Ethanol as an Alternative Fuel

GM Holden’s release of the so-called ‘flex-fuel’ Commodore might've been one of the crucial first steps in positive change for the future of automotive fuel in Australia. The flex-fuel Commodore can run on petrol – but it can also happily consume petrol-ethanol blends up to E85 (that’s 85 per cent ethanol in 15 per cent petrol). E85 is a big step up from E10, which is quickly becoming the default automotive fuel. And that means we’re looking down the barrel of becoming an increasingly ethanol-fuelled nation.

There’s been a lot of controversy about ethanol but the fact is ethanol blends in petrol are here to stay. Here in Australia, regular unleaded petrol is being phased out, to be replaced by E10 – a blend of 10 per cent ethanol in petrol.

Most cars can use E10, but some older cars can’t. In those that can’t, the problem has less to do with combustion technicalities, and more to do with the materials comprising the fuel system. The ethanol can eat into some of those – components like plastics, sealers and linings – which can then break down, and clog the engine’s fuel injectors. And when that happens, you get a repair bill you might not be able to jump over.

If you own one of these ethanol-intolerant cars, once regular unleaded disappears, your only option will be to run your car on premium unleaded petrol, at a somewhat unpalatably higher cost.

If you’re not sure whether your car is compatible with E10, contact the manufacturer for a definitive verdict.

Amid all the conflicting anti-ethanol hysteria and fuel-company hyperbole, not very much has ever really been explained about the fundamentals. The things you need to know about ethanol, as a consumer of the stuff. So here goes.

First up, what is it? Ethanol is a basic alcohol. Methanol is the simplest alcohol, which, unfortunately, if you drink it, oxidises to become formaldehyde, a deadly neurotoxin. Ethanol contains one extra carbon atom and some more hydrogen, and is much more compatible with human life. In fact, it’s exactly the same stuff that gets you drunk if you overdo it on beer, wine and/or spirits.

Ethanol is also variously known as ethyl alcohol, pure alcohol, grain alcohol and drinking alcohol. It’s a clear, colourless, volatile liquid. Ethanol that’s not intended for human consumption is ‘denatured’ by adding ‘bittering’ agents like denatorium benzoate. And possibly also toxic chemicals like methanol or naptha. Denaturing makes ethanol unpalatable and/or even deadly. Unlike the pure stuff in beer.

You can make ethanol at home by fermenting a variety of different sugary or starchy foods. Basically, you plonk some yeast into any sugary, starchy stuff, add water and keep the temperature in the green zone, and the yeast eats the sugar and poops ethanol. As inelegant as that sounds, that’s exactly how it works. Once the yeasty effluent concentration of alcohol goes over a limit, usually about 15 per cent, the alcohol kills the yeast – which is why spirits need to be concentrated by distillation (distilling is where the bootlegger’s ‘still’ derives its name from). But because it’s only five per cent alcohol or so, you can brew beer at home in basically one yeasty container … provided, of course, you have too much spare time.

In Australia, most of our commercial ethanol is produced directly from wheat. It can also be made from sugar and many other starchy crops – as well as from industrial, domestic and agricultural waste using bio-engineered microbes – although the ‘microbes’ option, while it’s not exactly science fiction, has yet to be proved on a grand industrial scale. Companies like Coskata, Holden, Veolia, Mitsui and Caltex are working jointly on doing that in Australia today.

One of the biggest newsflashes for consumers tipping ethanol into their cars is that petrol and ethanol are not equivalent. Petrol contains significantly more energy than ethanol. If you burn one litre of ethanol you get about 24 million joules of energy. But if you burn one litre of petrol you get about 34 million – that’s 40 per cent more energy. The flipside of this is that there’s about 30 per cent less energy in pure ethanol, compared with the same volume of petrol. It means 1.4 litres of ethanol is required to do the same work as one litre of petrol.

Once you blend the two, there’s about three per cent less energy in E10 compared with petrol. And that means fuel consumption increases by three percent when you use E10. And your cruising range to the point where the tank runs dry drops by the same amount – something long-distance drivers, and those who live in remote or regional areas, need to consider.

So, let’s all put on our home economist’s hats. If E10 isn’t at least three per cent cheaper than regular petrol, you’re ripping yourself off by buying it. It’s not economically rational to buy E10 unless there’s at least a three per cent discount compared with petrol.

On E85, fuel consumption increases something like 30 per cent. So E85 has to be 30 per cent cheaper than petrol to make it economical to use.

Maybe you’re wondering why we don’t use E100, and divorce petrol entirely. That’s simple. Engines don’t like to cold start on E100. Which is why E85 is pretty much the upper limit for ethanol/petrol blends – and in winter they reduce it to something more like E75 to improve the cold start capacity at low temperatures.

Now, what about greenhouse? Basically, 1.4 litres of ethanol contains the same energy as one litre of petrol. When you burn one litre of petrol you emit 2.2kg of CO2. When you burn 1.4 litres of ethanol you get almost 2.2 kilos of CO2 – so, joule-for-joule, kilometre-for-kilometre, there’s not much in it from a greenhouse perspective.

However, depending on how ‘green’ the ethanol production process is – and it varies widely depending on the feedstock and the process – ethanol (because it’s renewable) could potentially work out significantly greener, overall, than petrol (which is anything but renewable).

The roll-out of the new Flex-fuel Commodore in Australia coincided with the launch of a suitable fuel – because the car’s not really that clever in the absence of the fuel. Caltex’s tongue-twisting take on E85 is called Bio E-Flex, a high-proportion ethanol fuel that will be available in 32 Australian city servos initially, and is set to expand to more than 100 stations nationally within a year or so.

The spin-doctoring kicked off, too. They’re already calling it ‘bio-ethanol’ – as if there’s another non-bio kind of ethanol on offer. Ethanol’s purported green credentials are being widely touted – and, frankly, the jury’s still out on that. It’s potentially pretty green. However, at least in my opinion, the whole ‘green fuel’ debate is really a sideshow – albeit a high-profile one.

Proponents of ethanol – usually the companies that manufacture it or those making the cars that burn it – say it’s very green, being based on a renewable (or at least re-grown) resource as opposed to fossil fuel, which is a one-time-use-only deal.

Critics, on the other hand, say the ‘net energy balance’ of ethanol – the energy you get out of it minus the energy you have to put in to make it – means it’s a waste of time.

The fact is, ethanol probably won’t be a truly viable large-scale option in Australia until a feedstock-flexible process that uses mainly garbage and other carbon-based waste is productionised and widely implemented. That’s where bespoke microbes turn society’s waste products (agricultural waste, industro-waste, domestic garbage and most politicians – just kidding about the politicians) into ethanol.  The waste gets rendered down to gas in a furnace and the waste heat is employed elsewhere, in some other industrial process. The microbes then eat the rendered-down gas (a cocktail of carbon-monoxide and hydrogen) and – you guessed it – they poop ethanol. Massive ethanol plants like this are probably a decade off, or more. The microbes exist today, but while your kids might live to see the day when our garbage dumps make the Middle East obsolete, you probably won’t.

This whole ‘green/not green’ ethanol debate is beside the point anyway. There’s a better reason to get behind the rise of bio-fuel, and it boils down, simply, to this: we can make the stuff here. Unlike crude oil.

Most people don’t get this, but our way of life in Australia (and the rest of the developed world) is intrinsically joined at the hip to hydrocarbon fossil fuels. Here, on the road, we burn 30 billion litres of liquid fuel annually. That’s about 75 million litres a day, or 1000 litres every second – and an increasing proportion of it is imported.

In general, oil-rich nations are geopolitically unstable. Some aren’t, but many are. The biggest arm of the US military – the US Central Command – is located in the Middle East for a reason. Its mission is simply to ensure America’s supply of oil is uninterrupted, despite political hiccups like the one in Iraq spanning two bad Bush presidencies.

Commonly, the world’s oil is located smack-bang in the middle of despotic regimes that hate the west fundamentally (but like taking the money in exchange for oil). In a nutshell, they tend to hate America and the rest of the Coalition of the Willing for the way the Coalition comports itself in their backyard. And I guess if you were to walk a mile in some of their sandals, you could probably understand at least part of that sentiment.

It’s not an altogether pleasant realization when you join the dots on this and figure that our way of life is basically leveraged heavily against the ongoing imperative to continue to trade with crackpot countries that really don’t like the US – or its limpet-like partners including us here in Australia.

There are elephants in the room, too – elephants called China and India, which are only just developing a prodigious thirst for ‘black gold’ at a time when global reserves are half gone. The consensus view on ‘peak oil’ is that it’s happening some time soon.

Inconveniently, there is no more significant crude oil left on earth to find. The entire planet has been comprehensively searched and scrutinized for oil, both on the ground and from space via remote sensing. Oil’s not that common, and it’s pretty easy to find. There hasn’t been a big find for years. So don’t whip out the pick and shovel, and attempt to do the Jed Clampett bit in your own backyard, because there’s no ‘Texas tea’ there to find.

Investment gurus Goldman Sachs has noted there’s no investment globally in additional oil refining capacity, nor oil tanker capacity – probably, they say, because we’re already ripping it out of the ground as fast as it can be produced.

Global demand is rising, and supply is apparently fixed – so have a guess which way prices are headed in the medium term. Ethanol could be a real price stabilizer if we get it into gear quick enough.

Economists and organisations like the Australian CSIRO use the term ‘energy security’ to describe our national exposure to, and reliance on, foreign oil, but I prefer the term ‘energy vulnerability’. Because if that tap gets turned off, our way of life evaporates. It’s that simple. If that should happen, Stephen King and Quentin Tarrantino can collaborate on a script for our medium-term future…

Forget the environment – or at least, put it in its place – that’s a less certain argument. The simple fact is that Australia has to get far more self-sufficient on the fuel front, just to protect our society and the economy as we move into the future with oil being increasingly expensive, and its supply somewhat less certain.

E85 is part of that solution – but so is much more focus on our existing hydrocarbon reserves, like our wealth of gas resources. Compressed natural gas (often called simply CNG) is a viable heavy transport fuel right now, and LPG is already a goer on cars and light commercial vehicles. But both options are – perversely – proportionately unpopular ones. They really must become far more engaged as our future fuels if we want to mitigate the next big oil shock.

Mainstream Australia needs to stop sticking its head in the sand on this. We need to recognize and adapt to our energy vulnerability today. We must put our national addiction to oil into rehab by embracing E85, CNG and LPG for the insurance value alone.

All we really need to make that happen is a politician with vision and a grasp of the technicalities. A politician right at the top of the heap, who’s prepared to lead the nation and achieve maybe not the popular thing, but the right thing. Someone with unimpeachable integrity plus long-term vision and a burning desire to drive the nation into a more energy-independent future.

And that means … we’re doomed, basically. Enjoy it while it lasts.