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Tim Blagg

Blagg: Switch from gasoline to ethanol linked to higher ozone levels

We’re all familiar with the fact that when we fill up our cars with gasoline these days, what flows into the tank is really not all gas. Ten percent of that very expensive liquid with which we fuel our automobiles is really alcohol.

It’s a government edict, done for our own good... or is it?

The original idea was that using ethanol — a form of alchohol — as an additive, was that it would help move the country from its dependence on foreign oil to more domestic supplies, and also that it would help improve our air quality.

A side benefit, it was thought, was that it would provide a built-in subsidy for American’s farmers, since their corn would be used to produce the ethanol.

Well, it hasn’t worked out as planned.

For one thing, a large-scale analysis of using ethanol, done in Brazil, showed clearly that it actually INCREASED the levels of ground-level ozone, or smog.

Sao Paulo proved a unique laboratory for studying the effects of ethanol and gasoline usage on local air pollution because 40 percent of the nearly 6 million light-duty vehicles there can run on either fuel. Contrary to everybody’s predictions, when the percentage of those vehicles using gasoline rose from 14 percent to 76 percent, ambient ozone concentrations in the city fell by about 20 percent.

“Ozone and nitric oxide are both contributors to urban smog, so depending on how well a city is able to mitigate air pollution, ethanol may not be the ‘green fuel’ that it is often called,” said Franz Geiger, a professor of chemistry at Northwestern University who worked on the study.

Ethanol in Brazil is made from sugar cane, and in Sao Paulo, the fuel is E100, or nearly pure ethanol. In the United States, ethanol is mostly made from corn, and nearly all gasoline sold domestically is 10 percent ethanol by volume, or E10.

What makes thing worse is that it’s becoming clear that growing very large amounts of corn in the nation’s heartland also has a deleterious effect on the environment — enough so that it far outweighs any positive impact. Large amounts of energy — in the form of gasoline, fuel oil and natural gas — are expended to grow, harvest, transport and process corn.

In addition, since about 40 percent of the corn cultivated in the U.S. goes to ethanol production, that drives up the price of livestock feed and with it, the price of meat.

Not everybody agrees that the Brazilian study can be extrapolated to US conditions. But Roland Hwang, director of the energy and transportation program at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the study raised important issues for American policymakers.

“While it’s critical that we reduce our oil dependency, we certainly shouldn’t do it in a way that worsens air quality, water quality and carbon pollution,” he said.

“It’s important that we better understand what’s driving these results — since the conventional wisdom for decades is that higher blends of ethanol burns cleaner than gasoline.”

The whole idea of adding ethanol to our gasoline needs to be examined more closely, especially since some states are already exploring the idea of mandating higher levels of ethanol. Minnesota has already moved to E20, while E85 is now sold in the Middle West for “flexible fuel” vehicles.

While it’s true that our current E10 mixture obviates the need for adding alcohol to gas tanks in the winter as a preventative for gas line freeze-up, it’s becoming less clear that its use nationwide is a good thing in the long run.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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