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What is Ethanol Gas?

By Ken Black
Updated May 17, 2024
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Ethanol gas is a type of fuel made up of a blend of gasoline and ethyl alcohol, which is produced from plant material. In the United States, the most common material used is corn. Some countries, especially those in warmer locations, use sugar instead. The key is to use an agricultural product with a high starch content so that more of the product can be turned into ethanol gas. Fossil fuels blended with ethanol provide a number of benefits.

The most commonly-cited benefits to ethanol gas are the environmental benefits. While it is true that ethanol will not reduce, or do very little to reduce, the amount of carbon dioxide being released during the burning of the fuel, it does have other environmental benefits. The smog that plagued many cities in the past has been virtually eliminated due to cleaner burning fuel supplements such as ethanol gas, which has lower amounts of nitrogen oxide when compared to traditional fossil fuels.

Another benefit of ethanol gas is that it reduces the need for foreign oil that many countries, including the United States, must depend on. By replacing some of the gasoline that is used every day with ethanol, the total amount of oil required is reduced. Ethanol fuel itself likely cannot make a country energy independent, but it can provide some relief to the volatility of the foreign markets. While many countries do not have oil fields from which to draw, most are capable of raising at least one of the crops that can be used for ethanol biofuel.

In most cases, ethanol gas is blended at a rate of 10% ethanol and 90% fossil fuel. This is a standard that nearly every gasoline engine can handle. In some older vehicles and lawn and garden equipment, especially those vehicles and equipment with carburetors, ethanol is not recommended at all.

Some vehicles, known as flex fuel vehicles, can handle as much as an 85% ethanol to gasoline mixture. While flex fuel technology is seen as part of the future, there are very few fueling stations offering ethanol gas at such a high mixture. This is because ethanol is very corrosive and the tanks required to hold the mixture are different than standard gasoline tanks. Most stations cannot justify the expense of putting them in simply because there are not enough flex fuel vehicles on the road.

The future of ethanol gas may not be in using corn or sugar, but in cellulose ethanol. This is ethanol that is made from products that are not normally consumed as food, which is a criticism when using both sugar and corn. Switchgrass, which does not have to be replanted after harvest, is one of the targets of the latest research. Some prototype switchgrass ethanol plants have been built, but these are mainly for research at this point and not commercial development.

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