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« Zebra Mussels Cause Truckload of Trouble for Tourist | Main | Obama, Romney on Asian Carp »

Ethanol Does More Harm Than Good

Carburetor damage from use of ethanol in an outboard engine. BoatU.S. photo

As a B.A.S.S. member and a water-quality expert, Bill Frazier wants to protect fisheries, not pollute them.

But pollute is exactly what he did last fall, during the North Carolina B.A.S.S. Federation Nation (BFN) youth state championship.

“My youth angler spotted the slick about 2 p.m.,” said Frazier, N.C. BFN conservation director. “I did the best I could to mop up the leak, but I put a pretty good slick out there.”

Frazier estimated that he lost ½ cup of oil, which translates into 119 drops or milliliters.

“One drop of gas/oil pollutes one million gallons of water,” he explained. “I did not come up with this. It is a standard in the industry. I can easily detect one million times less than that with my instruments.

“Therefore, I polluted 119 million gallons of water.”

And there’s more.

“We had one guy blow an engine in the tournament,” Frazier said. “And two weeks ago, one of our other guys had a new Yamaha SHO go belly up, not even out of the break-in period.”

Gasoline blended with 10 percent ethanol (E10) --- an alternative fuel touted as “good for the environment” by its proponents --- caused all three incidents, the conservation director added.

“Anyone want to try and stack up the benefits of ethanol to an unabated polluting of 119 million gallons of water that could have been prevented if ethanol had not eaten up the seal?” he said regarding his own engine damage.

Safe to say, too, that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of similar incidents have occurred nationwide during the past few years, as ethanol-free gasoline has disappeared at the pumps and boat owners have been forced to fill their tanks with E10.

“We are getting crappy gas, the fuel mileage is reduced, we can’t store it for very long, and outboard engines are blowing up from ethanol-related issues on a regular basis,” said Jerod Harman, conservation director for the West Virginia BFN.

Theoretically, E10 should be safe to use in most engines from the early 1990s forward. But that has not been the case, as Frazier’s 2007 Yamaha attests, primarily because ethanol is a solvent that also absorbs water.

“It scours gunk from tank walls and blocks fuel lines. It dissolves rubber and plastic parts,” said Scott Croft of BoatU.S.

The bad news is that such problems are going to continue for awhile, as both boat owners and engine manufacturers adapt to E10 and its unique properties. And they will continue to be angry about the damage and inconvenience that they are forced to endure along the way because ethanol-blended gasoline has benefitted mostly corn producers, at the expense of both consumers and the environment.

“Taken as a whole, cars don’t get better mileage because of ethanol,” said Chuck Lang, Oregon conservation director. “The energy used to produce ethanol from corn and then blend it with fuels outweighs any environmental benefits, without even counting the extra miles traveled to find non-ethanol for those who can’t use it.”

In fact, pure fossil-fuel gasoline yields 500 percent more energy that what is required to produce it. By contrast, ethanol provides but 30 percent, according to one study. That inefficiency is reflected in the fact that one gallon of ethanol requires 1,700 gallons of water and results in 10 gallons of sewage-like effluent.  

Even former Vice President Al Gore, the Big Daddy of the environmental movement, has admitted that his support for ethanol was a mistake. During a green energy conference in Athens, Greece, Gore said that energy conversion ratios for ethanol “are at best very small.”

He added, “One of the reasons I made that mistake (supporting ethanol and ethanol subsidies) is that I paid particular attention to the farmers in my home state of Tennessee, and I had a certain fondness for the farmers in the state of Iowa because I was about to run for president.”

But there is good news too. Although the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently approved sale of E15 (gasoline with 15 percent ethanol) for use in 2001 and newer cars and light trucks, E10 and what little ethanol-free gas remains are not likely to be crowded out at the pump any time soon.

“There is not a mandate and no incentive to offer it,” said Bob Adriance, director of the BoatU.S. Damage Avoidance Program.

He added that major oil companies, including BP and Chevron, told him that they have no plans to sell E15, both because many cars can’t use it and because the auto industry in general opposes introduction without additional testing. In fact, Toyota warns “Up to E10 gasoline only” on the gas caps of its 2012 models.

And as damaging as E10 has been to boat engines, E15 could be even more so. The Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI) even calls it “dangerous.”

“For the first time in American history, fuel used for some automobiles may no longer be safe for any non-road products,” said Kris Kiser, OPEI’s president and CEO. “It may, in fact, destroy or damage generators, chain saws, utility vehicles, lawn mowers, boats and marine engines, snowmobiles, motorcycles, ATVs, and more.”

Noreen Clough, B.A.S.S. National Conservation, voiced how many feel about E15 when she said, “I fail to understand the push to increase the percentage of ethanol in gasoline when it is a known fact that it costs more in energy to produce ethanol than it saves. It has encouraged a false sense of economy for corn farmers, driven the prices of corn higher, and encouraged development of marginal farm lands in country that is already heavily farmed.”

Nevertheless, the federal government intends to spend millions of dollars to finance installation of 10,000 blending pumps, which would offer both E10 and E15.

Still, 10,000 is less than 1 percent of pumps nationwide, Adriance said, hoping to alleviate boater concerns about the new fuel.

“The only places you are likely to see E15 are in the Midwest (where corn is grown) and at a few independents. You’re not going to see it offered by the major companies.”

Tomorrow’s Fuel

If E15 isn’t the fuel of the future, what is?

Bob Adriance of BoatU.S. thinks that it might be isobutanol, which can be made from corn, wheat, and sugarcane.

“It mixes better with gas, you can ship it in a pipeline, it’s more combustible, and there’s no separation problem,” he said. “Right now, there’s a strong movement afoot to produce it.”

That movement already is reflected in the retrofitting of some ethanol plants.

In announcing the American LeMans Series approval of isobutanol back in 2010, the Motor Authority website said that the fuel has “a higher energy content than many first generation biofuels.”

It also pointed out that the isobutanol “can be used in gasoline-powered vehicles without modification at higher volumes than first general biofuels, enabling greater concentrations of renewable into the transport fuel mix.”

Coping with E10

If you’re using an engine built before the early 1990s, you should avoid gasoline with ethanol. “With the older engines, internal parts are not compatible and you can’t do anything to fix that,” said BoatU.S.’s Bob Adriance.

With newer engines, though, boat owners can minimize problems by recognizing that using E10 requires a new attitude.

“Cars are used every day,” he said. “But boats sit, and gums form (in the engines). Ethanol is a solvent that dissolves those gums and that’s going to clog the filter.

“For two or three tanks, you’re going to have to deal with a clogged filter, but then that problem should go away.”

Preventing phase separation, however, requires constant care.

When E10 fuel no longer can absorb water it separates from the gas and settles to the bottom, near the pickup. Gasoline with lower octane is left above that, and then more water.

“Nothing will put that (fuel) back together again,” Adriance said. “The best thing that you can do at that point is empty the tank and put in fresh gasoline.”

A better solution, though, is to avoid phase separation by keeping the gas tank full. That way it won’t collect as much moisture.

“E10 absorbs 10 times more water than the gas it replaced,” Adriance said. “But if you keep the tank full, there’s less condensation and more fuel to absorb it (water that’s in the tank).”

To Learn More

BoatU.S. offers a wealth of information about ethanol and its use in marine engines at its website. Just plug “ethanol” into the search window.

At Follow the Science, you can learn about ethanol’s impact on engines, food prices, and the environment. This site is supported by a diverse coalition that includes BoatU.S., Environmental Working Group, Natural Resources Defense Council, and Grocery Manufacturers Association.

Pure Gas.Org  lists stations that offer ethanol-free gasoline in the U.S. and Canada.

(This article appeared originally in B.A.S.S. Times.)


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