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What is Ethanol?

Robert Warren's high proof alcohol still.
The automatic valve (upper left) is one of the many advanced features controlling the proof.

Ethanol (ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol), according to the US Department of Energy's National Renewable Energy Laboratory, is a "clear, colorless liquid with a characteristic, agreeable odour" -- and taste, some would add.
The Vanguard flying team uses ethanol fuel.

This is the drinkable alcohol, the active ingredient in beer, wine and spirits. Methanol, (methyl alcohol, wood alcohol) is the poisonous one.

Ethanol is also a high-performance motor fuel that cuts poisonous exhaust emissions, and is better for the environment.
The very first cars ever made on an assembly line: the Ford Model T, were built to run on ethanol.
Henry Ford designed the famed Model T Ford to run on alcohol -- he said it was "the fuel of the future. There are more stills in this country than filling stations," Henry Ford wisely pointed out, as early as 1908.
The oil companies thought otherwise, however -- but the oil crisis of the early 1970s gave ethanol fuel a new lease of life.
Henry Ford

The US now uses more than 15 billion gallons of cleaner, ethanol-blended petrol a year, totalling 12% of fuel sales in the US. Most of it is a 10% blend, but 85% and even 95% blends are now being tested.

Ethanol blends are increasingly used in South Africa, while Brazil, the world leader, produces four billion gallons of ethanol a year: all Brazilian fuel contains ethanol, much of it 100% ethanol (engines can be designed to run on 100% ethanol).

Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors all recommend ethanol fuels, and nearly every car manufacturer in the world approves ethanol blends in their warranty coverage.

Over two trillion miles have been driven on ethanol-blended fuels since 1980.

Speaking on 21 March 2000 at a news conference on the Clinton administration's support for ethanol, US Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman predicted a dramatic increase in the amount of ethanol used in America's transportation fuel. "The ethanol industry has grown from 100 million gallons in 1981 to almost 1.5 billion gallons in 1999," he said. "We can and will do better than that." Glickman said he had directed USDA's Commodity Credit Corporation to provide up to $100 million in 2000 and up to $150 million in 2001 and 2002 in incentive payments to ethanol and other bioenergy producers to expand production of biobased fuels. Glickman also recommended reducing and phasing out MTBE as an additive and using ethanol instead.  
How is ethanol made?

Ethanol is made by fermenting and then distilling starch and sugar crops -- maize, sorghum, potatoes, wheat, sugar-cane, cornstalks, fruit and vegetable waste.

Recently, since the mid 1980's, ethanol is now commercially and economically made from cellose fiber sources.
New enzymes and production processes that convert cellulose to sugar can produce ethanol from almost any biomass, including agricultural wastes, straw, leaves, grass clippings, sawdust or old newspapers.

The benefits
Ethanol is a much cleaner fuel than petrol (gasoline):
It is a renewable fuel made from plants
It is not a fossil-fuel: manufacturing it and burning it does not increase the greenhouse effect
It provides high octane at low cost as an alternative to harmful fuel additives
Ethanol blends can be used in all petrol engines without modifications
Ethanol is biodegradable without harmful effects on the environment
It significantly reduces harmful exhaust emissions
Ethanol's high oxygen content reduces carbon monoxide levels more than any other oxygenate: by 25-30%, according to the US EPA
Ethanol reduces emmissions and reduces CO2
Ethanol blends dramatically reduce emissions of hydrocarbons, a major contributor to the depletion of the ozone layer
High-level ethanol blends reduce nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 20%

Ethanol can reduce net carbon dioxide emissions by up to 100% on a full life-cycle basis
High-level ethanol blends can reduce emissions of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) by 30% or more (VOCs are major sources of ground-level ozone formation)
As an octane enhancer, ethanol can cut emissions of cancer-causing benzene and butadiene by more than 50%
Sulphur dioxide and Particulate Matter (PM) emissions are significantly decreased with ethanol.

For an interesting bit of history about Henry Ford, Charles Kettering and ethanol, the "Fuel of the Future", click here

How pure do you want it?

Convert your engine to alcohol
Running on moonshine (CLICK THIS LINK)

If you would like to order the blueprints for building this high proof, high production alcohol fuel still, click the credit card button, above. This provides  a secure transaction via Paypal to pay $30.00 (US) for blueprints for building the Charles 803 still, mailed by post. Robert Warren has perfected this still and written 40 pages of clear and detailed instructions. You will also get step-by-step photos not included in this website.

Chrysler Sebring Convertible
This car is factory equipped to run on E-85 ethanol.

Robert's high proof alcohol still
This still can be made in one weekend using off-the-shelf plumbing fittings.

This is a DOE publication on the properties, handling and use of fuel ethanol. 31 pages, Adobe.pdf format. Mostly it is about E-85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline), but also it discusses anhydrous ethanol, and gives the fuel industry view on ethanol as a viable fuel.

This link, Northwest Iowa Community College, takes you to a really great college web site about ethanol fuel, with an overview of the economics of ethanol for fuel, as well as a guide to the use in modern engines.

Building Your own Still

Click here to go to a 268-page official report to the Governor of California (1999) on Biomass to Ethanol conversion. This report provides accurate data on the fuel potential of various agricultural crops, reporting (page 171) that the cost of producing ethanol varies from $0.97 to $1.22 if various agricultural wastes are fermented. This report is particularly valuable if you are considering building a commercial ethanol production facility. A thorough description of using enzymes to convert various starch bearing plants into simple sugars for fuel production starts on page 210. Further reading is worthwhile, as this report is not merely an economic projection of academics, but provides real-world reports from industrial ethanol producers: what they do, how they do it, and how much it costs for them to produce fuel ethanol. One page 230 is a chart showing how fluxuating market prices for corn over the past 10 years has made the cost of producing ethanol from corn vary from $1.01 to $1.54/gallon.

Click here to go to find out if the car you are driving right now will work with E-85. You also can find a list of cars made for E85 since year 2000.

You may be already driving a car that is factory ready for E-85 and not know it!
FFV’s (Flexible Fuel Vehicles), factory ready to use E-85, are widely available. Approximately 2 million FFV’s have already been sold in the United States, even though many buyers are completely unaware that they use E85 fuel (85% Ethanol). This is according to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition. Check your owner's manual, visit with your dealer, or see this list of current model year FFVs to determine if you drive a vehicle that can fuel with E85. Here is a list of car models currently available as flexible fuel vehicles.|E85_GSLN
This related link takes you to a site where you can search vehicles made in year 2000 or later to see if they are already considered an FFV vehicle.
Here is the root link for this site.

Also you can buy a used FFV that was previously used as a fleet vehicle, at a considerably reduced price. These tend to be in excellent condition, but may have high mileage.
You can try the General Services Administration (GSA), which leases vehicles to federal government agencies. When these government AFVs (alternative fuel vehicles, as they are also called) are traded for newer models, GSA Fleet Vehicle Sales auctions them. GSA resale vehicles are auctioned to the highest bidder at regional GSA events held primarily between April and October. More auction information on the GSA can be found on its Web site, above.
Fuel Availability
E85 fueling stations are located primarily in the Midwest; more than 150 public E85 stations are available across the United States. The actual fueling process is the same as fueling with gasoline or diesel. Visit our station locator to find the stations in your area.
In most other areas of the US, E-10 is widely available. It is generally labeled, “unleaded premium”. While the 10% ethanol does reduce emissions and is much more environmentally friendly that the MTBE it replaces, it is not considered a clean fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992 , like E85 is.

 Award to North Dakota for Ethanol Aviation Fuel Study

The University of North Dakota Energy and Environmental Research Center has been awarded a $765,000 contract from the Federal Aviation Administration to optimize and develop the specifications for aviation-grade ethanol fuel. This fuel can be utilized in Piper, Cirrus and Cessna aircraft. "We burn 532,000 gallons of aviation gas annually," said Bruce Smith, Dean, John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences. "With estimates showing that this fuel can be as much as 50 cents less per gallon than our current aviation gas, switching to aviation ethanol will create important savings."

Potential benefits of aviation ethanol include the fact that it is lead-free, its high octane content provides more power than standard aviation gasoline and it causes less engine wear than aviation gas, allowing longer time between engine overhauls.


If alcohol is such a great fuel (and fuel additive), then why isnt everyone using it?  

 The truth is, most petroleum companies have used it, at some point in their history, and many continue to use ethanol as an octane booster / oxygenator.  Pure grain alcohol is rated at 106 octane, and it is so good that it doesnt take all that much to raise the octane of 85 or 87 octane up to 90 octane, so that it can be sold as premium and obtain a much higher price. Alcohol fuel has been the main fuel of the Indianapolis 500 for almost its entire history, and fuel dragsters racing the  mile drag strip use alcohol fuel. Ethanol (grain alcohol) was popularized during  the OPEC oil embargo,  around 1979-1981, because US-produced ethanol could displace from 5% to 10% of the fuel needed in the US, while imports were being shorted. So, the big five oil companies (at that time they were Shell, Arco, Standard Oil, Texaco, and Mobil) all started building big commercial distillation plants  in the deep South, including Texas, but mostly around Mississippi and Louisiana (this was because it was easy to bring in the large quantities of grain  (as well as imported molasses from Caribbean sugar cane, and sugar beet pulp from all the Southern sugar beet farms.  This wasnt the first time ethanol was used, either. During World War Two, ethanol was produced in very large quantities, and many new plants in the Midwest were built to supply the US Navy & Airforce planes with aviation fuel, which was anywhere from 20 % ethanol to pure 100% alcohol. People in the US used ethanol- spiked fuel to conserve petroleum for the war effort, and gas rationing was so stringent at this time that people were issued gas stamps which they had  to show at the gas station, to show that they were allowed to buy gas say, twice a month (or whatever their allotment).

 So the petroleum companies already knew a lot about ethanol as a fuel and as an additive, and have had this in their bag of tricks for a long time. All through the 40s and early 50s, premium gas wasnt called premium, it was called ethyl, short for ethyl alcohol. In the 50s, though, someone came up with the idea of adding this incredibly cheap waste product, lead dust from the mining and metals industry, to gasoline.  Leaded gas displaced ethanol because it was a lot cheaper and because it did slow down the combustion of the gasoline (which tends to burn to fast to be able to get all the power out of it). They could still offer a premium brand, and it cost a lot less to make it, the oil companies profited enormously. They just ignored the fact that lead did not enter into the combustion cycle at all: it just inhibited it, and ended up as lead dust all over the cities, which started getting heavily polluted and grayish colored from all the lead dust landing on the streets, of the walls of buildings, and on the hands of little children playing outside.  Well, with the oil embargo of the 70s, they went back to ethanol, as an octane booster.  They made a marketing mistake, though: they decided to call it Gasohol, and they promoted it hard and heavy. The term, gasohol confused people though, and a very high percentage of people werent sure if they could put it in their car.

 At this time, ethanol started so getting popular as an alternative fuel, that many people, from farmers organizing alcohol production co-ops (like the one we started in California: the Calif. Alcohol Fuel Producers Association, or CAPFA). Even big companies like Archer-Daniels/Midlands (as in Midlands Oil) started turning corn into fuel grade ethanol.  Ethanol production came into its own during the late 70s early 80s, so much so that a new trade journal, Gasohol, USA, flourished almost immediately after going to press, and became a major industry trade journal, with big advertising dollars from the growing ethanol industry.  Suddenly farmers knew they could produce their own fuel, as well as the fact that this was a clean- burning fuel, much better for your engine in many, many ways. Now these people had a voice,  with this widely circulated magazine.

What happened then was that the petroleum industry started running a counter-advertising campaign against the growing grass-roots effort intent on converting cars to switch to alcohol. To give you an idea of how big this movement was, many groups, such as CAPFA, and Chuck Stones company, Future Fuels of America, started lobbying their congressmen, and talking to their state governors, and we even got an alcohol fuel tax exemption passed in Congress (an exemption which continues to this day). So every week you started seeing articles in the newspaper about how corrosive, or how inefficient pure alcohol was, while at the gas pumps, people saw gasohol with signs saying, contains ethyl alcohol, and they didnt know what to do. So gasohol sales dropped, and the shortage of unleaded regular persisted, keeping the unleaded gas market overextended. So, regular gas prices continued to soar, and oil companies continued to make a killing with the high prices they were getting.  A lot of this was totally twisted propaganda, with adulterated and manipulated statistics. They would say things like it takes more energy to produce it than you get out of it.  Well sure, you could make a case for inefficiency if you purposely built a plant that was designed to be inefficient. This would be like only testing one particular car, say, a big 1960 model Cadillac V-8 engine for fuel efficiency, and never bothering to ever test another car on the road to see if there was ever anything better than that. In fact, the propaganda was even worse than that: they didnt bother to actually test alcohol production facilities, rather, they just built a case from a theoretical, completely made-up assumptions, in short, a flawed mathematical model. This same mathematical model would keep re-appearing in so many reports, that people accepted it as true, just because the oil pundits had told them so many times that it was true.   A couple agricultural universities, such as UC Davis, subsequently did studies of these new commercial distillation plants to disprove this myth, and they determined that with an efficiently run distillation plant you have a net energy gain of over 65%, which is not a bad equation at all.

OK, enough history for the moment. Let us look at MTBE itself, and what has happened throughout the world wherever it was used. First of all, through no fault of the MTBE additive, most gasoline stations throughout the world have underground buried gasoline storage tanks. In some soils, which are fairly inert or non-corrosive, these tanks can stay buried for 200 years and they will never leak (although, being mostly steel, they will rust if not properly internally and externally coated with an anti-rust coating. However, there are a lot of different types of soils in the world, and many are quite aggressive & corrosive, so even a lot of  new tanks less than 10 years in the ground, and a whole lot more older tanks, 20 or 30 years underground, developed leaks. The gasoline seeped out continuously, perhaps at a slow rate, but that gasoline keeps traveling followed by even more gas continually leaking and spreading, eventually working itself down in to the aquifer, or water table as it is commonly called. As nasty as petroleum is, it still tends to float on top of water, and does not invariably contaminate the water supply.  Some aquifers are like underground rivers, and the gas gets mixed in and even though it can be quite diluted, it is poisonous. In fact the MTBE is thought to be cancer-causing a dilutions of parts per billion, while many other carcinogens must be 1,000 times more concentrated, and are measured rather, in parts per million.  In other words, MTBE is some bad, nasty stuff.  Once it gets down into the underground water supply, how are we ever going to get it out? It can cause birth defects, as well as cancer, and the point is, why take the risk to mix it in our gasoline and store it dangerously close to our underground drinking water supply, if we have a much safer product available?

At the beginning of this answer I stated that ethanol is an Oxygenator. This is because there is an Oxygen molecule at the core of its chemical makeup. So, when it is burned with gasoline, it tends to make it more efficient as it provides more oxygen inside the cylinder  during the combustion cycle.

You can guess the answer to why oil companies still prefer to use MTBE over ethanol: cost. They may only save $0.03/gallon, but over the millions of gallons of gas they sell, this is a big figure for them. It is likely to be more like $0.30/gallon cheaper than ethanol, which cost the refineries around $0.80/gal.

First of all, to mix alcohol with gasoline, you have to remove all the water content, because water and gas dont mix, but alcohol mixes quite well with gasoline.  See this link, How Pure do you want it?



 Dear Robert,
Thanks for your note. I'm glad you find my alcohol fuel book useful. I'll be happy to post a link to your site, and I'd be pleased to have you link to me also.  I must take issue with a few of the comments in your message:
The by-products of [ethanol] combustion are water and CO2, both of which recycle into the environment, with no net gain of pollution.
There are other minor combustion products, including nitrogen oxides,
aldehydes, and other products of partial combustion of alcohol. These are of course minor compared to gasoline exhaust, but they are not negligible.
Aldehydes in particular can be noticeable and cause the eyes to burn when an engine is not set up properly, and they are found in quantities greater than in gasoline exhaust. 
You can make 160 proof alcohol yourself for about $0.80 per gallon, and then when it burns, the 20% water content also boils (meaning that it expands in volume by 1800 times) and therefore you get additional steam power out of the fuel.
See my comments on fuel proof at the beginning of Chapter 4. (click on the link, Going on the Road, below).
Also, it's incorrect to assume that you get additional steam power out of the fuel. First the water in the fuel has to evaporate, which takes a lot of energy (from the combustion reaction), and you can't get more than that energy back in the form of expansion. And the presence of too much water in the fuel makes it more difficult to adequately vaporize the fuel for combustion, which is a challenge even with minimal water.
Best wishes,

I must defer to your experience, as you have put a lot more miles on alcohol than I have.
You are also right about the aldehydes, but still, they are a lot less obnoxious than gasoline burners. Although it is pretty easy to tune up to the best power range (the extent of my tuning was adjusting the needle valve and advancing the timing), which I also assumed (perhaps incorrectly) would have the least amount of pollution. My thinking was that if I advanced the timing until it sounded right and gave me all the power I needed, it would by default be about the right burn mix for lowest pollution. I once got the Calif. Air Resources board to accept a challenge to run there best tests on my 1980 Ford Courier truck before and after conversion, but just after they got around to running the first set of tests, our group, CAPFA folded, and I didn't get to do the complete optimixed conversion we intended to do.
I have run 5 different pickups and cars on various small quantities of alcohol, usually not more than one or two tanks full at a time until I completely ran it dry and had to refill with gas. This was about 20 years ago, but I never did a full conversion on my cars: they always had a manual choke and that was the extent of my fuel adjustment. We did have a couple folks in our group who did full on conversions, and got great mileage. The first was a 56 Chevy straight six, with 10.5:1 compression, so while it was a bit lower than the optimal 12:1, we ran that sucker for about a year with 16-18 miles per gallon, exactly the same as with gas. We assumed we must be getting some steam power, because we were getting better mileage than what the petroleum guys were predicting. I think there must be an optimum range here, and with a high compression engine, 160 to 180 proof works really great: plenty of power and good mileage, too! 

Sometimes we ran 160, sometimes 180 proof. The main thing with 160 proof was that we had to start it with a special gas squirt from a converted windshield washer pump, and hopefully get it warm enough to run on moonshine. I realize there is a cooling effect in the process of vaporization, but this is one of the great things, as the engine didn't get as hot. The clogging up of your fuel jet may have been the corrosion effect from the alcohol attacking the surface coating stuff normally found on the inside of your fuel tank.
I also ran my Kawasaki 440 cc motorcycle on my own 160 proof, and it ran just great! Perhaps I wasn't having any trouble with the oil as I liked to use synthetic oil, which was never bothered by the alcohol.
Thank you for your information on engine conversion.
I was always the person in our group, the Calif. Alcohol Fuel Producers Association, who ran the still building workshops, as we had a guy named Jody who taught the engine conversion stuff, along with Hollis Osborne, a high school shop teacher who let us use the school workshop for our first couple of classes, back in 1979. So my expertise is really on making stills and running them, not so much on engine modifications. But I used to support myself by working on cars, so I am not a stranger to gas engines. 

Robert Warren

Converting your engine

Dependable Power Supply