Ethanol is Hot – In Ways You May Not Have Thought About

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Ethanol may be a boondoggle in more than one way.

Or even two.

You may have read about the high energy inputs necessary to squeeze corn (and other materials) and brew the mash into alcohol; that it takes more energy to make the stuff than you end up with – and that the energy it takes to make it is (you guessed it) mostly petroleum.

And you’ve probably heard about the way increasing demand for alcohol-laced fuels (mandated by law, of course) has been driving up the cost of food as more and more land/crops formerly devoted to production of stuff to fill our gullets is being turned over to production of stuff to fill our tanks.

All to line the pockets of politically connected agri-business combines like Archer Daniels Midland.

Also that ethanol is less energy dense than gasoline – so your gas mileage goes down while the price at the pump goes up. Most of the “gasoline” sold today is in fact 5-10 percent ethanol. This less less-energy-dense fuel is no doubt part of the reason why even the best of today’s “economy” cars like the 2011 Ford Fiesta still don’t get better gas mileage than the economy cars of 25 years ago.

But here’s a new one, one not much discussed in the papers: Alcohol fuels – especially E85, which is 85 percent alcohol – constitute a new type of fire hazard because they are harder to extinguish than gasoline fires and require new types of fire-extinguishing equipment and training.

The foam flame suppressants currently in use are reportedly ineffective; the fires just burn through. According to news accounts, many fire departments are either not trained to fight alcohol fires, or inadequately equipped to do so.

Think about race cars that run on alcohol fuels. The fires are extremely hot – and the flames invisible. Special equipment is necessary trackside to deal with it. Unfortunately, that equipment is not widely available outside of racing circles – mainly, because no one thought much about it during the frenzy to push “renewable” and “alternative” fuels into widespread circulation.

Foams designed to combat alcohol fires are made using specific polymers that can smother the flames of an ethanol fire but carry a price tag about 30 percent higher than conventional flame suppressing foams. That means your local fire department has a new line item on the budget.

Where will the money come from to provide the new flame-fighting products, equipment and training that will be necessary if we don’t want to burn to death in an E85 auto da fe?

Nationwide, the cost we’ll soon be facing to deal with all of this could end up being enormous. And the money will have to come from the usual sources of “revenue” – real estate assessments, state and local income taxes, etc.

Just what the doctor ordered: More government burdens at a time when real unemployment is pushing 20 percent and we might be on the cusp of a major economic collapse.

And: This is an issue not just for first responders – the fire trucks and emergency vehicles that get to accident scenes. Home fire extinguishers – the kind many of us keep in the garage (or in our vehicles) for “just in case” – may not be adequate to deal with alcohol fuel fires.

Meanwhile, ethanol production is “ramping up” rapidly as both perceived need and federal/state policies stimulate demand for it. The major automakers – GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and so on – already sell dozens of “E85 compatible” vehicles and the E85 fuel itself is becoming commonly available all across the country.

Most of us are already burning ethanol on a regular basis. It’s possible we’ll be using it in amounts (and concentrations) few of us – outside of agribusiness and political circles – could have foreseen even five years ago. There is a major push going on right now to increase the amount of alcohol in “gas” to 15 percent. Rising fuel prices will be the “WMD” used to justify it. After all, corn-derived ethanol is (gag me) sustainable. It’s renewable, too. Much better than bad old dead dino juice. Except it isn’t, for all the reasons already mentioned: It’s a net energy loser; it boosts the cost of everything else in the process. It tamps down the mileage our cars deliver – and it might just burn us to death, too.

Owners of older cars need to be warned: The engines in their cars were designed to burn gas, not gas laced with alcohol. Alcohol is corrosive to seals and so on not designed to withstand it. That means, leaks. Leaking fuel – especially in a car with fuel injection, where the system is typically operating under pressures around 40 psi or even more vs. 3-6 psi in an older car with a carburetor – is clearly not a good thing. But unless the older car’s rubber hoses, gaskets and seals, etc., have been replaced with alcohol-compatible stuff, the likelihood of a leak and possibly a catastrophic fire is very real. Just FYI, in case you own a car built before about the mid 1990s, when gas was still gas.

Throw it in the Woods?

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  14 comments for “Ethanol is Hot – In Ways You May Not Have Thought About

  1. dan
    October 22, 2012 at 6:30 pm

    IMO the low sulfur was to make our road fuel compatible with the EU’s heating fuel requirements thus enabling an export market
    during those times of glut/excess that would have normally driven down the price on a seasonal basis.
    I was under the impression that the BTU’s of alcohol was lower and that it could be extinguished by dilution and lowering it’s flash point with copious amounts of water

  2. John
    April 4, 2011 at 11:59 am

    I have another question. Why does a fuel that requires less refining cost around 50 cents more per gallon than a fuel that requires more refining. I am talking of course about the outrageous price of diesel.
    Ethanol has been subsidized since the 1970s. I can perhaps see a temporary subsidy for a fledgeling industry but after over 35 years if it is not a viable product now, it probably never will be.
    If we want to eliminate the ethanol boondoggle, just get rid of the subsidy. I would flat out get rid of it, but we could also apply the subsidy to diesel if we want to give haulers a break and really stimulate the economy.

    • April 4, 2011 at 12:02 pm

      Yes, agree.

      Part of the problem, I think, has to do with the recent “low sulfur” fuel requirements; I know for a fact that they’ve made diesel engines/vehicles of all types much more expensive to buy and to operate.

      • John
        April 4, 2011 at 2:13 pm

        Very true. The low sulfur requirement is not that new and I assume that manufacturers of commercial diesel motors like Cummins and Detroit Diesel have been working and refining the issue for several years. It would be interesting to compare the requirements in the US compared to Germany. VW seems to be the only manufacturer of diesel passenger vehicles in the US, which are extremely popular in Europe.

  3. D. J. Weber
    April 4, 2011 at 11:16 am

    And I don’t think it’s just older cars that are susceptible to the corrosive effects of alcohol on seals. It would seem to me that any vehicle not classified as ‘FlexFuel’ capable, regardless of date of manufacture, would fall into that category, as well. And correct me if I’m wrong, but since alcohol absorbs significant amounts of moisture (water) it would also have long-term corrosive effects on internal ferrous metal engine components. As you pointed out, it’s nothing but a politicized scam for the benefit of mercantilist outfits like ADM, et al. Same goes for the high cost/low output of faddish wind farms and solar grids. If the true costs of all these boondoggles were instilled in the public’s mind, the backlash would be deafening…but essentially invisible subsidization effectively hides that fact from the gullible boobeoisie who, through lazy ignorance, never challenge the constant lies-of-omission the establishment media deliberately neglect to air. Government subsidies are nothing more than a system of privatizing profits and socializing costs for the benefit of special interests which are antithetical to productive free market enterprise. And we get to thank the five hundred plus automotive and electrical engineers who populate our legislative branch for all this ‘wonderful’ stuff that’s being rammed down our throats.

    • April 4, 2011 at 11:59 am

      Very true.

      Another aspect of this that bugs me, as someone who lives in the country and has land (and so has a lot of equipment) is that most of my equipment is older, built long before they began to adulterate gas with high concentrations of alcohol. I know many other people like me who have a considerable investment in such equipment. Short of tearing each unit down and rebuilding it with “current grade” gaskets and seals, there’s not much to be done about it, either.

  4. John van Gelderen
    April 4, 2011 at 6:04 am

    Brazil has been running its cars on straight ethanol for many years. They use sugar cane. We could use sugar beets, or other processes which could use scrap wood, lawn clippings or garbage. For all the money we have wasted stealing oil from middle eastern countries, we could have perfected the techonolgy for much less. But politics is politics, and the sheeple will line up for that E-85 while their food bills go through the roof.

    • April 4, 2011 at 9:41 am

      Maybe that’s why Hugo is another pinata of US foreign policy?

  5. Gil
    April 4, 2011 at 5:17 am

    On the upside if cars are doomed to run on ethanol instead of petrol then cars will the preverse of the well-to-do and the rich thus the dangers that come with it will be neglible.

  6. babydriver
    April 4, 2011 at 2:36 am

    Our Government at work.

    • April 4, 2011 at 9:56 am

      Yes – and politically powerful big bidness, too. One thing many “conservatives” still need to learn is that big bidness – corporations – are as much a threat to individual liberty as the gubament. If I were the Decider, one of the first things I’d do is strip corporations of legal personhood – and then subject these cartels organized for the maximization of profit at the expense of all other considerations to a very tight leash indeed. I increasingly think they ought to be outlawed altogether, just as organized crime is outlawed via racketeering statutes. Only individuals and partnerships involving individuals can be said to have moral – or legal/political/economic – rights. And humans beings – assuming they’re not psychotic – have motives besides and superior to grubbing for every last possible penny of profit, no matter the consequences or costs to their fellow human beings. Corporations don’t. They are sociopathic by nature. Just like government.

      • Steven Allen
        April 4, 2011 at 8:08 pm

        Yes Eric, the big corporations perform bad acts, but government is 100% the enabler. The government writes laws that allow the big corporations to get big, stay big, and hurt competition. Governments write laws that allow big corporations to pollute and pay a wimpy fine, rather than have to pay the real costs to property owners for damage to their property. Government writes laws that insulate corporations from the buying public (Their customers) so we can’t effectively vote with our dollar. Government writes and enforces laws that limit the liability of shareholders and officers.
        Without the government enabling, then corporations wouldn’t be a big deal. Solve the government problem, the other problem naturally goes away. BTW, How would enforce that people can’t freely enter into contracts and associations that would act like corporations in most respects. Sounds like government to me, and once you enable that, you enable all the problems of money and power corrupting the system.

  7. Dave
    April 3, 2011 at 7:09 pm

    Alcohol should be fer drinkin’, not burnin’!

  8. dom
    April 2, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Yeah, alcohol is just a silly idea. Not even to mention the dangers of invisible flames!

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