What’s In Your Gas Tank?

Old_Gas_PumpDo you wonder what the business behind the ethanol movement is? Have you ever wondered what ethanol products are doing to your motorcycle or scooter or even your lawn mower?

After listening to some friends debate the controversy about ethanol, I decided to do some research to discover for myself exactly what the fuss is all about. You might be surprised at the findings, or perhaps you are already in the know about this debate that extends between the camps ranging from those who believe it is going to save the world from the effects of fossil fuels to those who believe it is going to destroy the world and bring about end of times famines as the food crops will be used to replace gasoline. I don’t know about you, but I would prefer to eat than drive. But then, I also drive to eat. In fact, as motorcyclists, we all know too well how eating and riding are directly linked.

First, it is imperative to understand exactly how ethanol is made and what the consequences are for not only our motorcycles, but also the food supply for our nation and those who depend upon us to feed them.

Next, it is also important to understand what this “bio-fuel” is doing to our motorcycles. I did not set out to endorse either camp. It was my true intention to research this topic and deliver the information as I discovered it. Now I will admit that I try not to use ethanol blended gas in my motorcycles, and that I use fuel additives in an attempt to eliminate the harmful side effects of ethanol.

Ethanol is derived from crops that are normally grown for food sources, mostly corn and some sugarcane, but in the future could include rice straw and garbage. According to the US Department of Energy, ethanol is an alcohol-based fuel made through a process using fermentation and distillation. It is essentially grain alcohol (yep, the very stuff you spiked the punch with in college!), which must have additives in order to render it non-potable for human usage. It can also be made from “cellulosic biomass” from some grasses and trees. The theory behind ethanol is that it can reduce our foreign oil dependency and limit greenhouse gas emissions as ethanol is a clean-burning, high-octane fuel. Currently, approximately 75% of the gas we use is a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. They admit that our mileage per gallon is “3-4% fewer miles per gallon” with this ethanol blend.

The two opposing camps’ main arguments are that it is better to have less mileage per gallon and help clean up the planet vs. the climbing prices of gasoline that require us to get as much mileage as possible from each and every gallon we purchase.

There is another major issue with E85 that I will forego for this discussion, except to say that it is 85% ethanol and is used for FFVs, flexible fuel vehicles only. The government admits that this fuel will bring you “a 25–30% drop in miles per gallon due to ethanol’s lower energy content.”

So, what exactly does it cost to manufacture ethanol, and are we really saving our planet? And what is “energy content?”

The push is on to extend the range of ethanol in our gasoline to E15, which is 85% unleaded gasoline and up to 15% ethanol. Model year 2001 and newer cars, light-duty trucks, and medium duty passenger vehicles, and all Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) have been given the approval to use this E85 blend. Other vehicles approved include school buses, transit buses, and delivery trucks. Vehicles and engines NOT eligible to use E85 include ALL motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles, off-road vehicles, and boats. Guess what else is included? Lawn mowers, chain saws, and other small engines.

The proponents for ethanol production claim that the economy will benefit on all levels- local, state, and national, and that jobs will be created helping to reduce the unemployment rate. They also claim that in the communities where ethanol is produced, the crops and processing will propel the economy starting with the farmers who grow the crops and the truck drivers who haul the fuel products. Their numbers are quite impressive: an increase of nearly 20 million dollars annually in household income, 700 permanent jobs nearby for each ethanol plant, and at least a $1.2 million increase in tax revenue for local and state government.

Several years ago, businessweek.com sought to dispel the myths. Breaking down the information in plain, easy to understand language, they reported that there are three theoretical advantages to using ethanol: it can be domestically produced, it burns cleaner than gasoline and it is renewable. While the US is one of two of the largest producers of ethanol, we use corn, and the other Brazil, uses sugarcane. Ethanol presents some problems that those in the “pro camp” choose not to broadcast. Ethanol cannot travel in pipelines because it picks up excess water and impurities. It must be transported by trucks, trains, or boats making it more expensive to transport compared to gasoline. Remember at the beginning of this article, I mentioned that ethanol does not have as much “energy content” as gasoline? That means that it takes more ethanol to fuel your vehicle than gasoline, and that means that it takes more gasoline requiring more frequent trips to the pump and more frequent openings of your wallet. That doesn’t even begin to touch on the energy required to make ethanol. The ethanol “con camps” claim that the process involved to make ethanol is quite exhaustive. The grain most be grown, and that requires gasoline fueled farm equipment. It must be transported and again, that requires gasoline powered vehicles as the big trucks and farm equipment cannot use ethanol fuel. So in essence, we are using more gasoline to produce ethanol which doesn’t take us as many miles as straight gasoline. This causes my head to hurt! To bring it to the point, ethanol requires fossil fuels in order to be manufactured and that is the very point in using ethanol, to end our dependence on fossil fuels and clean up the planet.

According to the guys at “How Stuff Works,” their research found them consulting Cornell University professor of agriculture David Pimentel who claims that producing ethanol does so at a net energy loss. Simply put, to produce the corn and process one gallon of ethanol requires 131,000 BTUs of energy; however, one gallon of ethanol contains only 77,000 BTUs of energy. Now remember we just determined that all that corn requires fossil-fuel-powered equipment for the farmers to produce it? This is not rocket science, but in case you do not know what a BTU is, here you are – it is a British Thermal Unit and is the amount of heat energy required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree F. It is a standard measurement used to measure energy. Now, add the cost to transport the fuel, and it is much more expensive, especially since is in the negative from the point of processing. The fact that it picks up water and other impurities is a red flag to motorcycle owners. If you have never had water in your motorcycle tank, I can tell you from experience that depending upon the amount of water in your tank, your motorcycle will run from poor to worse and could even leave you stranded on the side of the road – which happened to me from getting water in my tank at a gas station. Supposedly, this problem is being addressed and might be overcome soon. But this does not address the problem of producing food for fuel and what this will do to our food production and if it will cause price increases at the grocery store.

In case you are wondering, the AMA opposed increases in the ethanol level allowed in gasoline. They support the use of cleaner-burning fuels, but have a concern for gasoline with more than 10% ethanol. Using more than 10% ethanol in your motorcycle could cause your bike’s warranty to be voided. Even worse, it could cause your motorcycle to sustain premature engine damage and degradation in performance, as well as failure.

Ethanol also encourages the sludge in your fuel tank to loosen. The particles could then land in your filters and lines, and cause significant damage, especially to carburetor jets and fuel injectors.

Motorcycles that are not frequently ridden pose the most danger. An additional problem is encountered where the rubber meets the product. Ethanol causes older rubber compounds to break down and corrodes steel and aluminums. I saw this problem with my two-year-old push lawn mower. The ethanol blended gasoline I used sat in the tank from one season to the next. The plastic gas tank developed a hole and my mower was rendered useless. A plastic gas tank is relatively inexpensive to fix on a lawn mower, but the rubber, steel and aluminum parts on my motorcycle are not so inexpensive to fix.

In order to keep your motorcycle in tip-top shape, you should have the gaskets, seals and rubber fuel lines replaced when your motorcycle reaches about 10 years old or sooner if your ethanol usage is heavy. You should replace the fuel filters and/or screens as well. I just had my Harley-Davidson petcock replaced as well as the screen and some other parts. The bike was running “ragged” and was having “breathing” problems. Don’t allow your tank to go completely to empty as the sludge at the bottom will be pulled through the system. You may also choose to add fuel additives to your gasoline, which my mechanic advised me to do – thus causing this very interest in ethanol usage. There are several on the market. Check with your mechanic for the best product for your machine.

If you are concerned for our planet and believe that ethanol is the way to go, then by all means purchase ethanol. If you are concerned about using ethanol in your motorcycle and prefer pure gas, there is an app for that. You can check your area and those where you travel to find ethanol-free fuel. Unfortunately for those of us who have Droids, the app is currently for iPhones. The app for the Droid is in the making, so hang tight. You can search for pure gas at http://www.pure-gas.org/. The download is available there.

Happy motoring!

photo – http://commons.wikimedia.org/

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