Ethanol in Your Gas by Roger Sitterly

Written for and distributed to the CIMC in February 2012. Since numerous non-CIMC MINI owners and Clubs have asked for this information, Roger is making the information available to all via this post. Copied without amendment, statements and opinions are his alone.

Ethanol in Your Gas

At the February 2012 club meeting, the subject of using “gasohol” (gasoline with ethanol blended into it) was raised. There is some serious debate about the wisdom of using ethanol-blended fuels in the engine of any modern automobile. The ethanol industry touts studies that show no evidence of damage to modern engines, and critics of the industry tout studies that show ethanol can and does cause sometimes extensive (and therefore expensive) damage to a car’s fuel system and/or engine.

I have assembled from various sources some basic information about ethanol-blended gasoline. Some of it is pretty simple and straightforward, some is a bit more complicated. I hope this will help everyone gain a better understanding of just what the discussion and controversy are about.

What is gasohol?

Most commonly, you will find “E-10” gasohol at service stations. That means the fuel you pump into your fuel tank can (and probably does) contain up to 10% ethanol by volume (the other 90% is supposed to be gasoline, but that is not always the case as will be shown below). Some “flex-fuel” vehicles sold today can use “E-85” fuel, which is supposed to contain up to 85% ethanol by volume (the other 15% is supposed to be gasoline).

An important point to keep in mind is that while Iowa (as well as probably all other states) regularly conducts tests on the accuracy of the dispensing pumps (to make sure you get 11.7 gallons of fuel when the meter says you’re being charged for 11.7 gallons of fuel), not one single state or other governmental entity is testing the quality of the fuel being dispensed. In other words, while you’re supposed to be getting no more than 10% ethanol when you pump E-10 fuel into your car, you could in fact be getting significantly more ethanol than you expect because there’s no quality check anywhere in the distribution system. It is possible to purchase a relatively inexpensive test kit that will enable you to determine the actual percentage of ethanol in any ethanol-blended fuel. I found a price range of between $30 and $50 in some quick on-line research, and those kits will perform up to 400 tests. The cost per test is therefore less than 25 cents, which might provide some inexpensive peace of mind for those who use ethanol-blended fuels in their cars.

Anecdotal evidence shows ethanol levels in E-10 fuel do sometimes significantly exceed the 10% stipulation. This most likely happens because ethanol is not added to fuel at the refinery; instead, it gets added at the local distributor level. According to David Redszus of Precision Auto Research, “The pump may say there is 10% ethanol in the fuel, but that can change every time the station’s tanks are filled, depending upon a variety of refining factors, including from whom the station buys its gas. You could be getting 10 percent, 12 percent, or even 15 percent, even at a name-brand station.” Distributors, Redszus says, “are supposed to add the right quantities of additives to the gas, but they may not have it dialed in.”

Excessive amounts of ethanol in what was being sold as E-10 fuel in the Dallas, Texas area is documented to have caused the following problem. A lady named Christi Jordan had a 2007 MINI that she took to Moritz MINI in Arlington for service. Her complaint was that it was difficult to start. Moritz’ mechanics inspected the car and found severe carbon buildup inside the engine. On a second visit, again because the car would not start, mechanics tested the ethanol content of the fuel in her car’s tank and found it “much higher than the federally-mandated limit of 10%.” The mechanics also found the ethanol levels had been so high they’d destroyed the fuel pump. The $1,200 repair bill was covered by Moritz as “good will” because the factory warranty did not apply (using fuel with excessive amounts of ethanol voids the warranty on any components damaged by using such fuel). However, other owners either may not be or may not have been as fortunate as Ms. Jordan. Most victims of such problems may not even be aware of the true cause simply because the fuel they’ve been using hasn’t been tested for levels of ethanol content. At the time of Ms. Jordan’s problem, a Moritz spokesman said the dealership had seen at least 10 other cases of “ethanol poisoning” over the previous six months.

Why is ethanol added to gasoline?

Years ago, tetraethyl lead was added to gasoline as an inexpensive way of boosting octane ratings (an explanation of what “octane” is and how octane ratings are determined is beyond the scope of this article – suffice to say higher octane ratings equate to a fuel being less prone to detonation or pre-ignition in the cylinder of an engine). This is no longer done because it was discovered that the lead was expelled as part of a car’s exhaust gasses, and was getting into the food chain, people’s lungs, and in general creating an extreme health hazard.

As leaded gas was phased out, refiners came up with other ways of enhancing octane ratings. About the same time as this was going on, the Environmental Protection Agency began looking for ways to reduce automotive exhaust gasses that contributed to smog in urban areas. These gasses are primarily carbon monoxide and various oxides of nitrogen.

Side note here – I’m old enough to have driven from Phoenix to Los Angeles by way of what is now I-10 through Indio, Palm Springs, and Riverside, California (in the late 1960s). At the Chiriaco Summit east of Indio, the road was about 1600 feet above sea level and the air was clear. In the distance I could easily see the peaks of the San Bernardino Mountains. Spread out in front of me as I looked toward Los Angeles was an apparent brown ocean – smog. About halfway down from Chiriaco Summit to Indio, I was enveloped in the stuff – I could smell it, I could taste it, and I couldn’t think of a single reason in the world why anyone would willingly live in that kind of atmosphere. That has changed significantly in the years since – in 2005 I made the same drive and the visible air pollution was only a light, whitish-colored haze. I have no doubt that increased pollution controls and regulations have made a massive difference in the amount and nastiness of urban air pollution.

Ethanol, when blended with gasoline, helps reduce exhaust-gas pollution by reducing the amount of carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen that are emitted from automobile exhaust pipes. This, I think most people will agree, is a good thing. At the same time, critics claim the reduction of automotive pollution is offset, perhaps more than offset, by the amount of pollution generated during the production and transportation of ethanol. In addition, the argument is made that using ethanol in gasoline merely moves the pollution from urban areas to other areas of the country. Determining an accurate answer to the question of ethanol’s total pollution impact is so complex that nobody has yet come up with a truly definitive answer, primarily because there are so many factors to consider. One reputable study, done by National Geographic Magazine in 2007, found that one unit of fossil fuel yielded 1.3 units of ethanol, for a net energy gain. However, because it takes 1.5 gallons of ethanol to yield the energy equivalent of 1.0 gallons of gasoline, it is possible there’s a net energy loss.

Ethanol is what’s known as an “oxygenating” agent when burned with gasoline. That is, the byproducts of ethanol combustion consist of carbon dioxide and water, and by adding ethanol to gasoline, the chemistry involved during the combustion process yields exhaust gasses with measurably lower levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides. In addition, it raises the octane rating of gasoline, helping compensate for the absence of tetraethyl lead. California, for some years, used methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as the oxygenating and octane-boosting agent added to gasoline, but that practice has been discontinued because persistent levels of MTBE, which renders water non-potable, were found in ground water.

What are the problems with ethanol?

1) Ethanol has less stored energy than gasoline. Ethanol contains approximately 76,000 BTU (British Thermal Units) of energy per gallon, while gasoline contains approximately 114,000 BTU of energy per gallon. Put another way, one gallon of gasoline contains about 1.5 times as much stored energy as one gallon of ethanol. Therefore, when ethanol is blended into gasoline, the resulting fuel contains less energy than pure gasoline, and all other factors remaining equal, fuel economy will decrease when ethanol-blended fuel is used. The impact may be relatively small, and may not be noticeable to some drivers. However, assuming no change in driving habits, changing from pure gasoline to E-10 fuel (assuming a true 10% ethanol blend) will reduce miles-per-gallon by approximately three percent. So, if you average 25 mpg in your MINI on pure gasoline, using E-10 is likely to reduce that level of economy to about 24 mpg. Is this a fair price to pay for cleaner urban air? Opinions vary, and keep in mind that if what you think is E-10 fuel really has 15% ethanol by volume, your mpg will drop by about five percent.

2) Ethanol is corrosive. Even fresh from the production plant, ethanol contains soluble contaminants such as halide and chloride ions. (Ions are atoms or molecules where the number of electrons does not equal the number of protons, thereby giving the atom or molecule a net positive or negative electrical charge.) Halide ions chemically attack the oxide films on metals and cause pitting of the metal. This can be a problem in metal fuel lines, for instance, as the halide ions slowly eat through the line. In early 2009 Lexus ordered the recall of 2006 through 2008 models (GS, IS, and LS series) because, according to Lexus, “ethanol fuels will corrode the internal surface of the fuel rails”. On a fuel-injected engine (such as all MINIs have) the fuel is delivered under moderate to significant pressure by the fuel rail, which has one port for each cylinder’s injector. Having ethanol-blended fuels eat tiny pinholes in those rails means that when they fail, they’re going to spray fuel all over a hot engine – a good recipe for an engine fire. (NOTE – This is NOT the cause of the engine fires that led to the recent MINI recall of turbo-charged models.) In addition, long-term use of ethanol-blended fuel may slowly corrode the injectors on a fuel-injected engine, causing the injectors to pulse more fuel than called for, causing the car to run rich (and reducing fuel economy while increasing pollution emissions), perhaps causing excessive carbon buildup on the pistons and valves, and perhaps poisoning the catalytic converter. Most, if not all, automobile manufacturers will tell you their cars are safe to drive using E-10 fuels, but many will also have a statement buried somewhere in their warranty that states the warranty does not cover damage done to a car when fuels containing more than 10% ethanol are used.

Ethanol also has different solvency behavior than gasoline. It will more readily loosen rust and other debris that would otherwise remain undisturbed in a pure gasoline fuel system. This can plug fuel filters, lines, and injectors. It also more readily attacks and removes plasticizers and resins from some plastic and rubber-based materials that are not affected at all by pure gasoline. And finally, liquid gasoline is not a good conductor of electricity (though a spark will ignite the vapors). Ethanol, however, is a very good electrical conductor, and as a result it promotes galvanic corrosion of metallic parts.

3) Ethanol is hygroscopic. That means ethanol loves water – in fact, likes it so much it will absorb water. That’s what people who used to use “dry gas” during the winter were counting on when they added a small amount of dry gas to each fill up. (NOTE: Adding a full 12-ounce container of dry gas to your MINI tank after filling it with 11 gallons of pure gasoline creates a mix that still consists of more than 99% gasoline – to get a fuel mix in your tank comparable to E-10 would require you to add 12 12-ounce containers of dry gas to your tank every time you filled the tank). Dry gas isn’t seen much anymore because most gasoline sold in this country today is blended with ethanol, and there’s no point in adding a small additional amount of ethanol (or isopropyl alcohol, as some dry gas products did) to a tank of E-10 because it won’t significantly increase the amount of water that is absorbed from the fuel. During the winter, condensation in the fuel tank is a somewhat larger problem than during the summer, which is why dry gas was added to a tank of fuel generally only during winter months.

Today the problem is different. With 10% or even more ethanol in the tank, there’s the ability to absorb more moisture from the atmosphere (or from fuel that’s been contaminated by some water). There is a limit, however, to the amount of water that can be absorbed before what’s called “phase separation” takes place. When there is 10% ethanol in the fuel, that limit is at a ratio of 3 gallons of water per 1000 gallons of fuel (in a MINI tank, that’s about five ounces of water per full tank of fuel).

Phase separation can cause very serious problems. When the amount of water absorbed by ethanol in fuel reaches saturation (about five ounces in your MINI tank), the three-component mix of water/gasoline/ethanol is likely to “phase separate” into two distinct levels of liquids in the tank. On the bottom will be the ethanol and water mixed together, and on top will float the lighter gasoline. The gasoline constituting the upper level will now have a reduced octane rating (perhaps as much as three points lower). If the fuel intake sucks just the now-separated gasoline, it is unlikely significant damage will occur at once. The MINI’s engine management computer can largely mitigate this problem by retarding timing to control detonation (also known as “knocking”) but there will be a noticeable drop in performance and fuel economy as a result. However, if the fuel intake sucks the ethanol/water mix, significant engine problems are extremely likely to result within a very short period of time because the MINI engine is not designed to run on fuel with more than 10% ethanol by volume.

4) Other problems: Possibly unforeseen and unintended consequences of widespread ethanol use include:

  • increased food prices world-wide as millions of bushels of corn in this country (as well as others, such as Brazil) are converted to ethanol instead of being exported, used as feed stock for cattle and hogs, or for the manufacture of domestic food products (corn flakes, corn syrup, etc).
  • increased use of marginally productive land for corn, perhaps increasing the amount of fertilizer and soil runoff that gets into the Mississippi River and extends the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico.
  • increased deforestation in Brazil as that country strives to increase ethanol production to meet growing demand for fuels.

Because there are complex political and social issues related to these unintended consequences of ethanol production, I will not comment further.

What do I take from all of the above?

My personal opinion on ethanol-blended fuels is that I won’t use them in my MINI unless I have absolutely no choice. I don’t believe an occasional tank here or there will lead to long-term problems, but I do believe consistent use of ethanol-blended fuel is a recipe for expensive out-of-warranty repairs to the fuel pump, the fuel lines, the fuel injectors, and perhaps the engine itself. If I were like some owners and leased my MINI, or like some other owners who get a new car shortly after the new-car or extended warranty expires, perhaps I wouldn’t worry about this and I’d just let someone else inherit the problems. However, I already have 100,000 miles on my MINI, and my intent is to keep the car for many more years and many tens of thousands more miles. I feel any premium I pay for pure gasoline the vast majority of the time is a small price to pay to be reasonably sure I don’t end up with very expensive problems caused by using ethanol-blended fuel on a consistent basis.

4 thoughts on “Ethanol in Your Gas by Roger Sitterly

  1. Roger, I think that you and I have discussed this before, but I will reiterate. I have used ethanol as my primary fuel since I first purchased my JCW in 2010. Never a problem, and it has been serviced entirely by Willis. And, I know that they have had it on their computers to see what I have been using for octane level, as part of their service. My fuel mileage has always been in the 37 mpg area on the highway, driving at the 70 mpg range. I’ve never gotten lower than 29 mpg and that was in winter driving. Performance: Last Summer I had the opportunity of having my car put on a dynometer in the Chicago area. Front wheel hp was 201, at the wheels. It has always felt strong to me, feeling more than it’s advertised 208 power rating, as well as torque has always been strong.
    Ever since Gasohol, or our now ethanol, people, especially from the oil industry, have tried to bring all the negatives to the publics attention. I have a saying that I’ve used forever. Follow the dollar. And, I think that this the case here, as well. Was the cost high to produce ethanol back in the early days. Yes, does it cost as much today? No, but will the media publish that fact now? No. Since the early 90′s, ALL automobile companies have faced the fact that we will, at one time or another whether we want to or not, have to use an ethanol product. Some states use it and you will be hard pressed to find it listed on the pump, even if by law it is suppose to be listed. In Texas two years ago, when we were there on vacation, all the grades of gas had ethanol in the gas. Listed? Yes, but in very small print. This is an oil producing state, and they are using it. What does this mean? That we are using at least 10% less oil than we were 40 years ago. I think that this is good, maybe you don’t, but think about the amount of oil savings in the world because we have used 10% less. 15% ethanol, I’m not so sure, but even that in time, might not work out all that bad. And, remember, many cars are set up to run on the E-85. I’m not there yet.

    • Bill – As you say, we’ve discussed the subject of gasohol before, so I won’t re-hash that discussion. However, your post makes several points to which I’d like to respond.

      First, I wrote the article because it seemed at the time the subject came up at a Club meeting that many in the room did not understand what the issues were. It therefore seemed appropriate to put in relatively organized form the fundamental facts concerning ethanol – what ethanol is, the reasons for its use as an oxygenating agent, the potential problems that might arise from its use, etc. The intent was to provide a basic education in the use of ethanol-blended fuels so anyone who read the article could make an informed and intelligent personal choice about the use of ethanol-blended fuels in their MINIs.

      Nothing I wrote was intended to imply that the use of gasohol guarantees having the problems it can cause. I was only pointing out that from both chemical and documented anecdotal evidence there is what I and many others consider to be a significant risk of incurring unnecessary problems. I specifically tried to avoid taking a pro or con stance in the article, though I did say I personally won’t use ethanol-blended fuel in my MINI unless I have absolutely no choice.

      Second, while I made passing reference in the article to possible warranty issues should ethanol-blended fuels be used in a MINI engine, I didn’t quote the specific warranty language. My warranty book (for 2004 – MINI may or may not have changed the language over the years) says (the critical language is the stipulation about types of fuel):

      “This warranty does not cover malfunctions caused by any of the following: accident; flood; misuse; improper adjustment; modification; alteration; tampering; disconnection; improper or inadequate maintenance; use of leaded fuel or fuels containing more than 10% ethanol, or other oxygenates with more than 2.8% oxygen by weight (i.e., more than 15% MTBE or more than 3% methanol plus an equivalent amount of co-solvent).”

      As a side note, I find it instructive that the FAA has prohibited the use of any ethanol-blended fuels in light aircraft as a result of safety issues related to fuel system and engine damage. See FAA Special Airworthiness Bulletin CE-07-06 for details.

      The critical issue for automotive use is that absolutely nobody, anywhere, is testing ethanol-blended fuels at the point they are dispensed to make sure there is no more than 10% ethanol in what’s labeled as e-10 fuel. You have chosen to accept the risk that what you pump into your car’s fuel tank will never have more than 10% ethanol in it; I choose not to accept that risk. We both do so knowing of the risk, and that’s fine. It doesn’t mean either of us is right or wrong.

      Third, you say “we will, at one time or another whether we want to or not, have to use an ethanol product.” That’s not absolutely true. For various reasons, having to do with both politics and chemistry, ethanol has become the most commonly used oxygenating agent in gasoline. However, ethanol is not the only oxygenating agent available.

      Oxygenating agents are generally desirable because virtually no automobile engine will completely oxidize (burn) every molecule of gasoline introduced into the cylinders. Perhaps the car has a dirty air filter, or perhaps too much fuel is being injected because the fuel map is off a bit from a perfect stoichiometric ratio or the injector nozzles are eroded from thousands of miles of injecting gasohol with too much ethanol in it, or perhaps the oxygen sensors are no longer working properly, or perhaps several other causes are at work. Whatever the case, because there is insufficient oxygen present in the cylinder to oxidize (burn) all the fuel completely, various undesirable byproducts (such as carbon monoxide and oxides of nitrogen) are produced. The use of an oxygenating agent promotes a greater degree of complete combustion and thereby reduces the amount of undesirable byproducts.

      Federal law (the 1990 Clean Air Act Amendments) regulates the amount of pollution (in the form of various oxides of nitrogen and carbon monoxide) that is emitted from an automobile but does not specifically require ethanol-blended fuel as a means of complying with the law. As mentioned above, ethanol is not the only oxygenating agent that can be used. The state of California allowed (and many refiners used) methyl tert-butyl ether for several years until it was discovered that MTBE was polluting the state’s groundwater aquifers. Alcohol-based products other than ethanol, such as methanol and butanol, etc. can also be used. The common choice of ethanol has as much to do with politics as it does with any other reason.

      From a purely chemical standpoint, butanol actually makes more sense as an oxygenating agent – it is nearly as energy dense as gasoline (a gallon of gasoline contains 114,000 BTU of energy and a gallon of butanol contains 105,000 BTU of energy while ethanol’s content is only 76,000 BTU per gallon), tolerates water contamination better than ethanol does, is significantly less corrosive than ethanol, and is less subject to phase separation than ethanol. Though butanol can be refined from crude oil, using it as an oxygenating agent in gasoline would require quantities greater than can be produced that way. It therefore must be “bio-butanol” – created from fermentation in much the same was as is ethanol. The difficulty with commercial production of bio-butanol has, so far, centered on isolating butanol molecules from the fermentation process without killing off the organisms necessary for fermentation. In late 2012 a team of research scientists discovered a way to get around this issue, though whether it is economically viable has yet to be proven. Also, while not yet confirmed by hundreds of thousands of miles of testing, it is at least chemically feasible to use a blend of 85% butanol and 15% gasoline in cars designed only for pure gasoline or e-10. That’s not possible with 85% ethanol blends. Butanol can be generated from the same feedstocks as ethanol – corn, corn stover, switch grass, etc.

      Finally, you had your first JCW for about three years. You may or may not keep your current JCW for that length of time. Since the corrosive effects of ethanol-blended fuels are cumulative over time and do not show up immediately (unless you get a tank of e-10 that actually contains significantly more than 10% ethanol), you may in fact simply be passing along to the next owner some potentially expensive repairs. I don’t trade my car every three years as you appear to do; with the exception of a car that got totaled in 1991 when someone ran a red light and hit me, I’ve kept every car I’ve ever owned for a minimum of six years and usually much longer. My MINI is nine years old and because I’m retired and now put only about 6,000 miles on it annually, I fully intend to keep it until I’m too old to drive safely. Therefore, I don’t tempt the fates and I try to avoid unnecessary damage to the car by refraining from doing things I know carry with them what I consider unacceptable levels of risk. The use of ethanol-blended fuels is one such thing.

      You also said you’ve never had a problem with using ethanol-blended fuel in your JCW and that Willis has checked for octane level (I’m assuming you use 91-octane e-10), but you didn’t say anything about them checking for percentage of ethanol. Perhaps you’ve been able to purchase 91-octane e-10 fuel that’s never exceeded 10% ethanol, which is the risk you’ve been taking. You understand the risk, and that’s fine. As I said above, I wrote the article so others could have the same understanding of the risks as do you and I.

  2. Bill, I thought you had to run our mini on premium fuel. My mini is a 1012. I would love to run my mini on ethanol. If you would care to respond on the using ethanol fuel I know nothing about the pros and cons. Thank you Tom

    • Tom – You are correct about the requirement to use premium (91-octane) fuel. The owner’s manual probably makes reference to “91 AKI” or 91 anti-knock index – that’s the same as 91-octane, or premium grade fuel.

      The MINI engine is designed to run on ethanol-blended fuels with up to 10% ethanol but no more than that. In your MINI Warranty and Service Information manual will be something similar to this language (from my 2004 manual):
      “This warranty does not cover malfunctions cause by . . . use of leaded fuel or fuels containing more than 10% ethanol, or other oxygenates with more than 2.8% oxygen by weight (i.e., more than 15% MTBE or more than 3% methanol plus an equivalent amount of co-solvent).”

      There may be stations carrying/selling 91-octane ethanol-blended fuel with no more than 10% ethanol, but I don’t know of any off hand. Bill Sansenbach apparently has found some.

      There seems to be a recurring discussion in the MINI community about using in your MINI what is commonly sold in Iowa as 89-octane e-10. I have three words of advice – DON’T DO IT! In addition to running the risk of getting gasohol with more than 10% ethanol by volume, with all the attendant problems that can cause, you also are forcing the car’s engine management system to keep the timing retarded all the time in order to avoid engine knock (pinging). While the car’s computer has sufficient anti-knock mitigation capabilities that using an occasional tank of 89-octane fuel in an emergency probably won’t do serious damage, the constant use of 89-octane fuel will reduce your gas mileage, reduce the engine’s power output, create more pollution, and ultimately could lead to such nasty and expensive surprises as holes in your pistons from severe detonation.

      Read my article on ethanol in your gas, as well as my response to Bill’s comments on it, for more on the pros and cons of using gasoline with ethanol blended into it. All three are here on the website – go to the “For Long-Term Motoring” tab and click on the link to the article as you probably did to read Bill’s comments initially.

      Roger Sitterly

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Time limit is exhausted. Please reload CAPTCHA.