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What Needs to be Fixed re Ethanol

September 4, 2015


By Bobby Likis, President and CEO of Car Clinic Yes, something needs to be fixed. And it's not ethanol.  What needs to be fixed is the egregiously incorrect perception of ethanol like that perpetuated by Lauren Fix, whether spurred by naiveté, ignorance or special interest.  Ms. Fix's mutations of the truth are analogous to clinging to "the world is flat" and are so insidiously woven through her interview that extracting and correcting all of the fallacies would take more than Columbus and his three little ships.  So I'll tackle the ones that should be torpedoed my experience as a 44-year, award-winning automotive service shop owner with over 200,000 vehicles (from classics to hybrids) rolling through the bays; rear-end dragster / engine builder; car-talk host answering more than 100,000 car questions live on radio, television, web & social media. 1. Perception / Myth / Ms. Fix:  Corn was not designed to run through engines; ethanol-blended fuels must have fuel additives to ensure burn (mentioning three brands specifically and stating that car owners need to add one of these additives to every tankful of E10); ethanol is so damaging that it is not used in race cars. FACTS: These overwhelming no-merit statements are not based on fact.  Henry Ford's first car "1896 Quadricycle" ran on E100 (100% ethanol).  And Mr. Ford's 1908 Model-T was America's first Flex-Fuel car.  E15 is the most tested fuel the tune of the equivalent of 12 round trips to the moon (6 million miles). No discernable difference was found in engine wear between E15 and other test fuels in the tested model years (2001 and later). NASCAR powers its cars with E15 fuel (85% gasoline with 15% ethanol). Indy racecars run E98.  Why 98% rather than 100%?  Glad you asked.  By adding 2% gasoline, pit crews would be able to see smoke in case there's a fire.  Ethanol burns so cleanly that 100% would be all but invisible to spot if a fire did break out, which can happen when cars going 225 mph run into each other or the wall. Speaking of clean burning, ethanol replaced MTBE (which replaced lead in gasoline) as an oxygenate.  By adding 10% ethanol to gasoline, many cities are able to reach clean air requirements that otherwise would not be possible. Ford's EcoBoost and GM's Ecotec engines thirst for high octane, and ethanol delivers. Thousands of car owners across America who drive high-performance (but non-flex-fuel) vehicles on the street want an E85 option. One example is my General Manager who owns a 2015 Subaru WRX STI diligently searched for E85. Why?  E85 adds another 70 HP and 100 lbft torque to the existing 346 HP, all-wheel vehicle.  Ethanol - with its 113 octane rating - is an enabler of power & performance. 2. Perception / Myth / Ms. Fix:  Ethanol destroys Air Mass Sensors and O2 Sensors. FACTS: This statement is only not true, it's impossible.  Mass Air Flow Sensors & Oxygen (O2) Sensors were developed and designed to measure the total amount AIR flowing into an engine and the amount of OXYGEN leaving an engine through the exhaust, respectively. AIR and OXYGEN...gases, not fuel/liquid. Neither are part of the liquid fuel system. The Mass Air Sensor is mounted outside the engine and has absolutely no physical connection with its liquid fuel system.  Nothing other than fresh-filtered air touches the Mass Air Flow Sensor. Simplified, this sensor's job is analogous to that of ticket takers at the theater. They count the number of heads entering the theater while others (O2 sensors) count the per-ticket cash.  Heads-in / cash-out should balance. By measuring how much air goes in and at what temperature, the vehicle's on-board computer can compare how much air leaves the engine and adjust fuel flow volume. It's that simple. And to underscore the ridiculousness of the "damage" myth is that an ethanol molecule itself contains 35% oxygen and it evaporates at 174° F, leaving zero trace of emissions. 3. Perception / Myth / Ms. Fix:  Ethanol causes phase separation (free-standing water in fuel) FACTS: Ms. Fix states that ethanol falls to the bottom of the fuel tank. Incorrect. When condensation occurs with temperature changes, WATER can (unlikely, but theoretically can) fall to the bottom of the fuel tank in an event called phase separation (water separating from fuel). Know which fuel best solves phase separation?  Ethanol.  All-hyrdrocarbon gasoline with NO ethanol can suspend about .15 teaspoon of water before it separates.  E10 can suspend about 4 teaspoons – that's over 26 times more – reducing the chance for water-related corrosion and engine misses.  Yes, ethanol is the solution to the problem.  Ironically, Ms. Fix refers to several companies offering fuel additives that keep condensation from freezing in very cold climates.  Guess what the fuel additives are?  Like ethanol, they're alcohol-based compounds.  Yes, really!  Now that we've gotten to the details, let's go back to the 10,000-ft view.  Phase separation isn't even an issue with today's cars.  At 70°F and 70% relative humidity, it takes almost 3 months for pure gasoline to phase separate. The danger of ethanol - with 26 times more water-suspending capability - phase separating in any practical environment is ridiculous. The math indicates that more than 5.8 years storage with "open" fuel caps would be required to cause phase separation with ethanol (compared to 2.7 months with pure gasoline).  In any case, today's secure gas caps (check-engine light warns if leaking) seal fuel vapors from escaping the tank and allow only the amount of air into the tank that is required to fill the void as the engine burns fuel from the tank. Even Mercury Marine states that "after the transition period from E0, E10 may actually be a superior marine fuel as it tends to keep low levels of water moving through the fuel system, keeping the system 'dry.'" 4. Perception / Myth / Ms. Fix:  Ethanol destroys engines FACTS:  Forty-four years as an automotive service shop owner, mechanic & engine builder with 200,000 vehicles in my ASE-Certified technicians' bays...and not one engine was ruined because of ethanol.  Verifiable fact.  I suggest Ms. Fix read her history on fuels, specifically Ethyl (GM Kettering), Sir Harry Ricardo's ethanol racing fuels...and John D. Rockefeller's avid participation to rid the country of ethanol so his Standard Oil could become the fuel supplier for America. Yes, Prohibition was more than simply taking whiskey off the was also about taking alcohol (ethanol) off the streets. I could say it's a shame Ms. Fix is so uninformed, but shame doesn't quite fit her obvious lack of basic knowledge regarding ethanol...or gasoline for that matter.  What was especially disturbing to me during this interview was that both host and guest made statements about "single women getting hurt" and breaking down in not-so-friendly neighborhoods.  Cars break down...machines break down, but not because ethanol is in the tank.  As for women, in my award winning automotive service shop (proudly enjoying 44 years success), almost 55% of our customers are women...and not one takes the above position.  Rather, our women customers ask questions and are always interested in why their vehicle failed or what they might do today to help ensure their cars stay healthy/roadworthy tomorrow. So, the world is not flat. And egregiously incorrect perceptions of ethanol need to be fixed. We as a country need to be power-moving toward economic independence, superior engine design, cleaner air and fuel economy.  A future which Facts show that Ethanol enables.