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NASCAR and E15: The fallacy of ethanol

The United States faces two problems when it comes to transportation:  getting fuel and the by-products of burning it.

The United States imports over 2/3 of the petroleum we use for transportation, primarily because most of the easily accessible oil isn’t located in places we control.  Easy sources of U.S. petroleum are being exhausted, which forces us to look for and extract oil from less-convenient places, like deep underwater.  Accessing these oil reserves is more expensive – companies are willing to do it only because oil prices have risen so much.  As we’ve seen in the Gulf, going further and deeper for oil presents greater potential hazards if something goes wrong.  Being dependent on other countries for energy is bad, so developing energy sources that we have greater local control over is a good goal.

The second is that combusting any fuel containing carbon creates carbon dioxide and/or carbon monoxide.  Both are greenhouse gases that contribute to increasing the global mean temperature.  Every gallon of gasoline combusted produces 19.4 lbs of carbon dixoide.  In 2009, the US consumed about 138 billion gallons of gasoline, which means we produced 2.7 trillion pounds of carbon dioxide last year.  One small comfort about the economic decline is that people in the U.S. are driving less:  we consumed less gas in 2009 than in 2007, when we used 142 billion gallons of gasoline.  If you simply calculate how much the world’s population will increase in the next 30 years, and how many more people will demand access to the standard of living we enjoy in the US, you ought to be worried.  Even if you don’t believe in global warming, the health consequences of pollution from cars are scary – ask anyone who lives in LA.

NASCAR announced Saturday that they will be introducing E15 as the official fuel for 2011.  E15 is a mixture of 15% (by volume) of ethanol and 85% gasoline.  NASCAR’s fuel, which is provided by Sunoco, uses corn-based ethanol.  Why only 15% ethanol?  Because ethanol is tough on engine components.  It eats away certain types of polymers and can be very corrosive on cast iron and some aluminum alloys.  The government is planning on approving up to E15 for cars manufactured after 2007, but there are some serious issues being raised that may delay this change.  For example, small engines (like those in weed whackers and lawnmowers) may have series problems with E15.  If you’re like me, you fill those devices with the same gas you put in your car.  On the other hand, I guess if people need to replace a lot of things, that would help stimulate the economy.  Also, ethanol is more flammable and doesn’t work well with fuel gauges that use capacitance measurements (not an issue on NASCAR cars, which only measure fuel pressure). More at BuildingSpeed.org

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