Switching to Ethanol

May, 2015:

In this experiment, we are going to gradually replace gasoline with ethanol (E85). We are working with a Scion xA, which is not a flex-fuel vehicle. We will conduct some corrosion-level and MPG tests and document the results with as many details as possible.

IMPORTANT: This is an experiment done by Matt, a LEAN engineer, and Clara, an environmentalist. We are no experts on the subject, so we don’t recommend that you do the same with your car… At least not yet.

Ethanol at the pumpWe are investing time and effort into this experiment because we are considering possible alternatives to oil. Petroleum is a non-renewable resource; it has become extremely powerful and it has sparked and fueled many wars. In addition, many oil spills have occurred over the years, causing irreparable damage to the environment, and carbon emissions keep rising due to the ever increasing number of cars on the roads. It costs car manufacturers somewhere around $200 extra per vehicle to make a car flex-fuel capable. The whole country of Brazil has switched to ethanol, which they produce using sugar cane.

Ethanol in the US is mostly made using corn. According to the research professor of Ecology, Norman Christensen, “U.S. polices have encourage the increased use of corn to produce ethanol as a supplement to gasoline to fuel automobiles. By 2008, one-third of U.S. corn production was being used to make ethanol. In just two years, the price of corn had increased by 300%. Corn is a staple food that is also used to feed livestock and is a basic ingredient in many processed foods. Because of the wide use of corn and because the United States produces 40% of the world’s corn, the U.S. polices regarding corn affected the price and availability of a wide variety of foods around the world” (The Environment and You_Chapter 13: Agriculture and the Ecology of Food. Boston: Pearson, 2013. Print).

Ethanol, however, can also be made out of garbage, grasses or agricultural waste. We think that not enough effort has been invested to find out exactly what is the truth about ethanol as an alternative to gasoline, and one of the reasons for that might be the power of the oil industry.

After watching the 2014 film PUMP,E85
we decided to try switching one of our vehicles to ethanol (E85). The car that we are going to use in this experiment is a 2006 Scion xA Manual Hatchback, which we bought used a few years ago. The car has 110 k miles on it, has always run great and gets pretty good gas mileage: 30/34 MPG. We are not going to install a flex-fuel device and we are not going to reprogram the car’s computer. For now, we are just going to gradually replace gasoline with ethanol. To start, we are going to mix the gasoline that is already in the tank with E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline). In this page, we will document the results with as many details as possible. The results might be positive, neutral or negative. We will find out together!

PUMP_ Converting your car to flex-fuel can be easy and liberating. Methanol and ethanol fuels are clean, abundant, cheap and they are right here, in America, already available in some independent gas stations. Some battles need bullets, this one needs tanks, and yours can be one of them! Watch this documentary and find out what your choices are at the pump! (Available on Netflix)

PUMP. Documentary. Dir. Joshua Tickell. 19 Sep. 2014.

Possible Advantages:

  • Bioenergy is carbon-neutral. The carbon released in the burning of the biofuel equals the carbon absorbed by the plant in its lifetime.
  • Increased use of biofuels may help reduce acid rain and smog (its combustion emits much less pollutants than burning fossil fuels).
  • The biomass energy (corn or sugarcane) used to produce ethanol is renewable and can be produced domestically.
  • Ethanol can be produced from fermented food waste and organic waste (wastes from agriculture and forestry).
  • Greater production and consumption of ethanol fuel = less dependance on non-renewable fossil fuels and imported oil

Possible Disadvantages:

  • Greater demand for corn = more deforestation
  • The increased use of corn might increase the demand for fertilizers, pesticides and water, which would also increase soil erosion and chemical runoff.
  • A higher demand for corn could make food prices go up and could cause food shortages.
  • Large amounts of fossil fuels are used in corn production (growing, processing and transporting).
  • Only the corn kernels are used for ethanol production (ethanol produced from sugarcane is much more efficient than ethanol produced from corn).


May 3, 2015_DAY 1:

We watched the documentary film PUMP, which inspired us to do more research and ultimately, experiment with our own car.

May 4, 2015_DAY 2:

AM_We did some research on the internet: read articles and blogs, and watched videos, including news clips. We wanted to know both sides of the argument. Oil companies are very powerful, so you need to consider the source of the information when researching this topic, be skeptical (we recommend that you watch PUMP, The Revenge of the Electric Carread about Rockefeller’s oil empire/monopoly, Ford’s first car—which ran on ethanol—and prohibition, and if you can, be skeptical about that too). Most of the news clips we saw were anti ethanol, Fox News was one of them. The anchors didn’t have any real evidence or data to back up their claims (such as testimonials or studies conducted on the matter), but they were warning the population about the horrible things that could happen if you use ethanol fuel mixtures: void your car’s warranty, damage to your vehicle, increased food prices, etcetera. We also found a pretty pathetic episode of Jay Leno’s Garage, in which Mr. Leno who was basically trying to sell a product: the ultimate fuel. He said that the 10/15% of ethanol (E15) that was being mixed into regular gasoline, damaged the gas tanks of some of his cars and motorcycles. Other videos and articles also claimed that ethanol is more corrosive than gasoline and can cause damage to your fuel lines and other engine components, but we did not find anything with concrete evidence supporting these claims. We have to do more research. We also watched a video where a guy did a complete engine tear down after running E85 in his non flex-fuel vehicle for over 100k miles and none of the engine components showed signs of corrosion or unusual wear, on the contrary, he claimed that since ethanol burns cleaner, it improved the overall performance of his vehicle. This man was also an ethanol industry executive, so his opinion was probably bias. Finally, in a website called Fill your Car with Freedom, we found a video of a test made with 3 different new rubber hoses: the first one was kept unused, the second one was exposed to ethanol, and the third one to gasoline. The results showed clearly that ethanol did no damage to the rubber hose, but the gasoline did. The hose exposed to gasoline shrunk and lost its elasticity.

We are thinking about filling a jar with E85 and another with gasoline and putting a steel bolt and a rubber hose in each to see what happens over a period of time. After all ethanol is alcohol, how can it be so bad? We drink alcohol in many forms: fermented barley (beer), grapes (wine), agave (tequila), corn (moonshine), etcetera. It seems to me that gasoline should be more corrosive than alcohol…But of course, vehicles are not living creatures, I can’t compare them with people. We need to do some more research and conduct some experiments…

PM_After the short time spent researching the topic we felt confident enough to start using small amounts of E85 in one of our vehicles. We decided to put 1 gallon of E85 in the Scion. We did a Google search to find a gas station that sold E85 and we easily found one close to our house. The price of the E85 was $3.179 per gallon, not much cheaper than the price of gasoline. What a rip off, I thought this stuff was supposed to be cheap! The Scion already had 7 gallons of gasoline in the tank. After driving for a total of 20 freeway and city miles, we noticed that the car had more power, and felt the need to top off the tank with more E85 (2.3 more gallons, a total of 3.3). Maybe a rushed decision, but it’s already done. We’ll see…

ethanol receipts

May 5, 2015_DAY 3:

AM_I was concerned about ethanol’s environmental impact. In the film PUMP, they said that ethanol is a product of the carbohydrates in food (corn or sugar cane) and that one of its byproducts is food (for example, cattle feed). I didn’t like that. I don’t eat meat because of its impact on the environment. So, growing all of that corn just to produce fuel and cattle feed is a waste of land and water. I did some research and I found this article:

The Truth About Ethanol: Ethanol is a key ingredient in today’s gasoline—but the promise of ethanol as an oil and climate solution depends on how it’s made and what it’s made from.

So, apparently ethanol is made from fermented organic matter. This matter could be corn or sugar cane, or it could be made out of garbage, grasses or agricultural waste, like tree and plants trimmings. Ethanol can be made out of fermented garbage! We produce so much garbage in this planet! Let’s make something good out of it!

I also wanted to know about the emissions produced when burning ethanol. We found a pretty good article on the matter on consumerreports.org. I guess ethanol emits acetaldehyde, listed by the EPA as a probable carcinogen. Acetaldehyde is bad, however,  according to James Cannon, president of Energy Futures, is “not nearly as bad as some of the emissions from gasoline.”

PM_We went out for a Cinco de Mayo drink. On our way back, we tested the car’s power, we hit the gas and felt the extra power of the car. It really feels like it has some nuts! Maybe that is how cars act “under the influence.”

We are going to wait until we have an empty tank to calculate the car’s MPG. 65% gasoline 35% ethanol.

May 8, 2015_DAY 6:

AM_We are listening to NPR. They are broadcasting a NPR special on the endangered Devil’s Hole pupfish (which lives in Ash Meadows, Nevada). Devil’s Hole is famous for housing the desert pupfish, a tiny fish, the size of your thumb, that is only found in the US Southwest desert. Frank van Breukelen and Stan Hillyard, both UNLV researchers, conducted some research on these fish and they found out that the pupfish can survive up to five hours consuming almost no oxygen. These tiny fish are able to produce ethanol which they use to change their metabolism in order to survive in a habitat with such low levels of available oxygen! The fish are practically chronic alcoholics with a typical lifespan of 6 months.

“What’s really neat is how pupfish go into this paradoxical anaerobism,” Breukelen said. “They are producing some ethanol, and we think that ethanol closes down a channel in the mitochondria, where they use oxygen. We think this paradoxical anaerobism is almost a mistake.”

Ventilation in fish is driven by oxygen levels. When the oxygen level is high and fish produce ethanol, it closes off the mitochondria. This means the fish are not consuming the oxygen they are bringing in, and so there is no need to increase ventilation, which is why they end up dropping into this paradoxical anaerobism (…) However, going without oxygen does have negative side effects. Researchers discovered damage to some of the pupfish similar to the effects of chronic alcoholism. “There is a protein that is normally expressed in smooth muscle called alpha actin,” said van Breukelen. “Much like what we’d find in an alcoholic’s liver, we find this smooth muscle actin being expressed in the fish’s livers.”

Pretty crazy stuff, isn’t it?

May 9, 2015_DAY 7:

The Scion’s tank is half way empty and we have driven 150 miles, the norm for this car. We haven’t noticed any abnormalities. The performance of the car seems to be the same or better.

Do you know why they add 15% gasoline to E85? So people who live in extremely cold climates can start up their car in the winter. For plain ethanol fuel, they add 1% gasoline, so people don’t drink it!

80% E85Matt says: The two major reasons why you shouldn’t run E85 in a non flex-fuel vehicle, as I understand it at the moment, is possible engine component corrosion and an that there is less energy in a gallon of ethanol than a gallon of gasoline (less miles per gallon).  I am less concerned about the corrosion because of all the cars that are running on ethanol in Brazil (that may or may not be “flex-fuel vehicles”) and because I have read a number of testimonials on the internet of people who claim that they have been running E85 in non flex-fuel vehicles for years.  However, I do plan on performing my own corrosivity test on E85 and regular gasoline in the near future.

PM_ We put an additional 5 gallons of E85 in the Scion. We had driven 154.4 miles in 30% E85 and 70% gasoline, which means we got 30 MPG. The car is now running on 80% E85 and 20% gasoline. The check engine hasn’t come on yet.

May 17, 2015_DAY 15:

92 percent E85

We went to the gas station with a little less than half of a tank and filled the tank with E85. We had driven 180 miles on 80% E85 and 20% pure gasoline. From that mixture, we got 28.86 MPG. Now, we added another 6 gallons to the tank, which means that we are running 92% on E85. The “Check Engine” light still hasn’t turned on. The “maintenance required” light has been on for months because Matt changes the oil himself and has not reset the light. We need to find out how to reset the light. He said he is going to google it and get it done today. I will post an updated picture if he does. We also want take the car to the mechanic in a couple of moths to get a full check-up.

May 19, 2015_DAY 17:

Matt reset the “maintenance required” light.

Maintenance Light Off

June 1, 2015_DAY 30:

The Scion is still running great. The “check engine” light still hasn’t turned on and there are no noticeable signs of damage of any kind. However, looks like the MPG will probably be much lower in this latest tank. It is almost time to fuel up again so, I will most likely provide those numbers in the next few days.

We also put together an E85 and a gasoline corrosion test. Both jars contain a chunk of aluminum, a piece of radiator/heater rubber hose and few inches of clear polyurethane hose. These pictures are from today, I just deposited these materials in the E85 and gasoline jars. I will post updates and new pictures.

June 2, 2015_DAY 31:

Corrosion test materials after 24 hours of exposure (gasoline is on the left and E85 on the right):

Gasoline and E85 Corrosion Test (24 hrs)

June 4, 2015_DAY 33:

Yesterday, we fueled up the Scion (240 miles driven on 10 gallons of E85).  From this latest tank, which was 92% E85, the car traveled an average of 24 miles per gallon. So far, a gallon of E85 is only a few cents cheaper than a gallon of gasoline and is 20% less fuel efficient than gasoline. On the other hand, we still haven’t noticed any negative impacts on the performance of the vehicle as a result of using this alternative fuel and the “check engine” light hasn’t turned on.

Matt was out of fuel and could not find a gas station that sold E85, so he had to gas up with regular gasoline. I guess it will be a good test, since we did not start this experiment with a pure gasoline MPG number.

June 19, 2015_DAY 48:

From the last 10 gallons of gasoline, we got an average of 30.7 MPG. On June 15, we fueled up again with 10 gallons of E85 and after driving 30 miles, the “check engine” light turned on. It’s time to take the Zion to the mechanic for a check-up.

June 23_DAY 52:

The “check engine” light just turned off by itself while driving.

Check Engine Light turned offJuly 27, 2015_DAY 86:

The “check engine” light turned on a couple more times, but it turned back off afterwards. Other than that, the car still drives normal and no signs of damage have been noticed.

This is a picture I took this morning of the jar experiment; gasoline is on the left and E85 on the right. Somehow, the level of gasoline is lower (you can see the mark of the original level), as if some gasoline has evaporated or being absorbed by the rubber:

Jar Experiment (E85 and Gasoline) (1)


August 22, 2015_DAY 112:

We haven’t planed our fuel ups very well and found ourselves running low on fuel in areas of town where E85 is not available. Our latest tank of E85, burnt mostly on highway, averaged 26.1 mpg (259.7 miles/9.949 gallons).

November 3, 2015_MONTH 7:

Due to our inability to find gas stations that sell ethanol, we are still alternating between E85 and regular gasoline. The Scion’s tank was last filled with 10 gallons of E85.

The weather is getting colder. Yesterday morning (50 degrees Fahrenheit) the car had a hard time starting up. Usually, it starts up right away, yesterday it took a few more seconds to start, but then ran normally.

November 8, 2015_MONTH 7:

Yesterday we fueled up the Scion E85 fuel upagain with E85. From our previous E85 tank, we got 26.5 miles per gallon (225 miles/8.5 gallons). The “check engine” light has been on for a few weeks now. The car has been running great, city and freeway, and we have not noticed any problems or anomalies in its overall performance. However, sometimes it has a hard time starting up in the morning, it takes a few more seconds than normal to start, we think that this new sign is related to the colder weather…I guess we will see what happens as the weather keeps getting colder.

November 16, 2015_MONTH 7:

The Scion was having a hard time starting up every morning, which is not good for the car, and the “check engine” light wasn’t turning on and off like it did at the beginning, it has been on for a while now. Yesterday, we burnt most of the E85 on a long distance day trip and then fueled up with gasoline. This morning, the car started up right away. The “check engine” light is still on though, I believe it will turn off by itself in the next few days. I will post it as soon as it does.

We have decided that we will no longer fuel up the Scion with E85. We are arriving at the conclusion that, besides the fact that it is hard to come by and is less efficient than gasoline, E85 seems to be unsafe for a non flex-fuel vehicle.

We will continue reporting updates about the E85 and gasoline corrosion test (a jar filled with E85 and a jar filled with gasoline containing each a chunk of aluminum, a piece of radiator/heater rubber hose and a few inches of clear polyurethane hose). The aluminum in the E85 jar is starting to show some signs of deterioration or corrosion. I will back this up with a photograph.

November 18, 2015_MONTH 7:

Yesterday, while driving back from work, the “check engine” light turned itself off. Also, the car has been starting up normally.

March 16, 2016:

I just wanted to say that the Scion’s performance has been great since we starting fueling up with regular gasoline. We haven’t fueled up with E85 since last year because the car was taking longer than normal to start (in cold weather). The Scion has been starting up right away and it has also been running very smooth. Finally, the car’s fuel efficient went back to an average of 32 mpg.

January 4, 2018: END OF EXPERIMENT

These are the E85 and gasoline corrosion test glass jars after 2.5 years. Both jars contain a chunk of aluminum, a piece of radiator/heater rubber hose and few inches of clear polyurethane hose. The contents in the E85 jar look a little different from the ones in the gasoline jar. For instance, E85 seemed to have kept the black rubber hose’s original shape while the gasoline black rubber seems to have expanded. In addition, the piece of aluminum in the E85 jar has built up some type of residue or corrosion. Another change worth mentioning is that the level of gasoline is lower than the E85. This is something that occurred soon after starting the test. It seems like some gasoline evaporated somehow or was absorbed by the rubber hoses. Not sure. Maybe, the jar was not properly sealed? Finally, the color of the E85 changed little bit; it became darker, more yellowish.

I have decided to take these last photos and dispose of the content. I did put the gasoline and E85 into my Yaris gasoline tank because I did not know what else to do with it. This last step officially ends this experiment. Before and after pictures:


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