Alcohol as fuel: Just say no

A short response to Tom Gribble’s Letter to the Editor in the “Quit Whining About Ethanol” in the Sept. 21 issue, sort of one point at a time:

1. You are correct — alcohol does take more petrochemical energy to make than it produces, so we should use it for…what?

2. It costs more than the petroleum-based fuel it replaces. (Obviously, see #1 above).

3. Taxpayers will quit subsidizing it when they come to their senses.

4. Every week or so there is someone who has run his car/boat/airplane on animal waste, sea water, French fry oil —see the National Enquirer. Are they the ones who check every fact twice? No, that’s Congress.

Look at alcohol as a fuel.

Good things: You can make it at home, provided you have a lot of corn, potatoes, grapes, yard waste, natural gas or methane, and a biochemical lab (and a U.S. government permit to operate a distillery). That’s about it, EXCEPT the government will pay you to make it.

Regarding vapor lock: A solution for a problem that doesn’t exist, as alcohol has a very low vapor pressure and, in fact, none at low temperature, making starting very difficult at low temperatures. Saaay, is that why they use it in Brazil? Perhaps, but never in concentrations much over 40%. Otherwise you have to start the engine on gas, get it warm, then switch to alcohol.

Bad things: It is a really poor source of energy. The best alcohols only make about 12,000 BTUs per pound. Ethanol yields less that 6,000 BTUs/lb. True, you can increase the compression ratio a lot to get back some of the horsepower lost, however it is difficult, if not impossible, to make the same power without using about 40% more (by weight) alcohol than gas.

Motors that run on alcohol don’t run well on gasoline, and vice versa. In fact, to make an alcohol-fueled engine heat-efficient, it needs a compression ratio something over 15-18 to1, usually making it damnably difficult to run on 100 LL. On the other hand, I do have a version of a Russell Bourke engine in my shop that runs on 80 octane with a 22:1 compression ratio, but I digress.

Alcohol is corrosive to aluminum, brass, zinc, rubber, most plastics and fiberglass. Just what we need in our airplanes made of aluminum, fiberglass and plastic, with most of the fuel system made of alloys of zinc and brass, usually connected with aluminum and rubber tubing.

It absorbs water. Think you have problems with water in your fuel? At least you can drain the water out at the lowest point. Water is soluble in alcohol (or the other way around) up to a point, then it separates. As the water percentage goes up, the energy goes down, for the same reason that green wood makes less heat than dry wood. Makes a big difference in “How much farther can we go”questions. It also makes the mixture more corrosive.

You may ask: Then why do we make E-85 vehicles?

Elementary, my dear Watson: So we can make high-fuel-consumption vehicles without raising the CAFE average. Because of the CAFE fuel regulations, which require the mix of a manufacturer’s production to achieve a specified Miles Per Gallon, or be fined $50 per vehicle per 1/10 of a mile per gallon — also known as the “gas guzzler tax.” Enter the E-85 vehicle, difficult and expensive to make, but they are given an arbitrary 75 mpg for purposes of computing the CAFE average. Voila! You can sell an expensive (read profitable) “low mileage” vehicle without lowering the company’s CAFE numbers. In fact, E-85 raises the CAFE average, because no vehicle I know of actually attains 75 mpg, even by the government’s ridiculous measuring. Now you know why there are no E-85 Geo Metros.

Much of the price of gasoline is the taxes, whilst much of the cost of alcohol is reduced by tax breaks. (That means I pay for your gain, something I don’t particularly like!)

Pike’s Peak? A Doble steam car climbed Pike’s Peak, as well. People have walked to the top. May we then assume we can power our aircraft by fruits, nuts and berries?

Just because something can be done does not mean it is the best way or a good idea.

Indeed, alcohol fuel may be here to stay, but it will be by political pressure, not practicality, much like the “temporary phone tax” placed on telephone calls to finance the Spanish American War.

Winchester, Va.

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