Ethanol-Based Gasoline in Newer Cars: What You Need to Know

Updated on January 20, 2018
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My passion for automobiles and engines started as a hobby and has since become my work.

A businessman fills up his new car with E15 at a local gas station.
A businessman fills up his new car with E15 at a local gas station.

By now, you have probably heard a few different arguments both for and against the utilization of ethanol based fuel in your car. What is the truth behind the hype, where is the science going, and most importantly – what does this mean for you and your newer car?

What Is Ethanol?

Ethanol is a fuel made from ethyl alcohol – the same type of alcohol used for alcoholic beverages. It is commonly distilled from plant sources such as corn, grain, grass, and sugar but can also be made from discarded newspaper and other organic substances. As a fuel for your vehicle, it is commonly blended into standard gasoline at about ten percent volume (E10). However, more gas stations are offering higher ethanol content fuels such as 15 percent (E15) and 85 percent (E85).

As legislation continues to be amended and ethanol becomes a more popular fuel choice across the country, we will begin to see higher-percentage blends at gas pumps.

Ready to dive in? Depending on your car’s manufacturer and the year of its build, you might be all-systems-go to try E15 gasoline in your tank today.

Ethanol Improves Engine Performance

Ethanol on its own has a much higher octane rating than normal gas. This means that if you choose to use higher blends of ethanol gasoline, the performance of your car may improve dramatically in the areas of horsepower and torque. Fuels blended with ethanol burn cleaner and cooler, helping your engine to run more efficiently.

Since ethanol is higher in octane than petroleum gas, it can help you achieve better vehicle performance by increasing horsepower. While more horsepower used to be a key indicator that you would be paying more at the pumps, this is no longer the case. An ethanol-rich fuel blend often costs significantly less than premium petroleum-based fuels.

As for overall power, ethanol cools the air/fuel blend on intake, giving it a higher density when the spark hits which results in more power. This also has the added benefit of a cooler-running engine, which can result in fewer overheating issues.

After switching to a 15-percent ethanol, 98 octane fuel blend, NASCAR has noted an increase in horsepower, fewer emissions and cooler-running engines. Reports indicate an increase of about ten percent horsepower over the fuel they were previously using.

Ethanol advocates love that a higher concentration gives them more horsepower. Since 2007, Indy cars run on one hundred percent ethanol, proving the fuels’ high performance capabilities and reliability on the professional driving circuit. The switch to ethanol in their open-wheel cars paid dividends in better mileage, allowing them to reduce the size of their fuel tanks from 30 gallons to 22 gallons in their current configuration.

Is Your Car Approved to Run on Ethanol?

According to a recent study, 80 percent of new vehicles sold today are approved to run on E15 gasoline. In 2012 the government approved the use of E15 gasoline in any vehicle made after 2001, though not all manufacturers were on board at the time.

Today, the majority of vehicles made by GM, Chrysler, Ford, Honda, Volkswagen, Toyota, Land Rover and Jaguar are manufactured and approved for the use of E15 gasoline. The Mini is the only car in the BMW portfolio that is rated for E25 gasoline.

Flex Fuel branded vehicles are engineered to run on E85 gasoline. These vehicles have been specifically modified to accommodate high blends of ethanol and are completely safe to run on any type of gasoline that you choose.

You Probably Already Use Ethanol-Based Gasoline

Ethanol has been blended with other fuels for a long time. About 97 percent of all fuel we purchase today has some degree of ethanol in it – mostly at about ten percent volume. So, unless you are committed to fueling up with premium 92-octane gas, you’ve already been burning ethanol.

At the moment, E10 gasoline is very common throughout much of the United States. Higher blends such as E15 gasoline and E85 gasoline are becoming more available across the country as demand increases.

Why Does Ethanol Face Such Backlash?

While ethanol will help your car to run more efficiently in terms of overall performance, you may lose a small amount of distance per gallon. Depending on the vehicle you drive as well as your driving habits, this could amount to up to ten percent of what you normally expect. This loss is compensated, however, by lower costs at the pump for higher ethanol blends.

Critics of ethanol will claim that the production process is a waste of land that should otherwise be used to grow food crops. However, only one percent of all corn grown in the United States is fit for human consumption. The majority of corn crops are processed for animal feed, food supplements and ethanol. The ethanol production process itself actually creates both animal feed and various food supplements, such as corn oil and syrup, as byproducts. In addition, the introduction of domestically produced biofuels into the fuel system lowers the transportation cost of food and in turn reduces global food prices.

In fact, ethanol actually has the potential to provide an array of benefits outside of engine performance. The production and use of ethanol impacts crucial areas of the economy and the environment, ultimately benefiting the consumer in many ways.

Ethanol is Good for the Economy

In the United States, ethanol fuel production supports farmers and has created thousands of domestic jobs. It has reduced our dependence on foreign oil and its increasing use brings our nation closer to energy independence. Because of this, the pressure to drill in environmentally sensitive places will be greatly reduced and there will be less need for the construction of new pipelines.

As a biofuel, a greater dependence on ethanol will lessen our need for foreign-sourced oil and other fossil fuels. Manufacturers have found innovative ways to produce ethanol fuel from organic non-food cellulose derived from recycled paper, agricultural waste and low-maintenance crops such as switchgrass.

Ethanol is Good for the Environment

Overall, ethanol is much gentler on the environment than petroleum fuels. It produces fewer carbon emissions as well as lower emissions of nitrogen oxides (nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide). Nitrogen oxides contribute to Earth’s greenhouse effect. When nitrogen oxidizes within the atmosphere and binds with sulfuric acid, it contributes to smog levels and can fall as acid rain. The addition of ethanol to gasoline results in a decrease in ozone formation due to its lower reactivity with sunlight than non-oxygenated gasoline.

Because of its emission-fighting capabilities, smog-choked countries such as China are planning to include ethanol in their fuel blends. China’s ethanol mandate begins in 2020 and has as much to do with utilizing the country’s stockpile of industrial corn as it does with cleaning the air.

Overall, ethanol is a domestically-produced fuel alternative that is better for our engines, the environment and our wallets.

After reading this article, are you more or less likely to use ethanol based fuel in your vehicle?

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