on your desert to make a flambe, or you can put it in your gas tank and burn in your motorcycle. The first two uses can be a good thing, the last a bad thing.

I used to work in a medical research lab, and was given a gallon of pure ethanol that was being thrown out. It was purchased for a failed experiment to get pigs drunk, but that is another story. So what would you do with a jug of 95% alcohol? (or a drunk pig?) I decided I would try to drink it without going blind. Of course you can’t drink it straight, so I mixed 50/50 with water which should roughly equate to drinking some Bacardi 151. The results of my experiment? It was a failure. Mixing the alcohol with orange juice for a classic screwdriver, did not provide an enjoyable drink. The taste was not good (unlike a good Vodka), and the "high" made me sweaty and angry and I'm sure it's not the best for your liver or brain cells. The jug is still sitting in my garage. It makes a decent cleaner for certain things, but I will not drink it. The bottom line is get your alcohol from the liquor store, not the lab.

The real stuff  

The Ethanol Ripoff

Used as a fuel, ethanol has an energy content of 21.2 MJ/L. Regular straight gasoline has a 34.8 MJ/L. So by volume, ethanol has 39% LESS energy than gasoline. So when you buy gasoline with ethanol, you are actually buying less fuel for your money. How much? Regular gasoline in Southern Ontario is mandated to have 10% ethanol, so your fuel actually has 3.9% less energy which directly relates to the fuel mileage you get from your vehicle. I will repeat this, putting regular gas in your car, which has ethanol will reduce your gas mileage by almost 4%. Some premium fuels have no ethanol but are usually about 10% higher in cost compared to regular grades. If you take into account the actual amount of energy you are purchasing then the cost of premium gas is only 6% more.

Do this experiment. Most cars have decent trip computers. When your tank is almost empty, reset the trip computer, fill up with  correct premium and see if your mileage goes up. I did, and guess what? I got 5% better fuel economy and the car seemed to run smoother. Your mileage may vary ;)

A few years ago I had a DRZ400E, the hot rod version with higher compression. I noticed that the bike was hard to start, was low on power and generally ran like crap. It had a ton of hours on it, so I thought it was time to do an engine rebuild. I was running premium fuel, but remembered I recently I switched to Petrocan Bronze to save a couple bucks from the local station. On paper, it should be fine, the octane rating should have been good enough for the old DRZ. Maybe ethanol was the problem?

Anyone can do a simple ethanol test. Get container, a small test tube is perfect and fill it approximately half way with gasoline. Measure the level. Add some water, maybe a third to the top of the test tube and mark the line where the gas and water are separated. Then shake it up. The idea is that when you mix water with gas, any ethanol in the gas comes out of solution and joins the water, so the level of water should go up. Measure the difference in the separation line before and after you shook it up. To calculate the amount of ethanol, apply this formula (Change in separation line)/(Gas Height))x100. For example, you add 50mm of gasoline to the test tube. You 25mm of water. After shaking the solution, the water level goes up 5mm. The amount of ethanol is 5/50x100 = 10%.

I tested my Petrocan Bronze and repeated the test carefully several times, and it kept giving me the same results. Petrocan was selling me 15% ethanol! Not only was this illegal, it was making my bike run like crap. I can only guess that Petrocan (Suncor) had a surplus of shitty ethanol and was trying to get rid of it since they own and run the ethanol plant.

I drained the tank on the DRZ and filled it with fresh Esso premium. It was advertised by Esso and tested by me to be ethanol free. The results? Kowabunga! I INSTANTLY felt the difference. It was like a new bike. Easier starting, much power, and much better throttle response. Engine rebuild not required.

I have also tested running gas with ethanol in all my bikes with similar results. For motorcycles ethanol = evil.

Here Comes the Bad Part

So ethanol makes you bike run badly. That’s the good part, here comes the bad part. Ethanol is hydroscopic, it absorbs water. That is how our ethanol concentration test works. So you have gas sitting in  your motorcycle's gas tank. Maybe you don’t ride the bike for awhile, so the gas starts to get stale. It absorbs more water. Water in your gasoline is not a good thing. That is why you ironically add ethanol (gas line anti-freeze) to your gasoline to get it out. Not only does water not burn, it tends to turn into a slimy sludge plugging up your fuel system. Boats have a particular problem with this since, they tend to be around water. My dirt bike is known to be around water too, not a good thing for the ethanol "enriched" gasoline.

Also, ethanol messes up your air/fuel mixture since the stoichiometric air fuel ratio for ethanol is 9:1 vs 14:7 for gasoline. So basically, adding ethanol leans out your fuel mixture, and generally a lean mixture means less power and rougher running. Most modern cars can compensate for this, but your 2 stroke KTM with a carb has no way to adjust for this.

And it gets worse. Ethanol is corrosive to many materials. Unless you vehicle is designed for ethanol, you run the risk of seriously ruining your fuel system. Its not only the rubbers bits that will fall apart, the metal bits will rust as well. For any older motorcycle is not safe to run ANY ethanol in it. My Ducati Multistrada suffered from plastic gas tanks that swelled so much from the ethanol gas in the US, that it made the bike un-rideable. Fortunately my Duc does not have this problem. So ethanol attacks rubber, plastic and metal. Not the best thing to put in your gas tank right?

Why Did the Government Put Ethanol in my Gasoline?

The whole ethanol in the gas thing has everything to do with politics and very little to do with the science, the environment or energy independence. Some say that ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline so it is better for the environment. It is true that some pollutants are reduced, but it is also true that other pollutants are increased, specifically the ones that lead to smog. So how you measure better or worse determines if burning ethanol is better or worse for the environment. Since there is no definitive answer it is safe to say that it really isn't cleaner to burn ethanol.

Then there is the issue of the energy balance. Most ethanol in North America comes from growing corn. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that growing corn is energy intensive. Plowing  the land, planting the seed, water, fertilizer (which is made from natural gas), applying pesticides, harvesting and transporting the corn to fermentation all takes energy. Those big trucks and farm tractors don't run on good intentions. And once the corn is in the fermenter to produce the alcohol, it has to be distilled to extract the good stuff. If you have read my previous article on engine coolant, you would know that boiling water is very energy intensive. Ask yourself this: If producing ethanol at the plant was energy positive, would the plant not use the product it produces to power itself, that is it would burn ethanol to make ethanol? I don't know, but my bet is that the Suncor ethanol plant is fired by natural gas.

Add up all the energy required to get a gallon of ethanol in your gas tank. Many studies show that ethanol production is a net energy loss, that is it takes more energy to make the ethanol than you get out of it. You can argue how to measure this, what to include or exclude in your calculations, but the fact that there is no obvious answer to this means ethanol production is probably not energy positive.

And then there is the issue of the cost of corn. Because ethanol production requires so much corn, it increases the demand, therefore increases the cost of food. Not just the corn on cob you buy at the local grocery, but all food. Cows, pigs and chickens eat corn. Look at the ingredients on anything you put in your mouth, and there is corn involved. Ethanol production increases food costs, that is a fact.

So why does the government mandate ethanol in your gas tank? As usual, just follow the money. Ask the farm lobbyist or the big energy companies who need a way to sell the ethanol they produce.

So where do I get the Good Stuff?

We all want the best performance for our bikes, so we should just put the highest octane gas in our rides? Nothing could be further from the truth. There are a few "performance" gas brands on the market, and one of the favourites is Sunoco 94, which is owned by Suncor, which also happens to own a large ethanol plant. Higher octane is better gas right? Nope.

Your engine works by burning fuel to produce heat. All things being equal, the more heat it produces, the more power it puts out. The octane rating is a measure of the fuels ability TO RESIST BURNING. This is important for two reasons. First, the octane rating has nothing to do with how much energy is in the fuel (energy = heat = power). The practical effect of a higher octane rating is the maximum effective compression ratio your engine can operate at. One of the fundamental facts about heat engines is that the higher the compression ratio, the more power (and efficiency) they have. This is one of the reasons diesel engines have better fuel economy, they run at higher compression ratios.

A high octane rating is essential in a high compression engine because we want the fuel mixture to burn when the spark plug fires, not while it is compressing, which can be a very bad thing for our engines. Engines have some ways to control this to a point (retard timing, reduce turbo boost) but, basically if you have a high compression, high performance engine you should run a higher octane fuel to get the most from you engine. But, for octane rating, good enough is good enough. If you cars runs fine on a 91 octane, then there is no need for a 94 octane fuel, which brings us back to Sunoco 94. How does Sunoco get a 94 rating on their performance fuel? By adding ethanol! Ethanol has a higher octane rating (108.6) than straight regular gasoline (91),  but it also contains less energy (octane != energy) . So yes, if your car was designed for straight ethanol, it could run a higher compression ratio, burn a hell of a lot more fuel, and make more power than if was running gas, but we are comparing apples and oranges. As discussed earlier, Sunoco 94 in your car will produce LESS power, but it will help Suncor sell more ethanol.

So to get the good ethanol free gas in Southern Ontario you have to stay away from the Suncor supplied service stations. This includes Petro Can, Husky and Sunoco. Shell and Esso both sell premium without ethanol as well as many of the small chains like Canadian Tire, Pioneer and SuperCenter. Esso SUPREME+ Unleaded Octane 93 fuel is also available is some stations. So what is the difference between this super-duper fuel and their 91 offering? They add ethanol! So stay away from the Esso 93.

Ethanol = Evil

So to sum things up, producing ethanol in North America is probably a bad idea. Putting it in your car will work, but you will actually burn more fuel and make less power than you would if you ran straight gasoline. Putting gasoline with ethanol in your motorcycle is a very bad idea. The same is true for your lawn mower, weed wacker or snow blower. Yes, run premium fuel in your snow blower. It will fire right up after sitting all summer. Put in regular gas, and plan on cleaning out the ethanol crap out of the carb.


Bryan Kowalchuk

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