Ethanol Needs to Win the Octane Race- Our Health Depends on It

Ethanol Needs to Win the Octane Race- Our Health Depends on It

“Knock Three Times” is a song you may turn up on the car radio, but while you belt out this oldie but goodie, you don’t want to hear a knock in your engine. And thanks to octane you don’t. Octane is a necessary component of our fuel, and more of it is needed as car engines become more advanced and efficient. So competition is on the rise for where this octane will come from in order to keep up with new engine designs.

There are two commercially viable octane sources. The first is ethanol, a homegrown, clean fuel additive that currently makes up 10% of gasoline. The second octane source is aromatics, toxic hydrocarbons produced at the oil refinery. Aromatics, which include known and suspected carcinogens like benzene and toluene make up 25% of fuel.

Oil refiners started using aromatics to boost octane when lead was phased out because of its harmful health effects. But based on numerous health and vehicle emission studies, we now know and understand that aromatics pose similar health problems. In fact in 2015, the Environmental and Energy Study Institute (EESI) stated that aromatics in gasoline are the new lead. And the Environmental Protection Agency has classified aromatics as hazardous air pollutants.

Aromatics are hazardous air pollutants because they don’t fully combust in engines, creating ultra-fine particulates. Ultra-fine particulates are so tiny, they can penetrate easily through human lungs and reach many vital organs. A 2020 study says this exposure is linked to nonfatal heart attacks. And another study this year details how ultra-fine particulates from auto emissions pose human health problems worldwide.

Ethanol has the ability to reduce the creation of ultra-fine particulates by reducing aromatics in gasoline. Ethanol has the highest octane rating of any component in gasoline and is proven to reduce toxic emissions.  In 2018, two separate studies by North Carolina State University and the University of California Riverside found that ethanol blends reduce toxic tailpipe emissions by up to 50%. These studies also found that aromatics like benzene and toluene added to gasoline to boost octane directly raise emissions, while ethanol added to fuel decreases emissions. Essentially, the higher the ethanol blend, the cleaner the fuel.

So as automakers and the Federal Government look at higher octane numbers in order to create more efficient vehicles, there are two options — ethanol and aromatics. The cleaner, healthier and more affordable octane option of ethanol is available today. It can easily boost octane numbers to meet automakers needs while replacing toxic aromatics, improving air quality and public health.