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

Jan. 8, 2008
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.

In mid-May, GM also announced that 14 models - or about 400,000 total vehicles - that can run on E85 ethanol, would be released in 2007; compared with nine models in 2006.

Ethanol is produced at a production facility as 100 percent ethanol. Prior to leaving the facility it is denatured (substances added) to ensure that humans don't consume it.

Once the ethanol has been transported to the fuel supplier and dispensed into the storage tank, the fuel carrier will order a supply of E85. The fuel supplier will fill the tanker truck with 8.5 parts of denatured ethanol and 1.5 parts of unleaded gasoline into the tanker truck.

The Department of Energy released the following information in May 2006 about the number of places where E85 is available in the United States.

To operate on E85 the vehicle must be compatible with alcohol use. These flexible fuel vehicles (FFV) are similar to a gasoline vehicle with just a few exceptions.

It is important to know that FFV's can operate from no ethanol to 90 percent ethanol. However, a non FFV can only run on up to E10 or 10 percent ethanol.

Ethanol is produced from corn. A bushel of corn produces 2.8 gallons of ethanol. Fortunately, because it is produced from a crop, it is considered a renewable fuel.

The United States Federal Highway Administration states that each vehicle on the road today emits approximately 600 pounds of pollution into the air ever year. This has significant long term effects to our health due to the carbon monoxide and smog it creates.

Ethanol-fueled vehicles produce lower carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions as gasoline powered vehicles.

It is mandatory that tanks containing ethanol fuel must be labeled with a bronze pentagon decal and a black "E85" in middle of the decal. The labels can be found on the fillbox and fillbox cover.

The Department of Energy frequently analyzes samples of E85 from the fuel provider. The package containing the E85 will contain this information on the outside of the package:

  • Identification Number: "NA1993"
  • Diamond Labels: Health 2, Flammability 3, Reactivity 0
  • Label: "Flammable Liquid"
  • Arrow Label: "This End UP"

Where Can First Responders Encounter This Hazard?
The National Street Car Association is currently working on adopting E85 as a fuel for the American Muscle Car and Street eliminator racing class. The Indy Racing League (IRL) is also planning on moving to ethanol based fuels this year. National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) has also been discussing plans of switching to an alcohol based fuel in the near future. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) also allows ethanol as a fuel in many of its racing classes.

Here is a partial list of flexible fuel vehicles In the United States, these are some of the following vehicles are considered current E85 flexible-fuel cars:

  • Chrysler Sebring and Town & Country
  • Dodge Caravan, Durango, Grand Caravan, Ram Pickup, Stratus
  • Ford Crown Victoria, F-150, Taurus, Sport Trac XLT, Ford Ranger, Ford Explorer, Mercury Grand Marquis, Mercury Mountaineer, Lincoln Town Car
  • Chevrolet Avalanche, Impala, Monte Carlo, Silverado, Suburban, Tahoe, S-10 Pickup
  • Nissan Titan

The use of ethanol blends is common. From summer blends, which are designed to reduce emissions during the summer months, that are E85 (85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline) to winter blends that are E70 (70 percent ethanol and 30 percent gasoline), ethanol is becoming more and more popular. Some states even make E10 mandatory all year regardless of the season.

Ethanol blends are used as opposed to blends with the chemical Methyl Tertiary Butyl ther (MTBE); which has been increasingly turning up in ground water. Given the increasing production and use of ethanol blends, the firefighter should take the time to understand their properties and consider firefighting tactics.

Part 2 will look at the firefighting tactics and safety issues.

Jonathan Riffe is a firefighter for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department and the Chief of the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department. He has an AAS degree in Fire Science from the College of Southern Maryland and a BS degree in Fire Science from the University Of Maryland University College. He currently teaches Firefighter training through the Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute and has assisted in teaching Mayday training at Fire Expo. He has several certifications including Firefighter II, Fire Officer IV, EMT-B, Haz-Mat Tech, and Instructor III.

Larry Patin is a planner with the United States Capitol Police Hazardous Materials Response Team. He is currently the Fire Captain of the Huntingtown Volunteer Fire Department where he also served nine years as Fire Chief. He holds a BS in Emergency Health Services Management. He has been a Maryland Fire and Rescue Institute instructor for the past 18 years and also teaches at Fire Expo and FDIC. He holds a number of certifications including NREMT-P, Fire Office II, Fire Instructor III and HazMat Technician.

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