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Ethanol and Octane For Beginners

  • Tuesday, 17 May 2016 14:48

Ethanol is often talked about as a high-octane fuel. But not everyone has a clear understanding of octane and how it affects the performance of their cars. So let's start right at the beginning : what is octane?

The official definition of octane is: the measure of a fuel's ability to resist "knocking" or "pinging" during combustion, caused by the air/fuel mixture detonating prematurely in the engine.

In the gas pump below, there are three numbers displayed, which represent the octane rating of the fuel.

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Most vehicles are designed to run on 87 octane, but others require a higher octane fuel. For example, the 2016 Honda Civic requires fuel with a minimum octane rating of 87 while a high-performance vehicle like the 2016 Mercedes-Benz E350 requires at least 91 octane. 

The best way to know what kind of octane your car needs is detailed in the owner’s manual, or a label on the inside of the fuel cap cover. In some vehicles, it is indicated near the fuel gauge on the dash. 

The Department of Energy states that: “Higher octane fuels are often required or recommended for engines that use a higher compression ratio and/or use supercharging or turbocharging to force more air into the engine. Increasing pressure in the cylinder allows an engine to extract more mechanical energy from a given air/fuel mixture but requires higher octane fuel to keep the mixture from pre-detonating. In these engines, high octane fuel will improve performance and fuel economy.”

Oil companies liked to use fancy petroleum based synthetic octane enhancers called aromatics. While these aromatics do cause your octane to increase they are often harmful to the environment. One such was MTBE which was eventually banned due to its toxic content.

According to the EPA’s Urban Air Toxics report to Congress, current aromatics like benzene, toluene, ethyl benzene, and xylene have cancer-causing emissions since they emit particulate matter and aromatic hydrocarbons that can damage the immune, respiratory, neurological, reproductive, and developmental systems. And to top it all off, aromatics are expensive to produce and increase your fuel costs. Really a lose-lose for the most part.

This is where ethanol comes in.

In terms of its octane rating, ethanol has a rating of 113. As mentioned above, fuels with a higher octane rating reduce engine knocking and perform better. Also, almost all gasoline in the US contains 10 percent ethanol. When you mix 10 percent 113 octane ethanol with 85 octane gasoline it increases the octane two points to the normal 87 octane most consumers use. So the higher the ethanol content, the higher the octane. The octane rating for E15 (15% ethanol) is 88 octane and E85 (85% ethanol) is 108 octane.

In addition, as Argonne National Laboratory states, ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions between 34 to 44 percent compared to gasoline.

Moreover, since ethanol is cheaper than those synthetic aromatics, gasoline blended with ethanol reduces the price at the pump. As detailed in a study released earlier this year by the University of Illinois, ethanol is 35 cents to $1 cheaper than benzene, toluene and xylene.

In other words, consumers not only get to save at the pump, they get to ensure their vehicles run smoothly while reducing harmful greenhouse gas emissions. Talk about a win-win-win solution. 

Moving forward, as car manufacturers increase the number of models equipped with high compression engines to maximize performance and efficiency, higher octane fuels will be required and ethanol is set to play a crucial role.

The Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Argonne National Laboratory and National Renewable Energy Laboratory recently found that vehicle efficiency would increase 5 percent for E25 and 10 percent for E40, making mid-level ethanol blends the optimal fuel for future cars.