Corn-Fuel Controversy: Riding Under the Influence | How To

We're becoming a nation of alcoholics, and I don't mean that in a good way. In many parts of the U.S., unadulterated gasoline-that is, gas not mixed with ethanol-is becoming increasingly hard to find, and many of us are hoping there's a 21st century Carrie Nation out there that's going to ride to our rescue.

Whether adding alcohol to gasoline is a good idea or not is highly debatable. It's a topic fraught with political, social and economic implications that are only slightly less contentious than the subject of oil dependency in general, and it's neither my intent nor desire to inflame anyone's passions. If you believe alternative fuels are a good thing, then by all means, continue to seek them out. However, there are a lot of questions out there as to how alcohol-laced fuels affect our motorcycles, and as you'd expect, a correspondingly equal amount of misinformation, so consider this an attempt to clear the air, and remember that any opinions voiced, no matter how foolish they may seem, are the author's.

How It All Began
Prior to the advent of the internal combustion engine, gasoline was regarded as little more than a refinery by-product, useful mainly as stove fuel, or as a dry cleaning agent. In fact, many early engines, including the one developed for the Model T Ford, were meant to run on something other than gasoline, because the stuff was so problematic to use. Ford's engine was prophetically designed to run on pure ethyl alcohol, which old Henry considered "the fuel of the future."

The problem is that pure gasoline tends to spontaneously combust rather than burn at a controlled rate whenever an engine's compression ratio is much above 4 to 1. Spontaneous combustion leads to detonation and from there, to gaping holes in pistons, bent rods and, very often, shattered crankcases, so it's a not a particularly desirable characteristic in a fuel. At least not in one that's going to be used in an engine expected to make much power. Adding Tetra-Ethyl lead to gasoline reduced its volatility, which allowed engineers to increase compression ratios, and engines soon began to make some real muscle.

Unfortunately, as we later discovered, lead was not such a good thing for the environment so it was phased out of most gasoline by the mid 70s. Predictably, the lack of lead created other problems, most notably a tendency for engines to detonate or knock under load, so we were right back where we started. To eliminate the problem, a chemical called MTBE was added to gasoline. MTBE oxygenates the fuel and raises its octane number, which reduces tail pipe emissions and the engine's propensity to detonate. All was good again, until traces of MTBE began appearing in ground water.

Although it's not technically a carcinogen when absorbed in low levels, MTBE creates some very nasty health issues in anyone that ingests a lot of it, a lot in this case being about 5 parts per million.

In 2004, MTBE was banned in California and portions of New York State. Other regions soon followed their example, which forced the fuel refiners to look for an alternative and more environmentally friendly replacement. It was quickly pointed out that a type of alcohol, namely Ethanol, was the perfect candidate.

Allow me to digress for a moment and point out that there is no requirement that refiners use alcohol; they are only required to produce low emission fuels, and how they do it, so long as they don't use substances that are specifically forbidden, is up to them. In some areas of the US, MTBE is still used, though not by all refiners, especially in cold weather gas formulations.

By The Numbers

In most parts of the country and particularly in areas the Environmental Protection Agency has deemed "smog afflicted," the only form of gasoline currently available is a blended mix containing some amount of alcohol, typically 10%. Of course, in other regions-those not impacted as heavily by smog-there's no federal mandate requiring anyone to sell the stuff, so with a little searching, you can generally turn up a station that still sells alcohol-free gasoline, and there are even a few that still carry leaded fuel (whether it's worth driving to get it is another story). When the fuel does contain alcohol, the pumps will often, though not always, be labeled as such. If the pumps are labeled, they'll carry the designation E-10, meaning of course that what you're buying is 10% alcohol mixed with 90% gasoline.

In October of 2010, the E.P.A., under pressure from groups that included self-interested political hacks, the greens, and lobbying organizations with ties to the ethanol producers, granted a waiver that allows refiners to sell a 15% mix of alcohol and gasoline for use in cars and trucks manufactured in and after 2007. This created a great deal of concern, particularly among motorcycle riders who feared-and rightly so-that the stuff would create some serious maintenance and performance problems in their engines. Fortunately, there are some mitigating circumstances, so things may not be as bad as you think.

Understand that this ruling does not call for an end to E-10, or any other blend of gasoline for that matter, and that legally E-15 can only be sold for use in Cars and Trucks manufactured in 2007 or later. Technically, it's illegal to use the stuff in motorcycles, small engines of any kind, including lawn mowers and power equipment, boats, or even heavy trucks and buses, at least until further testing is done and everyone signs off, which at this point seems somewhat unlikely.

How it'll all shake out is difficult to predict. For one thing, filling stations will be required to have dedicated, clearly-labeled E-15 pumps, which adds another level of complication to a business that already works on a thin profit margin, so I doubt they'll be popping up at your local Handy Stops anytime soon. Furthermore, there doesn't seem to be a lot of refiners hopping on the E-15 bandwagon; in fact the National Petro Chemical Refiners Association, a group that includes virtually all US petrochemical refiners, is dead set against E-15, so simply finding the stuff may be difficult at best.

In the Midwest and in scattered spots around the country, you can also find something called E-85. E-85 is a dedicated bio-fuel intended for use in vehicles bearing the Flex-Fuel designation. Essentially, it's a mixture of 85% denatured ethanol blended with 15% gasoline. As a point of interest, that 15% gasoline in the E-85 is only there as flavoring; it's meant more to keep people from drinking the stuff as they would any other grain alcohol, especially one that's sold at considerable savings compared to something like Canadian Club.

For the time being, E-85 is not something you should be putting into your motorcycle-not unless your motorcycle is designed for it, and the only one that I can think of is the Honda CG Titan 150 Mix, a bike released in 2009 for use in the Brazilian market (where reportedly something like 184,000 bikes are running around on distilled sugar cane). Since E-85 is outside of our present discussion, we'll mention it only in passing.

**Alcohol is good-or is it? **
Whether or not you think the inclusion of alcohol in gasoline is a good thing or not depends to some extent on which side of the political spectrum you belong to.

The Pros
Supporters of alcohol-infused gasoline have several arguments in their favor, that on the face of it, are quite persuasive. Allow me to digress a moment and point out that while in many cases the arguments are more concerned with suitability of bio-fuels like E-85 than they are with blends, I don't think it takes much of a stretch to extrapolate an argument for E-85, or any biofuel, into one that supports E-10 or E-15. You take what you can get right? As such, I think we can safely assume that when a case is being made for E-85, the same argument will, at least in broad strokes, hold true for its near-relations.

There are some good arguments in favor of adding alcohol to gasoline, the first being that alcohol creates fewer environmental problems than MTBE, which is a point I think anyone that doesn't own an MTBE factory is willing to concede.

The second argument is that alcohol reduces tail pipe emissions. To some extent that's true. Burn a kilogram of gasoline and you'll produce roughly 16% more hydrocarbons than if you fired up a kilogram of ethanol.

The third is that alcohol-based fuels are renewable, reduce our dependence on foreign oil imports, and create American jobs, all of which, in my opinion, is a very good thing.

Lastly, there is a cost advantage to using alcohol, either as a standalone fuel or as a "filler" to stretch stocks of gasoline.

The Cons
Detractors point out that alcohol/gasoline blends actually create emission problems, are damaging to vehicle fuel systems, are as environmentally unfriendly in their own way as MTBE or lead is, and are a giant economic scam perpetrated on the American people by "special interests."

Again, these are all valid arguments. Alcohol is both hygroscopic, meaning it absorbs water, and to some degree, a solvent, so its use in a fuel system that's not designed to handle it can be problematic. Since the introduction of E-10, I've seen far more corrosion damage to carburetors and fuel tanks then I ever did previously, and an enormous increase in what I'd call "stale gas" problems, so yeah I think there's some real truth to that one. Anecdotally, I've also seen and heard of more than a few engines that suffered from mechanical damage traced to poor quality gasohol. Since no chemical analysis was performed on the fuel, I can't state positively that it was what caused the problem, but I know detonation when I see it, and the broken parts I've been shown were most positively caused by detonation that wasn't attributable to a lean mixture or overly advanced timing.

Does adding ethanol to gas reduce emissions? That's a sticky one. The opposing argument is that since alcohol-infused gasoline creates less power than the equivalent amount of straight gas, you have to burn more of it to achieve the same power output, hence more fuel is burned per mile ridden, which doesn't do much for either the environment or your mileage. The situation is exacerbated by alcohol's affinity for water; simply put, as the water content of the fuel increases, the less power that fuel is capable of producing, so on the face of it the answer would seem to be a kind of, sort of, under perfect circumstances, maybe. But there's more.

While it's true that alcohol burns cleaner than gasoline, it's only by about 16%, so once you figure in the amount of hydrocarbons that are created by the tractors, trucks and everything else used in the process of planting, refining and transporting the alcohol, there doesn't seem to be much of a savings.

Another argument against ethanol production is that every acre used to grow a crop slated for alcohol is one less that can be used to grow food, which increases the costs of groceries, and that furthermore there are huge subsidies involved, as well as embargos in place to prevent foreign growers/refiners from competing in the U.S. These factors make the venture profitable to the American ethanol producers, but detrimental to everyone else. Finally, ethanol production has created some jobs, but whether those jobs are here for the long haul seems a bit dubious. From what I've seen, the majority of them seem to be seasonal farm workers, rather than permanent blue-collar type employment.

Frankly, I'd be lying if I said I didn't agree with the arguments against the use of alcohol; to my mind, once you get past the fact that it's a renewable resource, its benefits appear to be specious at best.

Like it or not, ethanol-laced gasoline is here to stay, especially in large urban areas where pollution is a major issue and most assuredly in areas where any spilled fuel can leach into the groundwater. The bigger issue for motorcyclists is how the push towards E-15 is going to affect us. For the time being, the answer appears to be not much. The refiners aren't on board, and using the stuff in anything not approved by the manufacturers would invalidate the warranty (a point not lost on the EPA), and there's no infrastructure in place to distribute it.

As it stands now, E-10, as well as straight gas will still be available, at least for the foreseeable future. Down the road, E-15 may-and I have to stress may-have greater implications. If and when that happens we'll revisit the issue.

Preventing Problems
Alcohol is hygroscopic, so it'll absorb water directly from the atmosphere, and in some instances, act as a solvent to dissolve certain resins, notably those used to glue fiberglass fuel tanks together-which is big problem if you're riding certain vintage motorcycles that used them. For the rest of us, the larger problem is gasohol's tendency to entrain water, and its limited shelf life of roughly 90-100 days. Fortunately, a few simple precautions can prevent or at least mitigate any problems.

1 Bikes that are ridden infrequently are vulnerable to all sorts of degraded fuel-related issues. Hard starting, a need for an extended warm-up and a reluctance to idle smoothly are symptomatic of stale fuel and impending carburetor problems. The solution: Use a fuel conditioner and try to ride the bike at least once a week.

**2 **Older bikes should have their fuel systems checked on a regular basis. Gasohol has detrimental effect on some types of rubber compounds, and the entrained water corrodes metal, so keep an eye out for leaks and if your bike uses carburetors, drain the float bowls anytime the bike is going to be parked for more than a month.

3 Fiberglass tanks and some tank linings are adversely affected by gasohol -if you're riding an older bike with a 'glass tank, try not to use gasohol. If it's unavoidable, consider lining the tank with an alcohol-resistant coating, and if you're lining a steel tank make sure the liner is safe to use with gasohol.

For Further Reading

National PetroChemical Retailers Association

Fuel Testers (commentary and alcohol test kits)


American Coalition for Ethanol

Murky but informative