Ethanol - Sabotage at the Pump?

Ethanol has been around for almost 200 years, but it’s only been in the last 15 years that we’ve been hearing more about it. And the topic of ethanol in gasoline has got a lot of feathers ruffled. Although it’s in our gasoline, the public has never been educated about it. So, exactly what is ethanol and how is it affecting your motorcycle? Should you be concerned about ethanol in fuel? Answers to these questions and more when we discuss ethanol and motorcycles with Michael Sayre from the American Motorcyclist Association and Chris Real from DPS Technical, Inc, both experts in the motorcycle industry.

Image: Michael Sayre; American Motorcyclist Association

Michael Sayre - Government Affairs Manager for On Highway Issues at the American Motorcyclist Association 

AMA has been around since 1924, and is the largest motorcycling organization in the world, the largest motorsports sanctioning body in the world, with about 215,000 members in the United States. The AMA does not oppose ethanol in gasoline, but does oppose too much ethanol in gasoline and the lack of options for motorcyclists.

American Motorcyclist Association:

AMA ‘call to action’ on HR 5855 the Consumer Protection and Fuel Transparency Act of 2018:

Protecting Boaters at the Gas Pump:


Image: Chris Real; DPS Technical, Inc

 Chris Real is the owner of DPS Technical, Inc, providing vehicle testing services and reports to the EPA, NHTSA, DOT and USDA for vehicle and component regulatory certification and environmental protection purposes. He’s an expert in the specialty transportation industry focusing on motorcycles (both Off-Highway and On-Highway) as well as ATV's / ROV's , with more than 40 years of continuous activity in the specialty and high performance segment of the industry.


How Ethanol Came to Be

Engine Knock

In internal-combustion engines, knocking are the sharp sounds which are caused when the compressed air-fuel mixture is prematurely ignited in the combustion chamber. Not something we want to hear, a nasty sound and an engine knock can cause spark plug points to overheat and the surface of the combustion chamber to erode, amongst other problems. This can be remedied by changing the way engines are designed or by putting octane boosters in gasoline.


The higher the octane content in gasoline, the better for avoiding engine knock. When you pull in to most gas stations you’ll probably find three different octane grades on offer, regular, mid grade and premium. Each has a different octane rating.

Leaded Gasoline

In 1921, General Motors engineers found that adding lead to gas provided the octane boost needed to reduce engine knock. Benzene and ethanol were known octane boosters, but lead was cheaper to produce, and leaded gasoline became the fuel of choice until they found that lead had profound impacts on health. So, in the 1970’s the process of phasing it out was started. Although lead is still found in some aviation fuels, most gasoline around the world is now lead free.

Methyl Tertiary Butyl Ether (MTBE)

As lead was being phased out, MTBE was introduced as an octane booster in gasoline. MTBE is a petroleum product and by the late 1990’s it was found in 87% of reformulated gasoline. But MTBE was found to be a source of water contamination in groundwater, causing health issues, and because of this, it was also phased out.

BTEX - Benzene, Toluene, Xylene and Ethyl-Benzene

Image: Michael Sayre; American Motorcyclist Association

When refiners were faced with the removal of lead from gasoline, another option as an oxygen booster in gasoline was BTEX. By 1990 it was found in 22% of gasoline, and in premium fuel grades the content of BTEX was 50%. Research has shown that BTEX has negative impacts on health, and causes skin and sensory irritations, problems with the central nervous system, eye and nose irritation, affects the kidneys and liver as well as blood systems and has been linked to cancers. Benzene is highly toxic. BTEX is still found in gasoline, and although the content of benzene is now regulated at 0.62%, the other aromatics are not capped.


Origin of Corn

Corn originated in Mexico, and a few thousand years ago spread up in to North America. And as time went on, farmers improved on the ways that they grew corn and the United States became the largest producer, having almost a hundred million acres of land used just for growing corn.

Corn Used for Ethanol

In 2013/2014 American farmers yielded over 13 billion bushels of corn, and 27%, or 3,510 million bushels, of that corn was used to manufacture ethanol. One bushel of corn produces 2.8 US gallons of ethanol, and then 33% residual product goes to making 17.5 pounds of livestock feed, and all this results in 18 lbs of carbon dioxide. It’s hard to understand what 18 pounds of carbon dioxide looks like, but if you could physically look at it, it’s about 157 cubic feet. Corn isn’t the only plant used to make ethanol, although it is the least efficient. In 2007 it was found that producing ethanol from corn actually uses up 75% of the energy extracted.

How Ethanol is Made

In the United States, about 80% of corn ethanol is produced by dry milling, which is how fuel ethanol is made. The remaining 20% of ethanol is produced by wet milling, which is how corn starch, corn syrup and livestock meal is made.

In the dry milling process to produce fuel ethanol, the whole corn kernel is ground into a mash and then water is added. Then the starch in the mash is hydrolyzed (a breakdown by a chemical reaction with water) in to simple sugars by adding enzymes. Then ammonia is also added to control the PH (acid) and it also acts as a nutrient for the yeast which will be added to the mash later. To keep the bacteria levels down, the mash mixture is processed at high temperatures and then is transferred to fermenters to cool down, at which point the yeast is added. The sugars then ferment producing ethanol and carbon dioxide. The ethanol then goes through a process of being distilled and dehydrated, to produce fuel ethanol. The ethanol is then removed from the mash, goes through a dehydrating process and gasoline is added to the ethanol so that the product is made undrinkable. The end product is then shipped to gasoline terminals or retailers.

When Ethanol Was First Used in Engines

In 1826, an American inventor, Samuel Morey used ethanol in a chemical mixture when experimenting with internal combustion. However, with steam power being so successfully used at the time, his discovery went largely unnoticed. Until in 1860 a German engineer, Nicholas Otto also began to do experiments with internal combustion engines. In 1896, Henry Ford’s first car, called the Quadricycle, ran on pure ethanol, and when he made the Ford Model T in 1908, it ran on either gasoline or ethanol, or a combination of both. Even though Ford was a huge advocate for using ethanol in engines, low prices made gasoline the fuel of choice.

Ethanol began to appear in gasoline in the 1920s and 1930s as an octane booster. Because of fuel shortages during the second world war the blend was in high demand.

Ethanol in Recent Times

Then in the 1970s oil crisis, petroleum based fuel costs started to rise, jumping 57%. There were also gasoline shortages. Born was an interest in producing electric cars and fuel efficiency became a concern. New regulation of air pollutants were introduced. So, for economic and environment concerns, ethanol was again added to gasoline as an octane booster. There was so much corn in the United States and it was a simple process to turn corn in to ethanol, so corn became the main plant source in the production of ethanol. Over recent decades, we have seen the growth of gasolines containing up to 10% ethanol (E10).

Damage to Engines and Drops in Fuel Efficiency

Ethanol in gasoline really saw a big rise in 2007, when a mandate was signed in the United States that required the use of 15 billion gallons of renewable fuel, namely ethanol, by 2015. As early as 2007/2008 E10 was being used in several states and they started to see engine problems almost immediately. Lawsuits quickly followed. And not only does ethanol cause damage to engines and motors, but it also is less fuel efficient. According to the Environmental Protection Agency you can expect a drop of 3%, but there are reports as high as a 10% drop.

Motorcycle carburetors. The deposits are water and debris that is in the float bowl, and just starting to become a mechanical issue. The pilot jet had already become blocked, resulting in hard starting and poor performance.
Images: DPS Technical, Inc.

Ethanol in Other Countries

The European Union had it’s first biofuel policy in 2003 and levels of ethanol have risen to E5 over the years. Canada followed suit in 2010 when it approved E5 to be used in gasoline, and Australia’s fuels are at E10. And Brazil comes in with whopping ethanol levels of E27.

From E10 to E15

In the crash of 2008, financial constraints made it so that motorists drove less, which naturally resulted in less fuel being used. This resulted in plants closing, operating below capacity, people losing their jobs and plants going bankrupt, which caused the price of fuel to drop drastically. There were concerns that the fuel industry would not meet legislated targets set by Congress’ energy law in 2007 for the use of ethanol and other biofuels.

In 2009 the energy policy act approved an increase of E10 to E15, to be used during winter months, when smog levels are lower. However, it appears that that’s going to change in the US, and E15, may be sold year round.

By 2011, most cars were able to run on 10% ethanol blends, and some were able to run on higher ethanal blends. Soon a 10% ethanol (E10) content in gasoline was required in most states. Today, more than 95% of gasoline sold in the United States is E10.

Image: Michael Sayre; American Motorcyclist Association - The only approved label for E15 in the United States.

Flex-Fuel Vehicles

Flexible fuel vehicles made by Chrysler, Ford and GM are made to run on gasoline blends ranging from pure to 85% (E85). In 2013, there were 11 million flex fuel cars and trucks that were able to operate on E85.

Ethanol Health Concerns

According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, ethanol has been found to burn cleaner than petroleum based oxygen additives. They also say that the levels of toxicity is lower than BTEX and that increasing ethanol content up to 15% would decrease the risk of cancer to 6.6%. But, there has also been evidence that increasing ethanol in gasoline also increases nitrous oxide emissions, which affects the ozone, although other studies say there is no affect on the ozone by increasing ethanol in gasoline.

Ethanol Has a Short Shelf Life

Gasoline that does not contain ethanol will last for several years. But, even in ideal conditions, gasoline blends which contain ethanol have a shelf life of only between 90 and 100 days. And why is that? Because ethanol gasoline blends are hygroscopic, meaning they attract and absorb water. Ethanol blends absorb up to 50 times more water than gasoline which does not contain alcohol. Of all the preservatives added to fuel, there is not one that will stop water from contaminating gasoline. Even additives that claim to do this, will not. Any product on the shelf that tells you it will remove water from gasoline is deceptive. There is no product that will do this. Alcohol likes water. And it naturally attracts and absorbs water.

Ethanol is a type of alcohol, also known as Ethyl alcohol. The ethanol attracts the water from the air in to the petroleum. Gasoline and ethanol can mix. But, put water in to the equation and you’ve got a problem. As water is drawn in to the tank and the level increases, the ethanol attaches itself to the water and then what ultimately happens is the ethanol and water mixture drop to the bottom of the tank and the gasoline settles on top. With less or no ethanol in the gasoline, the octane levels are lowered and we’re back to engine knocks resulting in damage. This is now a contaminated fuel and should not be used in an engine. Using water contaminated fuel results in poor engine performance and water is released in to the engine. The engine will not run on the ethanol and water cocktail. It’s recommended that you refuel often, replacing the fuel in your tank at least every 2 to 3 weeks, with high quality gasoline, from sources that offer frequent fresh supplies, to decrease the risk of water contamination.

Ethanol Blended Fuels at the Retailers

By Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By Mariordo Mario Roberto Duran Ortiz - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Ethanol is not added to gasoline at the refineries, it is either the driver of the delivery truck that adds the ethanol to the fuel and in that case the amount of ethanol that is put in to the tanks is not closely monitored. Or it is put directly in to the tanker trucks at the terminals. This is to prevent exposure to water sources. When buying fuel, keep in mind that private gas stations, such as those selling marine fuel, are not necessarily required to follow the same guidelines and laws as public service stations. And although most retailers are required to  label pumps indicating the alcohol levels, some do not have to do this, laws vary widely. Use caution, choose busier fuel stations, be aware of how your engine is supposed to function.

Check the Recommended Fuel Type in Your Owner’s Manual

Many small engines require non alcohol fuels as do many older vehicles manufactured before 1998. For engines that are designed for E10 fuels, choosing a mid to high grade gasoline. Do not use fuel additives or treatments that contain ethanol or alcohol.

Overlanding Concerns

The United States is the largest producer of ethanol. The United States uses mainly corn crops, while Brazil uses sugarcane. Combined, the United States and Brazil produce 85% of the ethanol in the world. 95% of gasoline in the US is E10. In Brazil, their fuel blend is E27. With overlanding becoming more popular, travellers should be aware of the ethanol content in the fuel they are using around the world. Stories of engines ceasing or quitting on motorcycles are prevalent, and this is likely because most modern motorcycles are designed to run on E10, and older motorcycles are not meant to run with any ethanol content at all. Bringing a vehicle in to Brazil that is not designed for levels of ethanol E27 could be catastrophic. Something to consider.


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