The future fuel Europe already has in the tank

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The future fuel Europe already has in the tank

Renewable ethanol does more than just decarbonize transport. It also boosts engine efficiency and helps improve air quality.


5/30/17, 9:57 AM CET

The European Commission has just told the Belgian government that it needs to do a better job of tackling “serious air pollution problems” from vehicle emissions. That is, of course, an admirable goal but the warning raises the question of why the Commission is at the same time proposing to phase out an alternative transport fuel that already helps reduce harmful emissions and urban air pollutants from cars: renewable ethanol.

The debate over how best to boost renewables in Europe’s energy mix has mostly been focused on which fuels can reduce greenhouse gases and which are the most sustainably produced. On that score, European renewable ethanol is already among the leaders of the pack, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions by an average of 64 percent over fossil petrol in 2015 – and that performance is improving each year.

But ethanol also delivers significant benefits to engine performance and efficiency, with lower emissions of harmful pollutants compared to fossil petrol. At a time when Europeans are increasingly concerned about urban air quality and emission of pollutants from vehicles – particularly passenger cars – the EU should be boosting the use of clean-burning biofuels like renewable ethanol.

Instead it is considering doing the opposite. Under its proposal for a revised Renewable Energy Directive, the Commission wants to phase out crop-based biofuels like ethanol after 2020 – in effect leaving the EU transport energy mix overwhelmingly reliant on highly polluting fossil fuels, and discouraging investment in advanced biofuel technology.

Renewable ethanol is produced in Europe from sustainably grown European crops like corn, wheat and sugar beets, or their processing residues and waste, or from cellulosic material, such as straw. Production of ethanol in Europe is an important source of income for farmers that has no harmful impact on land use. It also contributes to food security, as the production of ethanol results in high-protein animal feed, in a market that relies mainly on imported feed.

Reducing harmful emissions

Ethanol use in engines produces lower emissions of carbon monoxide (CO), which result from the incomplete combustion of fossil fuel. By using ethanol, with its high oxygen content, these harmful CO emissions can be reduced. The more ethanol used in the fuel tank, the lower its CO emissions.

Higher ethanol blends also produce lower levels of polluting nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which have a serious impact on the environment and human health. NOx is produced when fuels burn at high temperature. Higher blends of ethanol can reduce NOx emissions because of ethanol’s cooling effect on engine temperature.

Incomplete engine combustion also creates polluting emissions of unburned hydrocarbons (HC). But by increasing the ethanol content of the fuel tank these emissions can be reduced, thanks to a better use of energy and a reduced share of HC.

Another benefit of higher ethanol blends is less particulate matter. Fine particulate matter caused an estimated 200,000 premature deaths in the world in 2014. Road transport is responsible for more than 15 percent of the total particulate matter emissions in Europe.

Compared to fossil petrol, ethanol reduces particulate matter emissions by up to 80 percent with E10, a fuel blend that contains up to 10 percent ethanol. Again, the higher the blend of ethanol, the better the results.

In addition to helping reduce harmful emissions, ethanol also helps boost engine performance. Although ethanol contains less energy per unit of volume than fossil petrol, most typical vehicle engines can convert its energy better.

In most vehicles, fuel consumption can increase slightly with higher ethanol blends – for example a 1-2 percent increase in consumption from E5 (the current grade of marketed petrol) to E10. But the share of ethanol in a fuel blend has far less impact than other factors, such as driving technique and maintenance, which can cause up to 30 percent more fuel consumption.

More importantly, any increase in fuel consumption from using ethanol is partially offset by ethanol’s greater energy efficiency. With the same energy content, one can drive more kilometers with ethanol than with fossil petrol. This efficiency boost also helps reduce harmful emissions. Here, too, the more ethanol is blended with petrol, the greater the benefits.

A fuel with a past…and a future

Even though ethanol plays an important role in the modern energy mix by helping decarbonize today’s transport sector, it has a long history as a fuel for petrol engines. As far back as 1908, the first mass-produced car, the Ford Model T, was designed to run on ethanol fuel.

Today, ethanol is found in every liter of petrol sold in Europe – blended in different amounts along with fossil petrol. Fuel blends containing ethanol include: E10, E85 (with 65-85 percent ethanol) and ED95 (95 percent ethanol). E10 is now sold in Belgium, Germany, Finland, France and the Netherlands. E85 is sold in several countries, including Finland, France, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

Mid-level fuel blends such as E20 have the potential to further boost ethanol’s benefits and reduce even more CO2 and harmful vehicle emissions in the future. More ethanol in the fuel tank is a win-win for motorists and for people living in cities where air pollution is a concern. That is why it is so important that European politicians find a better way forward than what the Commission is proposing when it comes to sustainable biofuels like ethanol.

Renewable ethanol drives EU decarbonization and helps reduce harmful pollutants. Why turn back now?

Emmanuel Desplechin, secretary general, ePURE 

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