Illinois drivers pulling into their local gas stations may notice something new. No, it's not another price hike. Instead, check out the E85 pumps wedged between the usual choices.
At $3.85 per gallon, E85 is cheaper, but many people may overlook the unfamiliar option.
A blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline, E85 is a fuel that many believe may come to the rescue in a future petroleum shortage. Ethanol, usually derived from corn, is touted as a greener fuel without the dire effects current petroleum emissions have on the environment.
Illinois now has 222 E85 fueling stations, more than any state in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. More than 30 of the stations can be found across Cook County.
The use of E85 not only cuts costs but also reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 30-50 percent, said Geoff Cooper, vice president of research and analysis with the Renewable Fuels Association.
“You also eliminate certain toxic components of gasoline, or reduce those toxins, when you blend ethanol, and benzene is a big one,” he said. “Emissions of benzene are greatly reduced when we use ethanol in lieu of gasoline.”
Cooper said that E85 is a sustainable, and environmentally friendly alternative fuel source.
“When we put a bushel of corn into the ethanol process, we get a third of that bushel back as residual grains that are then fed to livestock,” he said, adding that the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide, another byproduct of the process, is captured and sold to bottlers of carbonated beverages.
“So there is virtually no waste in the ethanol production process,” he added.
But Mark Z. Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, offers a much different view of ethanol from the health and environmental perspective.
In a study published in 2007, he identified impacts of ethanol that are as harmful, if not more harmful, than gasoline.
“It was found that E85 may increase ozone-related mortality, hospitalization, and asthma by about 9 percent in Los Angeles and 4 percent in the United States as a whole relative to 100 percent gasoline” use, Jacobson’s study reported.
Though he said that there would be a slight decrease in the Southeast, the increases in sunny coastal areas would account for the overall increase.
Jacobson said that health effects cannot be measured by emissions alone, and that ethanol advocates have focused too much on basic statistics while neglecting other scientific evidence.
“The health effects depend on the chemistry that goes on in the atmosphere,” he said. It’s not a question of what the changes of the emissions are, it’s a question of how the emissions interact with chemicals in the atmosphere, in the sunlight, in the clouds.”
Jacobson said, for instance, that acetaldehydes and unburned ethanol in E85 are broken down by sunlight into products that react with oxide and nitrogen in the atmosphere to produce the ozone in smog.
Using a 3-D atmospheric computer model that simulates environmental conditions, including weather and pollution, Jacobson was able to mimic the effects of E85.
Jacobson, who is also the director of Stanford’s Atmosphere/Energy Program, said that temperature plays a huge role in ethanol’s impacts.
“At low temperatures, these increases of organic [gases] go up significantly, so you get a much larger, dangerous increase of pollution with ethanol at low temperatures than with gasoline,” he said, referring to below freezing temperatures.
Though some organic gases, such as benzene, would decrease with ethanol use, other carcinogens such as acetaldehyde would increase significantly with the emissions from E85, according to Jacobson.
"Air pollution (indoor plus outdoor) is also the seventh leading cause of death worldwide, so any change in fuel that could affect mortality should be examined prior to its implementation," reported the study published in the journal "Environmental Science & Technology."
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels and Advanced Vehicles Data Center offers E85 safety precautions on its website.
“Although E85 use might produce fewer pollutants, E85 is poisonous and flammable,” the department’s website states. “In general, the same safety measures that apply to gasoline apply to E85.”
Angela Tin, vice president of environmental programs for the American Lung Association of Illinois, said that the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest is committed to putting more E85-fueled vehicles on the road.
The association has partnered with Enterprise Rent-A-Car and Illinois corn farmers to encourage Enterprise customers to purchase E85 for their rented Flex Fuel Vehicles, according to Tin.
She said that E85 is a healthy alternative for drivers, adding that all ethanol plants are permitted by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which regulates emission levels.
“It’s cleaner because it’s substituting a renewable fuel, rather than using petroleum,” Tin said. “Anything that’s petroleum based is cancerous and harmful to your health. So if we have less petroleum and more of a renewable fuel, it’s good for lung health.”
Ethanol is the No. 1 one user of corn in Illinois, which has 14 ethanol plants, according to the Illinois Corn website.
For Jacobson, electric vehicles offer a much better solution because they have no emissions and, if powered by wind or solar energy, no consequent mortality.
He said that powering the entire U.S. vehicle fleet on E85 would require 15 percent of the entire U.S. land area, including Alaska, to grow the corn. With wind-powered electric vehicles, just 0.5 percent would be needed to house the wind turbines since the land around the base of each turbine could be used for agriculture.
“So you’re using huge amounts of water, you’re using huge amounts of land, huge amounts of fertilizer,” Jacobson said. “It requires lots of transportation of the fuel cause you can’t put it [E85] in pipelines. You have to actually truck, train and barge it around so you use a lot of diesel fuel, lots more pollution associated with that.”
It is difficult to determine with absolute certainty what effects a complete conversion to E85 will have because of the uncertainty in future emissions regulations. It is certain that more research is required. It is also certain that the use of E85 is growing, and Illinois is leading the way.