The truth about ethanol

If you read some propaganda out there, ethanol is the ultimate fuel.  It’s made from a renewable source, it’s good for the environment, and it’s cheaper to put into your tank.  But what is the truth about ethanol?  Is it really better for the environment than gasoline?  Is it really cheaper to use?  Why do street racers use E85 as their fuel of choice for making big power?  This article separates the wheat from the chaff and attempts to give you the facts about ethanol and whether or not it’s really everything that environmentalists would have you believe about it.

It’s good for the environment

Let’s touch on the big one first.  According to the United States Energy Information Administration (the propaganda arm of the Department of Energy) “Ethanol can reduce pollution“.  The truth is that ethanol usage is proving to cause MORE and not LESS pollution in spite of reduced emissions.  Wait… whut?  In real world studies, the use of ethanol in fuel has resulted in an increase of pollution rather than a reduction.  A study conducted in São Paulo, Brazil in 2014 showed that when the percentage of those vehicles using gasoline rose from 14% to 76%, ambient ozone (smog) concentrations in the city fell by about 20%.  The ethanol fuel available in São Paulo is E100… or 100% ethanol.  Now, I realize that this information is not readily available here in the United States because it goes against the mainstream groupthink… but you can read the study for yourself here.

So, why do they say that ethanol is a cleaner fuel?  No large scale pollution studies have been conducted here in the United States that can attribute the rise or fall of smog levels to ethanol usage; however, even the US Energy Information Administration acknowledges on their website that evaporating methanol does contribute significantly to low-level ozone (smog) creation; however they also state that the ozone created by evaporating ethanol can be controlled and limited. São Paulo was a unique laboratory because of their almost exclusive use of 100% ethanol, so a change to gasoline could show a measurable impact that can be directly attributed to gasoline/ethanol usage.  What US researchers have been relying on to make the statement that ethanol is a cleaner fuel is the actual emissions from individual vehicle tailpipes.  What they ignore is that vehicles that are simply parked without running are actually contributing to the creation of smog because the ethanol sitting in their tanks is evaporating.  

The primary byproducts of burning ethanol are carbon dioxide (a pollutant if you ask the EPA, and food if you ask a plant), carbon monoxide, water, formaldehyde (essentially the same stuff we use to preserve dead frogs in a jar), acetaldehyde, plus benzene and butadiene.  A study by atmospheric scientists at Stanford University found that a complete conversion to E85 fuel would increase the risk of air pollution deaths relative to gasoline by 9% in Los Angeles 1.  With regard to the carbon dioxide, it is postulated that the carbon dioxide released by burning ethanol is effectively carbon neutral due to the fact that the plants used to make the ethanol use carbon dioxide to grow; however, no definitive studies have ever been conducted to determine whether this claim is actually true.

So, bottom line is that there is absolutely zero proof that ethanol use is actually good for the environment and several studies in addition to the São Paulo study that would suggest that ethanol usage and production may be even more harmful to both the environment and to world food production as more and more farmland is converted to growing crops to support an ever growing ethanol industry.

We’re gonna run out of oil soon!

Not really.  According to the Department of Energy, we have barely tapped our resources.  Some estimates put oil depletion (accounting for our increased use of oil resources every year) at about 1000 years… where other studies put that depletion point at 250 years.

The fact is that even at our current rate of consumption, which is the highest it has ever been, we will not consume all of our oil resources for a very long time.  Because of alternative energy sources and our continued transition away from oil, we may never actually ever run out of oil.

Using ethanol is cheaper than using pure gasoline

Actually, this one can be verified by anyone.  Pure gasoline produces 114,100 BTU (British Thermal Units) of energy per gallon, E10-111,836 BTU, E85-81,800 BTU, E100-76,100 BTU.  What this means is that the more ethanol that goes into our gasoline, the less bang per gallon we get.  In order to get the same level of energy out of ethanol enhanced fuels, we have to use more of it.  In spite of the fact that ethanol is subsidized by the government, which brings the price of ethanol added fuels down, the price difference is not enough to offset the increased fuel usage that results from trying to reach an air/fuel balance that will produce the same power levels.

In real world testing, running E85 results in an average of a 30% decrease in miles per gallon.  The average cost of E85 is only about 10% lower than regular gasoline.  What this means is that it will cost you roughly 20% more to use E85 than it does E10 (the typical gasoline you find in gas pumps across the country).

The image to the left was extracted from the US Department of Energy’s website and illustrates the typical loss of fuel economy of a modern flex fuel car.  The older generation of flex fuel cars were/are not nearly as efficient as the newer generations and will typically get even lower fuel mileage on E85.  What the website hides is the fact that not only are these vehicles getting worse gas mileage, but they are also losing real world HP as well.

What does this mean to you?  Even though E85 costs less per gallon to pump into your tank, you will be using much more fuel because of the lower energy of ethanol, which means more fillups.  This is not much different than walking into a dealership and telling the salesperson what you want to pay per month without worrying about how long you are going to pay.  At the end of the day, you’ll end up spending a lot more for a car in interest than if you had simply paid cash for it.

Why is E85 the fuel of choice for street racers?

Although E85 has less energy than gasoline per gallon, it does have some desirable qualities for those who are interested in squeezing every ounce of potential power out of their engines.  Primarily the advantage that ethanol has over gasoline is higher octane levels.  Typically the octane level of E85 runs somewhere between 100 to 105 octane. The reason for the range is that E85 is not really 85% ethanol and the levels fluctuate depending on the location and the time of year you purchase it.  What E85 means is that you can have up to 85% ethanol in your fuel… just like E10 means that you can have up to 10% ethanol in your fuel… but the fuel may not have that much ethanol in it.  As a result, the actual octane level of E85 fluctuates.  If you don’t know what octane is and what it does, please take a moment to read about octane in this article.

Octane in gasoline is generally increased using an additive called methylcyclopentadienyl manganese tricarbonyl (MMT). MMT in of itself isn’t really an expensive additive, but once it’s added to the fuel, that’s pretty much it.. the octane level is increased and the cost of the fuel goes up… not so much because of the cost of the MMT additive; rather, it’s because car manufacturers make cars to run on the cheaper/lower octane fuels.  What this means is that less high octane gas is sold, and through a process of supply and demand, the cost of higher octane fuels goes up.  When you start getting above octane levels of 91 or 93 (depending on what part of the country you are in), fuel costs go up even more because demand for even higher octane fuel goes down even more.  So while you can get 100 or even 105 octane unleaded race gas, you have to go to a specialty outfit or a racetrack to get it and you will pay through the nose for it.

Because E85 is subsidized by the government, it costs less than even regular (87 octane) gas and you get the benefit of higher octane.  It is readily available in most parts of the country which means that you don’t have to go to a racetrack to get it.  And lastly, because alcohol (ethanol) evaporates very quickly, it has a cooling effect on the air charge which means that it makes the air being sucked into the engine that much more compressible.  Tuners can take advantage of the higher octane and cooler charge temperatures to aggressively tune the timing and (if equipped) boost to maximize power output.  The downside to this is that you have to increase the fuel flow to match the additional air being pulled into the engine which means your gas mileage is sacrificed to make big power.

So, if you are a gearhead interested in making big power, E85 can be a magic elixir.  It’s cheaper to run than race gas and it’s widely available.  The downside to running E85 as a power adder is that it will require much more modification to your fuel system to run it as well as changing over to an aftermarket ECU since the Hyundai OEM ECU will not accommodate the fuel sensor you will have to run to detect the actual ethanol level that is being pumped into your engine.

What do I have to do to run E85?

This is really what you wanted to know, right?  Currently, Hyundai has no Flex Fuel vehicles in their line up (I include Genesis with Hyundai).  What this means is that no Hyundai vehicle is designed nor is easily converted to use ethanol in concentrations greater than 15%.  Hyundai has recently come forward with a statement that E15 will not void the warranty on your engine; however, the loss in mileage will be greater than the fuel savings you get from using E15 gasoline.

So, to properly run E85 on your Hyundai, you will have to replace the ECU (electronic control unit) to be able to run an aftermarket ECU that will accept inputs from a flex fuel sensor.  Because E85 is not guaranteed to contain 85% (or any other quantity) ethanol everywhere and every time you purchase it, you really need to have a flex fuel sensor that can sense how much ethanol is coming through the fuel line.  Option B is to run a “piggyback” ECU.. that is an ECU that only handles fuel management.  Option B is the only option for those who are running automatic transmissions since the ECU and TCU are mated and the ECU cannot be replaced.  Be warned, there are no piggyback ECUs for the 3.8 that are plug and play.  Any piggyback modification will be a custom wiring job… and there are a LOT of wires.

Now, I realize that there are those out there that say that you can safely run E85 if you can flash your fixed tune to match the ethanol content in your car.  This is true.  Handheld ethanol testers do exist and you can test the fuel going into your car to see how much ethanol it actually contains, and you can, if you have it, flash the appropriate tune on to your ECU to match it.  The problem with this method is that you have to run your tank down to empty each time you fill up.  Mixing different levels of ethanol in your tank is going to change the ethanol level in your tank.  It doesn’t matter what you put in the tank, it matters what is going into your engine.  The second problem with this method is that it does not account for evaporation.  Ethanol evaporates much faster than gasoline… which means that over time the ethanol level in your tank will drop simply by sitting there.  Again, it’s not important what you put in, it’s important what goes into your engine.  All this means that you really need to be able to test the ethanol level in your tank… but because all major car manufacturers have added anti fuel theft screens that prevent someone from siphoning fuel from your tank, there is realistically no way to get a sample to test once you pump it in.  In other words, at any given point in time, your tune is not going to match the ethanol levels that you are pumping into your engine.  This can lead to a reduction of power output (if the tune pumps too much fuel into the car) or it can lead to catastrophic failure of the engine due to the air/fuel mixture being too lean.  Don’t put much credence into the rationale “Nothing bad ever happened to me”… if someone is walking around with a bomb strapped to their chest and it hasn’t gone off doesn’t mean it won’t… it just hasn’t yet.

Once you get past the fuel control issues, your task is still not quite done.  Because you have to pump far more fuel into your cylinders than your fuel system was designed to pump… this means going bigger with your fuel pump and your fuel injectors.  There are no BK2 aftermarket options for fuel injectors for the BK2 3.8 or 2.0T.  What this means for you BK2 owners is that you will have to get your OEM injectors bored out to spray more fuel.

So… now that you’ve done all that, you’re ready to pump in the E85, right?  Not so fast there, Hoss!  You still have to get a tune.  The price of the tune is going to vary according to the tuner and the tuning method.  It may cost as little as $250 (some guy in an alley with a trench coat) or as much as $1000-$2000 for a custom tune.

Nobody said an E85 conversion would be easy or cheap.  Is it worth it?  Now, that’s a question you have to answer for yourself.  Can you make big power using E85?  Yes.  Are there alternatives that don’t require as much modification?  Yes.  Is it cheaper to put in your tank?  Yes, if your only unit of measure is how much you spend each time you are at the pump and ignore how many trips to the gas station you will have to make… No if you are actually looking at how much you spend on fuel in a year. Is running E85 cleaner than gasoline?  It depends on who you ask and what is being measured as “pollution”.  On a positive note, we are not extracting as much liquefied dinosaur out of the ground because ethanol is a renewable energy source.  Is E85 available across the country…. uh… No.  Is E85 the fuel of the future?  No… electrically powered cars are the cars of the future.  They use no fuel and sometime in the future will be powered by sunlight and rainbows.  In the meantime, you still have to figure out if E85 is worth the cost for more power.

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About the author: Bob

I am a 21 year retired Army veteran with a background as a CH-47 helicopter Flight Engineer. For the past 5 years I have been a Genesis Coupe enthusiast and am currently a Moderator and Contributor for Forums, author of the "The Ultimate Genesis Coupe Newbie Guide to Modding", and the "Ask a Geek" sub-forum. Additionally, I am an administrator and event organizer for GenSport United as well as several other groups on Facebook. While I do not pretend to know all things with regard to the Genesis Coupe, I have dedicated a substantial effort to learn as much as I can and share it with whoever will listen.

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