Should Your Construction Company Switch to Ethanol?

imageBy Roy Rasmussen

Almost all gallons of gasoline used in the U.S. today now contain 10 percent or more of ethanol, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. Ethanol has grown in popularity because of its renewability and low greenhouse gas emissions, which are only 43 percent of gasoline emissions after land use change emissions are factored in.

But if you’re a construction industry professional, a practical question you might be asking is: does using ethanol-powered vehicles make sense from a business perspective? Here’s a look at some of the practical differences between ethanol and gasoline engines in terms of performance and price.

Ethanol vs. Gasoline

Traditional gas comes from petroleum, which is a mixture made from many different kinds of hydrocarbons. Petroleum comes from rock formations that lie under oil fields. It must be extracted through drilling and pumping and then refined into gasoline in order to be used as fuel.

In contrast, ethanol comes from ethyl alcohol, which is the same type of alcohol found in alcoholic drinks. It is produced as a natural byproduct of yeast, and it can be made by fermenting sugar or hydrating ethylene. It is usually produced from biomass, which consists of organic matter containing sugar and starch or cellulose, such as corn or wood chips. Ethanol is produced from biomass by grinding grain into flour meal, known as dry milling, or soaking grain in water and dilute sulfurous acid, known as wet milling.

Fuel and Engine Differences

Fuel and engines are categorized based on how much engine cylinders compress fuel and air. High-compression engines exert more pressure than low-compression engines. This can trigger premature ignition and power waste, which is known as engine knock. Engine knock can damage engines.

For efficient operation, high-compression engines require gasoline with more knock resistance than low-compression engines. A fuel’s knock resistance is expressed by its octane number. A high octane number indicates greater knock resistance.

Ethanol generates less energy per gallon than gasoline, but it has a greater octane number. Ethanol is often added to low-octane gasoline to raise knock resistance.

But ethanol has strong solvent properties that can damage engines that were built to run on pure gasoline. It can absorb water, and it can corrode parts of traditional engines, including aluminum, brass, copper, as well as plastic and rubber compounds that haven’t been specially treated. Ethanol can also overheat engines and cause excessive pressure.

To make them safe for ethanol, most vehicles built since 2005 have computers that automatically adjust air/fuel mixtures and spark timing enough to use fuel mixtures of up to 15 percent ethanol. Engines designed to use ethanol blends have rubber sealants and o-rings made out of special materials such as fluorocarbonsthat have high temperature resistance. Engines can also be customized to use pure ethanol.

Performance

Ethanol isn’t as fuel efficient as traditional gasoline. It generates about one-third less energy per gallon. This makes a 15-percent ethanol mixture about 30-percent less efficient than pure gasoline fuel. As a result, ethanol gets fewer miles per gallon.

In other respects, ethanol performs as well as gasoline. It can compete with gasoline for acceleration, power and cruise capability.

Price

Ethanol costs less than gasoline, and is priced lowest in parts of the country that grow corn. In the first half of April 2017, the national average price for E85 ethanol was $2.11 per gallon, compared to $2.38 per gallon for gasoline, the U.S. Department of Energy reports. The Energy Information Administration increased its ethanol production outlook for the year in May 2017, which should sustain this price advantage into 2018.

However, ethanol’s price per gallon advantage can be offset by its lower mileage per gallon. For a 2014 Ford Focus, E85 ethanol would have to be 30 percent cheaper than gas in order to deliver a real savings advantage, Kiplinger says. This must be factored in when making cost comparisons.

Making Cost Comparisons

For construction vehicles, fuel efficiency as measured in terms of productivity per gallon is the key metric to consider when evaluating fuels. For example, with a four-wheel-drive loader, you might measure how much material can be moved per gallon using pure gasoline versus using an ethanol blend. The most accurate evaluation is to test fuel consumption in a working application, with controls over working conditions to ensure a valid comparison. Telematics solutions such as Cat Product Link and Vision Link can help you collect the relevant data.

Roy Rasmussen, coauthor of "Publishing for Publicity," is a freelance writer who helps select clients write quality content to reach business and technology audiences. His clients have included Fortune 500 companies and bestselling authors. His most recent projects include books on cloud computing, small business management, sales, business coaching, social media marketing and career planning.

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