Comment: Forget war, boycott it across the board

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Forget war, boycott it across the board

Ethanol is absolutely one of the most insidious concoctions to hit the energy market. But once again, there are many sides to the whole store and unless you do fair and unbiased research, you'll either hate it for the wrong reasons or love it or ignorantly support it. Either way, almost all public opinions on it leave out some factors. Here's what I know. It may be randomly organized, so my apologies prior.

Just like climate change, drilling for oil, the electric grid and some others, ethanol has spin propaganda flowing freely from both competing sides. This has obfuscated the facts horribly.

Subsidies in the farm industry have wiped out the free market, enslaved poor countries and vastly distorted the food chain. With the impending energy crisis of '03-04, the radical environmentalists pushed for ethanol because, hey, Henry Ford designed his original engine to run on it. They hat not done any current math yet.

Enter Bush and Cheney and we get mandates for way too much. Meanwhile, in the trenches, car manufacturers had just caught up with the changes needed to accept 10% ethanol. Now, there would be a push for E85 and more. They cite Brazil as a working business model but forget to note that Brazil feedstocks ethanol with sugar cane. Sugar cane yields much more energy return for the energy spent acquiring it. It's EROEI is 8:1 as opposed to the US, corn-based ethanol EROEI of 1.29:1. So, we have an energy loser (in ideal measurements) that's being subsidized. Now the farmers begin switching over to growing corn to cash in. Subsidies change all over the place and it becomes profitable overall, but in the meantime, other crops are displaced. The market is really screwed up.

Meanwhile, the engines get redesigned to handle various mixtures and we even get flex-fuel vehicles. The changes made early on were to deal with early rotting of rubber hoses and diaphragms. One example for those saying this wasn't the case was a thin diaphragm used in Ford's Variable Ventury carburetor of 1983+ vintage 351 Windsors. When a user would begin using E10, that diaphragm would get a pinhole within weeks. I personally changed nearly 150 of them in that first year alone. Later changes were to accomodate less lubrication (all alcohols clean precious oil off cylinder walls and valve stems prematurely). Unfortunately, the hidden problem wouldn't show for many more years because it's often diagnosed incorrectly. Gasoline octane ratings are generally lower than ethanol. Computers tune the spark timing advance to whatever advance the fuel can handle without knock (pre-ignition). Unfortunately, this is done after the fact. A vibration sensor (knock sensor) measures when knock occurs and retards the timing a little. When it gets enough, they leave the max advance there for a while before re-checking it. Here's where the problem comes in. Ethanol does not stay mixed perfectly with gas. In addition to it adsorbing water (more later), it sends the engine batches of high, then low octane within seconds of each other. If (and that's the key word), if the timing was just re-checked on fuel that didn't knock and was advanced more, it may take 2-20 seconds before it notices the engine is beating itself to death. If left unchecked, knock can break things, but most often, it rounds the edges of valves and softens their stems, allowing them to bend easily. It can soften rings so they wear faster and even melt them. In extreme cases (like the Plymouth Horizon) it regularly melts the tops of pistons.

Mechanics that say ethanol does no harm are industry trained lapdogs that have never done any extensive research on their own and probably don't know much about metallurgy.

Back on the energy content question. Pure ethanol has an octane rating of 112 while gas varies around 89-94 (without additives). Increasing the octane allows the computer to get more power by increasing timing as I mentioned above. However, ethanol has 80% of the energy content of gas. But it doesn't end there. Ethanol adsorbs water which not only drops energy content more, it extracts energy to deal with the water. On top of that, we can't forget that it still does this in batches. One second, your fuel is pure gas. The next, it's 8% ethanol and 4% water. The next, it's 10% ethanol and 90% gas. This keeps the computer constantly hunting all over the place to balance mixture, EGR, air injection and timing with air flow. The result is that on one tank of gas, you can get 26 mpg while another you can get 22. This is why the fight over gas gauge accuracy in the 80's got killed once again. I fear we will never have a gauge that says 10.84 gallons left. The best you'll get is "half tank".

And lastly, we return to EROEI. With a US value of 1.29:1 (that's getting 29% more energy out than you put in making and refining the stuff), it's barely even worth the effort. When you include the engine issues above, the resulting EROEI is far less than 1:1. (Remember that under 1:1 is like spending $100 to earn $99, but as you drop down further, it gets exponentially bad. It's a divide-by-zero thing.) The estimated final ratio for the average end user in the average car over the average season (all variable factors here), is that we get just over 70% of the energy back that we initially put in. Basically, we spend billions to waste 30% of that original gasoline we mixed it with.

I completely agree with the OP on all the points shown. Now that most of the hidden issues are out, we can all discuss the topic from sound facts, not industry propaganda.