Ethanol: It's Not What You Think it is, or is it? - Part 1

Does ethanol burn the same as a gasoline fire or; does it burn more like a propane fire? How many E85 fueling stations are in your response area, if any at all?


Ethanol was developed hundreds of year ago and has been used in our automobiles since 1908. However, how many people are actually familiar with E85 Fuel and what it actually is?

More importantly, from a fire service standpoint, how many firefighters have read up on and understand the properties of this fuel, its uses, and the proper methods in extinguishing this type of fire? Does it burn the same as a gasoline fire or; does it burn more like a propane fire? How many E85 fueling stations are in your response area, if any at all? Is it a liquid or gas?

If you can not answer these questions, don't be alarmed. Ask your fellow firefighters the same and you won't feel so bad. E85 Fuel is becoming increasingly common in the United States and will soon be coming to a town near you.

What is E85 Fuel?
As mentioned earlier, ethanol fuel has been in existence for several hundreds of years. It was first synthetically prepared in 1826. E85 Fuel is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline by volume.

Ethanol is known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol and has been around for several centuries. Since the beginning of time, ethanol has been the intoxicating ingredient in alcohol.

This is also what creates the "flammable vapors" of some alcoholic beverages. Several writings have been discovered discussing the properties, uses, and characteristics of ethanol since as early as the 700's.

In 1908, Henry Ford developed the Model T automobile, one of the first motorized vehicles. The Model T ran on alcohol or gasoline and was designed for farmers because they could make there own ethanol. In China, pottery was discovered that was over 9,000 years old containing dried residue of alcoholic beverages.

Ethanol usage was widely used throughout the 1920's and 1930's. Eventually, however, the usage of ethanol began to slowly deteriorate. Decades later, when concerns of leaded gasoline began to surface and problems began to occur with the supply of oil from the Middle East, interest was renewed in ethanol as well as other flexible fuels.

Many Americans can remember waiting in long lines at the gas stations in the 1970's. This was truly alarming and showed our dependence on imported oil. In 1978, the Energy Tax Act was passed which exempted the four cents per gallon tax on gasoline for any fuel blended with at least 10 percent ethanol.

By 1980, the production of ethanol was estimated at 175 million gallons and by 1998 had risen to 1.4 billion gallons. In 1980, two additional bills were passed which promoted the development of domestic fuel and energy conservation. Between, 1982-1984, two additional acts were passed increasing the exemption for 10 percent ethanol blended gas.

In 1990, Congress passed the Clean Air Amendments Act which created gasoline standards to reduce pollution in the cities by adding oxygenates and cleaner-burning additives including ethanol to the gasoline.

The 1992 Energy Policy Act required that the federal, state, and local governments as well as alternative fuel providers and public fleets must purchase vehicles that run on alternative fuels. The goal of this Act was to enhance America's energy security and improve the quality of the environment.

Alternative Fuel is Widely Used
E85 is widely known in Sweden and Brazil and is becoming very popular in the United States. In May 2005, Nebraska mandated that E85 be used in all state vehicles whenever possible. Since the late 1970's, Congress has passed several acts, that have increased the development of ethanol.

Currently there are 106 ethanol fuel plants and 46 under construction in 20 states. They can produce between 300,000 to 500,000 million gallons per year, and the numbers are continuing to rise.

In January 2006, there were between 500 to 600 filling stations in the United States. By the end of the year, that number will rise to above 2,500 filling stations. In addition, as of 2006, General Motors (GM) had built 1.7 million E85 capable vehicles, with plans for 400,000 more before years end.

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