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Just Because It's in Popular Science That Doesn't Mean It's True


An open letter to Jennifer Lu and Popular Science Magazine

By Marc J. Rauch
Exec. Vice President/Co-Publisher

Hi Jennifer -

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Marc Rauch

Regarding the article you wrote for Popular Science magazine in October 2018, Ethanol is renewable, but that doesn't mean it's good for us," I'm confused as to why you chose to do so. If you did it because you were assigned to it, then you should have done some real research into the issues. If you did it because you felt you had some valuable information to share, then you should have made certain that you had some valuable information to share. If you did it because you were offered some money by an oil industry entity, then you didn't do yourself any favor since it may ultimately cost you more in reputation.

The reason I'm contacting you today, in 2020, is because yesterday I received a message from a reader who disagrees with my advocacy of ethanol based upon your article. In my reply to this reader, I said that I could appreciate why he would cite your article, after all, it's in Popular Science magazine...a publication that many of us grew up with thinking that they know what they're talking about.

Unfortunately, this is another sad case of bursting the perception bubble, like finding out that the New York Times isn't fit to wipe your... um, to wrap fish in. I rate the level of information in your article to be somewhere around junior high school (now known as middle school).

Your main complaint with ethanol fuel is the issue of summertime smog and the claim that E10 somehow causes more low-level ozone to form than E0 (gasoline with no ethanol blended in). We know positively that E0 causes smog (proven by the decades of terrible smog in cities like Los Angeles and New York in the years preceding the use of E10). Moreover, we know that gasoline causes many other safety and health problems due to carbon monoxide, benzene, and the other junk added to the formula.

Ethanol burns so clean that people could be in a closed room burning ethanol (without any extraneous type of equipment to clean the fumes' emissions) and survive the experience quite handily. As I'm sure you know, ethanol is used safely for indoor lighting, heating, and cooking.

Therefore, the question is: What makes E10 hazardous (that it can create low level ozone smog)? There is only one answer: The cause is the 90% gasoline and aromatics that are contained in the E10 blend. The burning of all petroleum oil fuels produce nitrogen dioxide (NO2). This includes natural gas, which is a primary gas used for cooking and heating in the U.S. and in some other countries. (EPA's Basic Information about NO2)

"The Asthma Handbook" written by Jenny Lewis with The National Asthma Campaign (published by Vermilion Press 1995, Random House 2012), states this about nitrogen dioxide:

    " of the pollutants that is causing the most concern these days is nitrogen dioxide (NO2 ) which is produced by car exhaust fumes...This is particularly dangerous for people with asthma, since it adds to the problems of already reduced lung function and scarred lung tissue by clogging the lungs further.’ ...Nevertheless, nitrogen dioxide exposure is greatest indoors. In homes with gas fires and gas cookers, it is produced as a by-product of burning natural gas...Out on the street high levels of nitrogen dioxide can give rise to further pollution. In the presence of ultraviolet, which is part of sunlight, the gas is broken down to form low-level ozone." (this passage can be found in chapter 5 TRIGGERS, sub-section POLLUTION.) This was written in 1995, prior to any measurable ethanol-gasoline fuel use in the United States. It's also worth noting that the passage makes no mention whatsoever of ethanol (or any alcohol) being a contributory factor in creating NO2.

Moreover, if E10 was discontinued, in order for oil companies to produce a fuel to power the newest internal combustion engine vehicles (which require greater octane), they will have to add more oxygenates (benzene, toluene, xylene, etc.) to the finished gasoline. This would increase - not decrease - the amount of poison emissions in the air. This would not be beneficial to anyone.

Is it possible that the combination of clean burning ethanol with gasoline and aromatics in an E10 blend can produce more NO2 than just gasoline and aromatics (E0)? I don't see how, but for the moment let's say it does. In that case, the solution to the problem is to skip E10 altogether and go straight to E15 and higher blends. Studies show that E15 causes less ozone than E10, and the ozone continues to decrease as the ethanol level increases to E85 and beyond (proof that the problem is caused by gasoline and aromatics). And, we know from tests conducted by the EPA and U.S. national labs, as well as decades of ethanol-gasoline blend use in Brazil and Europe, that E15 and higher blends have no negative effects on internal combustion engines (despite irresponsible claims that ethanol causes greater damage1 to ICE parts and components than gasoline and aromatics).

The following are some links to studies that relate to higher ethanol-gasoline levels reducing E10 ozone:

Jennifer, you go on to write that ethanol contains only two-thirds of the energy content of gasoline. While this is true from a statistical perspective, the energy content comparison of the two fuels is entirely irrelevant. I provide all the reasons (and proof) why this is irrelevant in the these two reports:

You wrote "While all cars can run on E10, only specially designed vehicles and passenger cars that are model year 2001 or newer can use E15." This is untrue. Every internal combustion engine vehicle that can run on E10 can also safely, efficiently, and economically run on E15 and higher ethanol-gasoline blends. This is proven by Brazil's mandated use of E27 on ALL vehicles (regardless of model year), and by the six-plus decades of use of ethanol-gasoline blends in Great Britain and other European countries. SEE:

You may be confusing the issue of "warranty" with "ability," and therefore you may think that pre-2001 vehicles can't use E15 from a technical or mechanical perspective. If so, forget about it. Automobiles and boats that are only warrantied for E10 in America are warrantied for E27 in Brazil. Manufacturers typically only warranty their products for no more than is legally necessary in any given country. Since the fuel mandate in Brazil is a minimum E27, they warranty the vehicles/engines for E27. In the U.S., they can get away with E10, so they mostly draw the line at E10.

You then wrote, "Although ethanol was used to power the Model T Ford at the turn of the last century, gasoline soon replaced ethanol as the fuel of choice. However, after the additive used to improve octane ratings in gasoline was found to contaminate the drinking water supply, ethanol emerged as a cheap replacement to increase octane ratings, which is important for controlling combustion speeds. When blended, ethanol helps prevent the gasoline and air in the cylinders from burning too quickly and damaging the engine."

This is a horrible mish-mash of information; perhaps the single dumbest paragraph I've ever read about the engine fuels issue. The Ford Model T was designed to run on multiple fuels (I published a definitive report of this subject), and it is true that the first internal combustion engines were powered by alcohol fuels. However, the primary internal combustion engine fuel from the late 1800's until today was gasoline, not ethanol - so gasoline never "replaced ethanol as the fuel of choice." The reasons for all this are set forth in these two reports:

The additive added to gasoline in the 1920's to mitigate engine knock in high compression engines was tetraethyl lead (TEL). TEL may indeed contaminate water, but then it is a terrible poison so it contaminates everything. But the bigger problems caused by TEL was as an airborne poison that then falls to the ground and remains for long periods of time until it is disturbed and again circulates into the air. On top of TEL's poisonous characteristics, in order to mitigate the horrendous corrosiveness of TEL, ethylene bromide was added to the mix. Ethylene bromide is another poison. So if you're going to write about fuel additives that are poisonous, this is where you should have concentrated. Regarding water contamination, you should be referring to MTBE, but this wasn't used until after TEL was finally banned from use in most fuels (mid 1990's). Ethanol should have been the original ICE fuel, or at least the additive added to gasoline to stop engine knock 100 years ago, and then the exclusive additive once TEL was banned. Instead, the oil industry convinced governing politicians to let them use MTBE. The "convincing" was by way of bribing the politicians with campaign donations and other inducements. Ethanol finally emerged as the oxygenate solution because it is the safest, cleanest, most powerful, healthiest, and least expensive option. Ethanol doesn't help engines by slowing down the speed of gasoline's burn rate, it helps because it burns clean with no carbon debris and it helps to remove the debris that is caused by gasoline and aromatics.

You wrote, "In 2007, the US produced about 8.4 billion gallons of ethanol. Since then, production has almost doubled to 15.7 billion gallons in the 2016-2017 year, according to Department of Agriculture data." Yes, there has been a remarkable increase, but unfortunately you turn this wonderful achievement into a negative by claiming that the increase was due to excessively bad use of land, water, and fertilizer. In fact, the increase was due to innovations in agriculture that have provided far better results with less land, less water, and less fertilizer.

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Lastly, you have the absolute effrontery to end on the food vs. fuel issue with the closing sentence: "...corn producers might be better off using the land to grow food—not fuel." The overwhelming majority of corn grown to make ethanol is grown specifically for this purpose. However all of the corn used to make ethanol can also be used to feed animals...the animals that we eat. Only the starch of the corn is used for ethanol, the protein remnants are used for dry distillers grains (ddgs) and fed to cows and pigs. In case you haven't noticed, there is no shortage of corn for humans to eat: Corn on the cob, canned corn, corn tortillas, corn chips, and popcorn are as plentiful as ever.

You should be ashamed at yourself for writing that article for Popular Science, and Popular Science magazine should have been ashamed to publish it.

In any event, I hope you have a great memorial Day Weekend.

1 Regarding engine damage, READ:

Every Spark-Ignited Internal Combustion Engine Ever Produced Has Been Damaged By Gasoline

Why Do Small Engines Suffer From Ethanol Problems?