ETHANOL – GOOD OR BAD? – How it Works | SCIENCE GARAGE


(cars revving) – It’s the high-tech fuel used
in race cars and dragsters. And it comes from corn! Ethanol. (electronic whirring) That’s right, everybody. Today we’re doing a deep dive into one of my favorite biofuels
or fuel additives, ethanol. Ready to get down and
dirty on the bad stuff and the good stuff, and
we’re gonna get to the truth. Ethanol is basically ethyl alcohol, the same type of alcohol
found in alcoholic beverages. But it’s used as fuel. Wow. During production, starch
from the plants is fermented and distilled into sugars, which
microbes turn into ethanol. It’s the same way you make beer or vodka or moonshine, or, Eddie,
what’s your favorite drink? Appletinis. There’s a couple of ways
to make fuel grade ethanol, but the most common is
the dry mill method, which is the same as my
grandpappy’s White Lightning recipe. The grain passes through a grinding mill and comes out as a powder. A mixture made of this
grain powder, water, and an enzyme enters a high heat cooker. This enzyme converts
the starch into sugars that can be fermented to create alcohol. What’s an enzyme? Well it’s a protein that can take another chemical and change it. Your saliva’s got enzymes in it that do a very similar thing. Go eat a saltine. Just chew on it, like, forever. It gets sweet. – Trust the process. – Well, that’s the enzymes in your saliva turning the starches into sugars. But we’re making ethanol, so the yeast is added to the sugar mixture to begin the fermentation process. Yeast digests the sugar,
breaking it down into ethanol and carbon dioxide, then
a dehydration process removes the water from
the separated ethanol. Often, small amount of gasoline is added to the ethanol so that it’s non-potable. That doesn’t mean you
can’t carry it around. Means you can’t drink it. There’s a bunch of laws out there that say all the ethanol
that’s gonna be used as fuel has to be made so you can’t drink it. I don’t know, man. Sounds like a dare. Don’t drink it, you idiots. Then it’s mixed with petroleum, and the ethanol becomes fuel for your car. Making ethanol a major player in the fuel industry could
have serious drawbacks. It takes a lot of land to
make not a lot of corn ethanol and creating significant amounts of energy from food crops would
deplete the amount of land available for growing actual
food for people to eat. You know, how people like
to eat food that grows? Each acre of corn can yield about 328 gallons of corn ethanol. That’s a lot of corn
for not too much fuel, so it’s fine as a bridge
or a supplemental fuel, but it doesn’t make a lot
of sense as a primary fuel. Ethanol blended gas is labeled as E10, E15 and sometimes E85. The number after the E indicates the percentage of ethanol by volume. So E10 has up to 10% ethanol. All auto makers approve blends up to E10 in their gasoline vehicles. In 2011, the EPA began
allowing the use of E15 in model year 2001 in
newer gasoline vehicles. E85, also called flex fuel,
is an ethanol gasoline blend containing 51 to 85ish percent ethanol. E85 can be used in flex fuel vehicles, which are specifically
designed to run on gasoline, E85, or any mixture of the two. By volume, ethanol contains about 1/3 less energy than gasoline. Drivers shouldn’t really notice a performance loss when they’re using E85. In fact, some fuel flex vehicles perform better with more torque and horsepower when they’re running on E85 than when they’re running on regular gas. So we hit and few things here and there, but what about the big question? Is ethanol bad for your engine? Sometimes. – [Disembodied Voice] It
has to; how can it not? – [Disembodied Voice]
No way, not a chance. – In newer engines,
E10 oxygenated gasoline can be safely used with
only minimal inconvenience. Like a slight decrease in miles per gallon and fuel efficiency. But many other types of engines, they’re not designed to resist the possible damaging
effects of ethanol fuel. Ethanol attracts water the same way that I attract twice divorced, chain-smoking patrons at Applebee’s. Oh, but their appetizers are exceptional. Ethanol attracts and absorbs water, including water from the air. When it absorbs enough water, fuel-water contamination
occurs in the car’s gas tank, and that affects your engine performance. If the car sits for a while,
fuel separation occurs. This is where the gas and the water form layers in the gas tank, and the motor sucks up the
water layer into the engine, which makes for some
seriously costly damage. Ethanol is alcohol, and alcohol can cause
corrosion in the fuel system. Metal parts rust, and plastic parts become
deformed or cracked. A lot of older cars especially have problems with ethanol fuel. But if you’re driving your car enough and your gas tank isn’t crummy, you probably don’t need
to worry about that. And there’s also the concern that ethanol reduces the
lubricating properties of gasoline, which is true, to a point. There’s many people up in arms alleging that ethanol in fuel is ruining their engine for that reason. But good oil companies take great pains to make sure that their
gasoline minimizes engine wear. So modern gas in a modern car
shouldn’t be causing damage. But up north where they’re
running two-stroke snowmobiles, they’re blaming ethanol for munching up their engines, which makes sense. Two-strokes need oil mixed
with the gas to run right, and ethanol cuts the the
efficacy of lubricating elements. They might be on to
something is all I’m saying. (dinging) So why do we use it then? Well, first, ethanol is extremely
resistant to pre-ignition. E85 is like a 105 octane gasoline. So if you’re not worried
about fuel economy and you got extremely
high compression ratios and you need super
precise ignition timing, well, you might wanna use
a more ethanol-rich fuel. Wait. High compression? Precise ignition timing? Don’t care how much fuel I use? That sounds like a race car. If you walk around the pits at a race, it doesn’t smell like gas. It smells like ethanol, baby. These cars are tuned to
run on ethanol-rich fuels, so they don’t have the same concerns about engine wear that I would in, say, my 35-year-old Oldsmobile. Also, gasoline blended with ethanol burns cleaner than pure gasoline. In here we got ethanol, and in here we got gasoline. Can you see it? – [Disembodied Voice] No. – See the difference in the flame? – [Disembodied Voice] No. – You can barely see that one. Alright, it was too light outside to see the difference, so
we’re gonna do it in here. Cool. Ethanol, gas. Look at that. Sweet, sweet flame. So you can see how much
cleaner ethanol is than gas. Let’s get back to the lab and talk about other crap. Ethanol cuts a car’s
greenhouse gas emissions. The addition of ethanol to
gasoline makes it an oxygenate, which satisfies the requirements
of the Clean Air Act. So our ethanol makes our current tech a little cleaner before
the next thing takes off, whatever that might be. Fully electric, hydrogen, something else, and then the internal combustion engine becomes just like my
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