Invisible Flames and More

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Recently by Eric Peters: To Serve and Protect … OrHarassandCollect?      

Ethanol may be a boondoggle in more than one way.

Or even two.

You may have read about the high energy inputs necessary to squeeze corn (and other materials) and brew the mash into alcohol; that it takes more energy to make the stuff than you end up with – and that the energy it takes to make it is (you guessed it) mostly petroleum.

And you’ve probably heard about the way increasing demand for alcohol-laced fuels (mandated by law, of course) has been driving up the cost of food as more and more land/crops formerly devoted to production of stuff to fill our gullets is being turned over to production of stuff to fill our tanks.

All to line the pockets of politically connected agri-business combines like Archer Daniels Midland.

Also that ethanol is less energy dense than gasoline – so your gas mileage goes down while the price at the pump goes up. Most of the “gasoline” sold today is in fact 5-10 percent ethanol. This less less-energy-dense fuel is no doubt part of the reason why even the best of today’s “economy” cars like the 2011 Ford Fiesta still don’t get better gas mileage than the economy cars of 25 years ago.

But here’s a new one, one not much discussed in the papers: Alcohol fuels – especially E85, which is 85 percent alcohol – constitute a new type of fire hazard because they are harder to extinguish than gasoline fires and require new types of fire-extinguishing equipment and training.

The foam flame suppressants currently in use are reportedly ineffective; the fires just burn through. According to news accounts, many fire departments are either not trained to fight alcohol fires, or inadequately equipped to do so.

Think about race cars that run on alcohol fuels. The fires are extremely hot – and the flames invisible. Special equipment is necessary trackside to deal with it. Unfortunately, that equipment is not widely available outside of racing circles – mainly, because no one thought much about it during the frenzy to push “renewable” and “alternative” fuels into widespread circulation.

Foams designed to combat alcohol fires are made using specific polymers that can smother the flames of an ethanol fire but carry a price tag about 30 percent higher than conventional flame suppressing foams. That means your local fire department has a new line item on the budget.

Where will the money come from to provide the new flame-fighting products, equipment and training that will be necessary if we don’t want to burn to death in an E85 auto da fe?

Nationwide, the cost we’ll soon be facing to deal with all of this could end up being enormous. And the money will have to come from the usual sources of “revenue” – real estate assessments, state and local income taxes, etc.

Just what the doctor ordered: More government burdens at a time when real unemployment is pushing 20 percent and we might be on the cusp of a major economic collapse.

And: This is an issue not just for first responders – the fire trucks and emergency vehicles that get to accident scenes. Home fire extinguishers – the kind many of us keep in the garage (or in our vehicles) for “just in case” – may not be adequate to deal with alcohol fuel fires.

Meanwhile, ethanol production is “ramping up” rapidly as both perceived need and federal/state policies stimulate demand for it. The major automakers – GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and so on – already sell dozens of “E85 compatible” vehicles and the E85 fuel itself is becoming commonly available all across the country.

Most of us are already burning ethanol on a regular basis. It’s possible we’ll be using it in amounts (and concentrations) few of us – outside of agribusiness and political circles – could have foreseen even five years ago. There is a major push going on right now to increase the amount of alcohol in “gas” to 15 percent. Rising fuel prices will be the “WMD” used to justify it. After all, corn-derived ethanol is (gag me) sustainable. It’s renewable, too. Much better than bad old dead dino juice. Except it isn’t, for all the reasons already mentioned: It’s a net energy loser; it boosts the cost of everything else in the process. It tamps down the mileage our cars deliver – and it might just burn us to death, too.

Owners of older cars need to be warned: The engines in their cars were designed to burn gas, not gas laced with alcohol. Alcohol is corrosive to seals and so on not designed to withstand it. That means, leaks. Leaking fuel – especially in a car with fuel injection, where the system is typically operating under pressures around 40 psi or even more vs. 3-6 psi in an older car with a carburetor – is clearly not a good thing. But unless the older car’s rubber hoses, gaskets and seals, etc., have been replaced with alcohol-compatible stuff, the likelihood of a leak and possibly a catastrophic fire is very real. Just FYI, in case you own a car built before about the mid 1990s, when gas was still gas.

Reprinted with permission from

Eric Peters [send him mail] is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities and Road Hogs (2011). Visit his website.

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