The Future of Biofuels A World View (August, 2013)

An overview of the current biofuel policy from Europe and other jurisdictions around the world and some of the advancements being made in biofuel research. report is based upon attendance at the World Biofuel Congress held in Rotterdam in March 2013.

About Ethanol PDF Print E-mail

What is ethanol?

Ethanol is a liquid fuel that can be blended with gasoline to burn cleaner and reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Ethanol (also known as ethyl alcohol) is a liquid alcohol made up of carbon, hydrogen and oxygen defined by the chemical formula C2H5OH.  Renewable ethanol, sometimes called bioethanol, is typically made from the fermentation of sugars or starches derived from agricultural crops such as corn or wheat but may also be produced from woody or grassy (cellulosic) biomass using second generation technology.  Ethanol may also be synthesized through other industrial processes from feedstocks such as municipal garbage, and fossil-derived ethanol can also be produced industrially, typically from ethylene (a product stream from petroleum refining).

The renewable ethanol used for transportation fuel under Canadian and provincial renewable fuel regulations is the same substance found in alcoholic beverages.  However, it is distilled or purified to contain less than 1% water or additives by volume, and is then treated with a denaturant that renders it unfit for human consumption.

Ethanol used in gasoline (blends of which are sometimes called ‘gasohol’) must comply with stringent Canadian and international standards.  See the section below What about Quality for more information.

What are the types of renewable fuels used in gasoline?

Various types of oxygenates can be used in blends with gasoline, including a variety of ethers and alcohols. Canada’s renewable fuel regulations requires the use of renewable forms of fuel in mandated gasoline and distillate markets; Alberta’s renewable fuel regulation is more specific, requiring renewable content in gasoline in the form of ‘renewable alcohol’ (which may include ethanol, butanol or other renewable alcohols).

For the purpose of this website, the type of renewable fuel used in gasoline is assumed to be ethanol, as ethanol is the primary renewable alcohol used in blends with gasoline in Canada.

How is ethanol used?

As a fuel additive, ethanol is mixed with gasoline blending stocks that have been refined to accommodate oxygenates [1]. Ethanol blends have been used across North America since the early 1980s in gasoline engines at blends up to 10% (known as E10).  By contrast, high blends (typically sold as E85, or up to 85% ethanol) can be used in vehicles that are specifically designed for ethanol, or to operate on a range of ethanol blends (the latter are known as flex-fuel vehicles, or FFVs).  For guidance on the appropriate fuels for your equipment, consult your owner’s manual.

Why use ethanol?

Ethanol is blended with gasoline to help improve air quality and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Ethanol-blended gasolines lower the exhaust emissions of carbon monoxide, particulate matter and some toxics. However, some emissions, for example nitrogen oxides and acetaldehydes, are expected to increase. The table below summarizes the results of various studies on the impact of an E10 blend on tailpipe emissions.

*Whereas a number of studies have shown a slight increase in NOx emissions with an E10 blends, some have shown a decrease in NOx emissions depending on engine technology, blend level and exhaust treatment technology, thereby producing mixed results.
**In a follow-up study, formaldehyde emissions were found to change according to temperature.

Source: U.S. Department of Energy

Ethanol also reduces greenhouse gas emissions on a lifecycle basis.  Across Canada, regulations requiring the use of ethanol at an average blend of 5% (or E5) will reduce lifecycle GHG emissions from burning gasoline by about 3%, or approximately 2 megatonnes per year (rising to about 3 megatonnes as our economy grows).  A recent analysis conducted using the GHGenius lifecycle assessment model shows that pure ethanol made from wheat in western Canada represents approximately 50% reduction in GHG emissions (on an energy basis) compared to gasoline.  Some of Canada’s ethanol producers are not standalone ethanol plants but rather integrated biorefineries (multi-product facilities) that may produce ethanol with 90% or greater lifecycle reductions in GHG emissions.

Using ethanol also provides new market opportunities for agricultural producers and potentially for woody (cellulosic) product streams that are currently wastes from agriculture and forestry.  Some Canadian companies are preparing to produce ethanol from those cellulosic feedstocks and municipal solid waste (garbage).

Using a lifecycle assessment (comparing the energy used to produce a fuel and the energy available in the fuel to power a vehicle) ethanol has a positive energy balance.  According to a recent analysis conducted using Natural Resources Canada’s GHGenius model, for every unit of fossil energy used to produce ethanol from corn, 1.77 units of energy are available as fuel.

Production of renewable fuels is generally not expected to affect food prices. However, fuels like agricultural prices are commodities and can influence suppliers to gravitate to the end use that will provide the best return on investment.  Overall, the federal renewable fuel regulations are expected to have minimal impact on the agriculture sector. Given its use of non-food feedstocks, deployment of second generation technology would release more cropland from biofuel production.

What about quality?

Fuel suppliers upstream of retail sales will manage the quality and seasonal performance of finished gasoline in the same way that it is currently managed.  For normal users of gasoline, low level blends up to E10 can be used, stored and handled in the same way as petroleum gasoline.  The specifications of gasoline containing up to E10 in Canada comply with CAN/CGSB-3.511 per the table below.  The specifications limits are the same as those that contain no ethanol in CAN/CGSB-3.5.

The quality of ethanol and ethanol blends in North America are defined by the following quality standards under the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) and the

Note: this table provides information on ethanol blends for gasoline. Standards also exist for petroleum fuels as well and can be found at ASTM and CGSB.

As a consumer am I obligated to use ethanol?

No.  Renewable fuel requirements create obligations for fuel suppliers to sell a certain percentage of fuel as renewable content.  For example, Alberta’s mandate for 5% renewable content in gasoline and 2% renewable content in diesel are annual averages, meaning that fuel suppliers have flexibility to vary blends according to seasonal and geographic requirements, including the potential to sell fuel without renewable content.  For information about the specific fuel you are buying, ask your fuel supplier.

Must I change the way I buy fuel?

No.  Fuel vendors will provide low blends (up to E10 or up to B5) through typical distribution channels.  All blending of fuel components to create finished seasonal fuels will be handled by fuel suppliers, either ‘at the rack’ or upstream of being sold at bulk or retail levels.  Higher level blends may be available at public pumps.

What blends will be in the pumps?

As a result of regulated renewable fuel requirements the fuel available in retail pumps will typically contain from zero up to 10% ethanol (or up to E10).  A regulated requirement of 5% renewable content in gasoline means that over the course of the year, and in the geographic region that is mandated, fuel suppliers must include an average of 5% renewable content in the fuel they sell.  Seasonal and geographic flexibility with blend levels will allow fuel suppliers to provide quality fuel that is fit for purpose at the time of sale for a given region.

Some jurisdictions, for example BC, require pumps dispensing blends above E10 to be labeled as such. Likewise, for higher blends to be counted toward compliance for the federal renewable fuel regulations, blends above B5 or E10 must be labeled or the nature of the higher blends must be communicated with the customer.  This requirement ensures consumers are able to make informed decisions about the fuel they use in their vehicles or equipment.  Ask your fuel supplier if you have any questions.

What about higher blends?

Ethanol blends are typically offered at blends of E10 or lower, allowing fuel producers some flexibility in adjusting for seasonal conditions.  However, in some places, high blends of up to 85% ethanol (E85) may be offered for use in flex fuel vehicles, or FFVs (the 15% gasoline provides fuel vapour for cold starting).
E85 must only be used in vehicles that are designed to run on this fuel.  Consult your owner’s manual for information on suitable fuels for your vehicle. 

Last Updated on Tuesday, 11 March 2014 15:13

BioFleet is a trademark of Fraser Basin Council; Current website updated by Climate Change Central