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 burning 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.
A 2015 study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology says benzene in traffic emissions is tied to childhood leukemia. A 2012 study out of the University of California ties the risk of autism to traffic pollution. And a 2015 study published in the Journal of Environmental Health Perspectives links tiny particles in car exhaust to heart disease.
Ethanol on the other hand, 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. Plus as more ethanol is added to fuel, studies found that it displaced the toxic aromatics.
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. Given the well documented health problems associated with aromatics, we at the Urban Air Initiative cannot sit by silently and let EPA allow Big Oil to continue to choose profits over public health by increasing aromatics in our fuel supply. 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.