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Ethanol has been blended with gasoline for years now in a fuel typically called E10 (which is made with 10 percent ethanol). E15 could soon become the new norm if, as industry experts predict, the U.S. reaches the "blend wall" and changes come soon.
What's this blend wall term that's tossed around in the corn fields of this country? Basically, ethanol demand is maxed out at the current 10 percent blend rate and production has hit a ceiling. So, unless either gas demand increases or the blend rate goes up, there's just no need for any more ethanol at the pump.

Four straight months of record-breaking ethanol production has led to an oversupply of the gasoline additive and a sharp decrease in prices, as is usually the case when supply exceeds demand. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has an answer to falling prices that could make farmers happy and it's a simple controversial one: increase the blend rate. According to economists with the USDA, the blend wall is drawing close and the future of the ethanol industry now rests in the hands of the Environmental Protection Agency, which holds the power to increase ethanol content in gasoline up to 15 percent.

We see an even easier solution that would be utilized in most other industries and it boils down to simple economics. If production exceeds demand, stop making so much. We think we're on to something here. Maybe we could fix the ethanol problem by buying more gas. How's that sound for a really ingenious dumb solution?

[Source: DomesticFuel | Image: Drewzhrodague - C.C. License 2.0]


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  • 42 Comments
      • 4 Years Ago
      It's just sad that the EPA has this much power.

      10% is pretty much the limit for older cars but the newer post 96 and newer cars plus the older but OBDII cars can go up to an unusable maximum of 50% Ethanol and 50% Gasoline before a CELL error. I'm sure that most people would prefer the return of 100% Gasoline.

      Ethanol is an emission issue to the EPA. Pure Ethanol cars would pass the emissions testing without most of the modern emission systems save an EGR system. Methanol has been rejected as it's even more toxic than Ethanol. You remember that debate about Ethanol being claimed to be more deadly than Gasoline? They were mentioning the formalhydride emissions from Ethanol, Methanol is toxic not just irritating to the lungs like Ethanol.

      There should be more focus on increasing E85 vehicles and increasing E85 supply not the Gasoline/Ethanol mix. It needs more focus on building fuel efficient E85 cars. This means turbos, high compression, direct injection, comprehensive ECU tunes. Using Flexfuel to keep V6 and V8 sales going is a joke, these people won't run E85, they'll get even worse MPG than they usually do and you know MPG is everything. The kw per mile is a much better system even better than Gallons per 100miles. 40mpg with Gasoline is 840 watts per mile. 30mpg with Ethanol is 750 watts per mile, 50mpg with Diesel is 812 watts per mile. I could of given same MPG but those are respectable numbers for each engine to get. Diesel has 18% more heat energy per gallon than Gasoline. Ethanol has 67% the energy content of Gasoline and Gasoline has 1.5x the energy content of Ethanol while Diesel has 1.8x the heat energy content of Ethanol. Yay for Lower Level Heat values.

      One bit of terminology problem, Ethanol production isn't measure in efficiency because it produces more than one unit in return. Gasoline is 89% Efficient, Ethanol produces a bit over 1:1 but Efficiency is never more than 99% that's a mistake called overunity, it doesn't exist for certain processes and system because of how energy is used. You can gain usable energy but you never really create more energy. The Energy discussion of 1.66 units output from 1 unit input number includes energy credits for corn mash, carbon dioxide, and other co-products. So the input-output is moot as it mostly turns Coal and Natural Gas energy into a transport fuel. Sugar Cane gets 8:1 because the fuel stock is mostly recovered from the Cane stocks after the sugar is removed. Corn is a first generation biofuel and it's been in stage 1 since Henry Ford built the Model T to be a flex fuel car. Gasoline, Diesel, Electric, and Alcohol cars were developed around the turn of the century and Gasoline has always been cheaper but the worse fuel source aside from the range advantage over Alcohol especially in early era engines with low compression, 4.5:1 Compression Ratio ugh.
      • 4 Years Ago
      More unintended consequences of our ludicrous Farm Bill. Instead of asking the question "What should we be growing for our food and biofuel?" we've come to "We can grow lots of corn, so let's continue to engineer new and unnecessary products (which are cheap since we subsidize corn so heavily) in greater quantities to justify the corn subsidies." Stop the madness.

      The Farm Bill needs to be rewritten to go back to growing real varieties of food for people and grass for livestock and decide what is best to make biofuel from instead of starting with corn and soy and jamming everything into that mold.

      What we have hear is big agribusiness pushing to get a 50% increase in ethanol mandated to justify their continued subsidy.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Not yet mentioned is the damage to engines a high ethanol blend can create. Some engines are damaged at 10% blend. Lawnmowers, marine engines, leaf blowers and other smaller gas engines tend to have less tolerance for ethanol than automobile engines. Also ethanol can pool or stratify inside the storage tank at a service station causing some tankfulls to receive a higher concentration than the 10% overall average in the mix. When an engine gets the higher mix it can be damaging. Several times and you need a new engine. With a 15% blend the potential engine damage is just that much higher. There is a reason why manufacturers are resistent to ethanol in gas, the engine manufacturer has to warranty the engines, not the farmers or ethanol suppliers.

      Bob is right regarding the food versus fuel issue which is equally or even more important.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Then just make ethanol compatibility a required standard, and let attrition and time weed out gasoline-only engines.
      • 4 Years Ago
      "What gets corroded anyway? .. fuel tanks? rubber hoses? everything?"

      I'm not sure about much older cars, but I've run my '97 35000 mi on E85 with only a change in injectors without a problem. I haven't seen any corrosion in the fuel system components yet, and the car has just under 200,000mi on it total.
      harlanx6
      • 4 Years Ago
      Hey, you can always make booze! Seriously, raising ethanol content in fuel would tend to relax demand for oil. The obvious stakeholders here are the oil companies who must be lobbying earnestly to stop this move since there is obviously NO SHORTAGE OF OIL! OK, Feds, your move! Do you serve BIG OIL, or do you serve the best interest of the country. We are watching you, and an election is coming soon!
        • 4 Years Ago
        @harlanx6
        Mark_BC,

        When you did your calculations, did you account for all of the outputs of producing ethanol, or just the ethanol itself? Because ethanol isn't the only output of the distilling process, there is also corn mash that is put back into the food cycle.

        If you are assigning ALL of the energy inputs to just the ethanol output, you are making a large math error. Because you would essentially be saying that the corn mash somehow gets created out of thin air without the need of any energy input at all.

        Please redo your math and distribute all the energy inputed to all of the products that are the output and let us know what you come up with.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @harlanx6
        I'm betting sugarcane doesn't grow very well in North America.

        Oil takes a hell of a lot of energy to make too.

        I'd be supportive of ethanol & would be ready to convert my car to e100 if we figured out a good way to produce the stuff. Right now it's a joke..
        • 4 Years Ago
        @harlanx6
        "From my rudimentary research, you need 1 gallon of oil equivalent to make 2 gallons of ethanol."

        The key weasel word is "equivalent".. today's plants use 1 gallon of oil to produce 10-20 gallons of ethanol (depending on the age and tech of the plant), and that includes the fuel used to run the tractors and combines.. otherwise you would not be able to sell ethanol so cheaply (before tax credits are accounted).. look up the wholesale cost of ethanol. This cost is bound to keep decreasing.

        The whole point is to displace the importation of oil, and to locally make the fuel. Forget about CO2.
        • 4 Years Ago
        @harlanx6
        I wonder how the life cycle fossil fuel use necessary to produce a gallon of ethanol negates the reductions in demand for oil at the pump. From my rudimentary research, you need 1 gallon of oil equivalent to make 2 gallons of ethanol. This is for natural gas to make the synthetic fertilizers, and of course all the machinery, refining, and transport. This compares with something like 1 to 10 with Brazilian sugarcane, which is much more efficient.
      • 4 Years Ago
      One more side effect: built in scrappage plan.

      Older cars were not built to handle this much ethanol. And the effects of the corrosion from ethanol build up over time. As it could ruin the fuel system of an older car (which could cost more than the car is worth to replace), it would take more older (generally less fuel efficient) cars off of the road... We just need to make sure that emissions testing is strict enough to prevent the cars with damaged fuel systems from polluting the air...
        • 4 Years Ago
        Some of us kinda like our old cars/motorcycles and can't afford to replace what is necessary. The only option we'd have is to not drive them anymore and that's no good...
        • 4 Years Ago
        Yeah :|.. This is what i don't like about it.

        I just think it's a travesty because there are a lot of older fuel efficient cars ( hondas/toyotas in particular ) that this could potentially ruin.

        What gets corroded anyway? .. fuel tanks? rubber hoses? everything?
      • 4 Years Ago
      I'd prefer no ethanol in my gas... It reduces MPG and doesn't reduce the cost at the pump...
        • 4 Years Ago
        The existence of biofuels, according to Merril Lynch and as reported in the Wall Street Journal, reduced the price of petroleum by up to 15% during the last oil spike, resulting in enormous savings to the tune of tens of billions for consumers.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Exactly... and this may also interfere with older cars more than it already does.

        You also pay to heavily subsidize the stuff with your tax money.

        Energy independence, American style... kinda sucks right now.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Oil is more heavily subsidized than ethanol.

        Does the government give farmers millions upon millions of acres to use for free? No but they do give hundreds of thousands of square miles away (practically) for free for oil and natural gas exploration.

        How cheap would corn be if they got to use the land for free for the past 100 years?
      • 4 Years Ago
      There is, of course another way to increase ethanol buying capacity and thus demand: mandate that all new cars sold in America be fully flex-fueled, able to run not just E10 or E15, but E85 and even E100. This technology is reliable and cheap, costing automakers about $100 per car to add, $130 total if you throw in compatibility with (ultra-cheap) methanol and other alcohol fuels as well.

      Making cars flex-fuel neatly sidesteps the backlash potential of E15 on two fronts. People complain about E15 because they either just have a mulish or cussed opposition to being told what to buy, even if it's good for them (see fluoridation of water, auto insurance, and most recently health insurance). OR they oppose E15 because of fears that their older cars will not be able to handle the extra ethanol.

      But if you focus on cars going forward and make them able to handle even pure ethanol, or the even more corrosive methanol, you leave current drivers alone and make fears about alcohol fuel increasingly a non-issue as each year goes by.

      Even more importantly, moving to E85 and M85 will make a difference, environmentally, economically, and geo-strategically, in a way that going from E10 to E15 never could.

      Not only easier to accomplish, but far more beneficial. Why can't those geniuses in the ethanol industry and ethanol lobby figure this out?
        • 4 Years Ago
        Who cares if you use more ethanol than gasoline to go the same distance? Ethanol is much cleaner, breaks the OPEC monopoly that so damages our economy, and doesn't fund terror. It's worth it.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Because ethanol is heavily subsidized and contains less power per gallon, thus you use more of it.

        The question is more like.. how much money does uncle sam wanna put in your tank? :p

        We need a MUCH better way to make ethanol before we start pushing it further.
      • 4 Years Ago
      Corn has taken over other grains for use in livestock feeds, even though it's less nutritious and less healthy for the animals. Now corn is going to take over gasoline even though it's energy density is lower? We need to ween farmers off of corn and onto better crops.
        • 4 Years Ago
        It is the time of year to see if you can still buy a local CSA share. Start with your own food choices. Buy organic milk. Check out localharvest.org. My veggie deliveries start in a few weeks.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Do you care more about energy density...

        ... or about clean air and water, preventing any more economy-crushing oil shocks (1973, 1979, 2008), and de-funding terrorism and related extremism?
        • 4 Years Ago
        I believe it's also a double subsidy..

        Corn is subsidized here, so we see a lot of high fructose corn syrup in everything due to it being cheaper than sugar.

        And then ethanol blending is subsidized..
      • 4 Years Ago
      I wonder if anyone cares about the Africans who are starving because we are using our excess corn to power cars instead of giving it to them. Why care about starving people when there is "sustainability" to worry about? Especially when ethanol is actually WORSE for the environment than gas.

      What's more "green" than making people starve to promote a feel good activity that doesn't actually help the environment? What perfect example of the hypocrisy of the global warming religion.
      • 4 Years Ago
      So its time to cut the corn subsidy. Or alter it to give additional subsidy to promote bio-diesel production.
      • 4 Years Ago
      We also have to remember that using corn based ethanol interferes with food supply and the price of corn. We shouldn't be using food for fuel. There are other ways to produce ethanol (from cellulose and eventually algae). We should focus on those instead because they do not interfere with the food supply and, in the case of cellulosic ethanol, it uses waste products which would otherwise be discarded.
        • 4 Years Ago
        I suggest The Omnivore's Dilemma by Michael Pollan be your next book. It's a good read on other merits, but is also very informative about our nation/world's corn dilemma. The fact is, the reason we make ethanol out of corn is because we make so much that we don't know what else to do with it. Ethanol is just one of many ways to use the surplus of corn that we grow every year.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Bob,

        No, we need to repeatedly DEBUNK the fallacy that using corn to make ethanol has any significant impact on food crops. Here is just a short list of reasons why:

        1) The corn used to brew ethanol isn't taken out of the food chain, it is only delayed for a bit before being put right back in the food chain. One of the by-products of making ethanol is corn mash which is fed to cattle. If the corn mash didn't exist, the same corn used to make ethanol would have to be grown anyways to replace the corn mash. So there is actually very little net loss of corn from the food chain.

        2) The corn used to make ethanol isn't the same grade as the corn you see on your dinner plate. There is no such thing as diverting corn off of your dinner plate to make ethanol. They are two completely different crops.

        3) There is no shortage in farmland in the United States. Farmers are paid to keep land fallow.

        4) The rise and fall in food costs in recent years DO NOT in any way what-so-ever corrolate with ethanol production. Since the last food commodity bubble, food costs have dropped while ethanol production has gone up. The Food commodity bubbles are linked directly to Speculators who have been allowed to treat the commodity market the same way they treated the stock market, the real estate derivatives market, the oil market, etc. Commodity prices have had very little to do with actual producers and consumers, but due to large Speculative manipulations of these markets by people who profit greatly from playing the boom/bust cycles against our interests.
        • 4 Years Ago
        The production of fuel ethanol from corn in the United States is controversial for a few reasons. Production of ethanol from corn is 5 to 6 times less efficient than producing it from sugarcane. Ethanol production from corn is highly dependent upon subsidies and it consumes a food crop to produce fuel.

        Ethanol contains approx. 34% less energy per unit volume than gasoline, and therefore in theory, burning pure ethanol in a vehicle will result in a 34% reduction in miles per US gallon, given the same fuel economy, compared to burning pure gasoline.
        • 4 Years Ago
        Corn is not a very good food for people or cows, unfortunately it(high fructose corn syrup) is in almost everything we eat.
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