Alcohol as FuelDear Ole Mechanic;

You have written more than one column on the problems with alcohol in our gasoline.  I really wonder what the problem is, because there are several racing associations that use nothing but pure alcohol for fuel.  The association that first comes to mind is the outlaw winged sprint cars.  I believe that Indy cars use alcohol also.  Couldn’t pure alcohol be used in place of gasoline in our highway cars and trucks?

That would allow the U.S. to grow our own fuel.  We wouldn’t need to drill for oil and risk potential oil spills.  Using alcohol would also reduce the amount of carbon dioxide emitted by our cars and trucks, wouldn’t it?

Looking for Future Fuels

Dear Looking;

Could pure grain alcohol be used to fuel cars and light trucks?  Yes, it could.  However, there are some other things that must be overcome or changed to do that.  One problem with alcohol is that it is corrosive to aluminum, and car makers like aluminum because it is lighter than steel.  Less weight means better fuel mileage.  After each day of racing, sprint and Indy cars must flush their fuel systems with mineral spirits to prevent corrosion which, if not treated, could cause major problems--including the clogging of fuel injectors.  Regular steel won’t help because alcohol attracts water, which rusts steel.  For years Brazil has used pure grain alcohol in their cars and light trucks.  They have an abundance of sugar cane, which they ferment and distill to make alcohol.  How do they keep corrosion from being a problem?  Their gas tanks, fuel lines and-- well the entire fuel system--is made out of stainless steel.  While it would be very possible for car makers to change our fuel systems, it would add another $1,000 to $2,000 to the cost of a vehicle.  Also since alcohol has about one half of the BTU heat conten,t we would need to burn twice as many gallons to do the same amount of work.

As for carbon dioxide emissions, there is a little problem.  Not only is carbon dioxide put out the tailpipe, there is the carbon dioxide put out by the fire that is used to distill (boil) the alcohol out of the mash.  There is also carbon dioxide released during the fermenting of the sugar base into mash.  The result is a net increase of carbon dioxide for each gallon of alcohol burned, when compared to a gallon of gasoline.  Also, twice as many gallons of alcohol must be burned.  Without government subsidies ($$$), a gallon of alcohol fuel would run $7 to $10 a gallon.

Please don’t get me wrong; we do need to be finding future fuels.  Electricity produced by burning fossil fuel produces carbon dioxide, unless solar, wind, and geothermal sources are used to produce electricity.  I keep hearing the electric CO-OP say that electricity cannot be stored.  Technically, that is correct.  Howeve,r surplus electricity from the above mentioned sources can be used to produce hydrogen and oxygen through the electrolysis of water.  Burn that hydrogen in our vehicles or use it to produce electricity, and the net carbon output is Zip, Nada, Zero.  OK, electricity or hydrogen can be used in cars and light trucks, but what about the heavy haulers like farm tractors, ships, railroad engines and semi-trucks that use diesel fuel?  Rudolph Diesel originally designed the diesel engine to run on vegetable oil--not mineral oil.  Farmers are starting to grow their own oil crops such as soybeans, canola, and sunflowers.  They are proving that they can press out the fuel oil they need, still have high quality animal feed as residue, and have a crop left to sell.  No, they do not need to use the entire farm just to produce the fuel oil that they need.  There is an initial out lay of from $15,000 to $40,000 for the oil press and other equipment, but the cost savings pays it off in three to five years and that is getting less as mineral diesel-fuel costs go up.

There are other future fuels being investigated, too.  While we may have been slow to look for future fuels because of cheap oil, now there is a more concerted effort to see what we can do to replace expensive oil.  The best thing you and I can do is to keep asking questions and looking for alternatives.

Herr Professor Nuzanbolts