Ethanol Fuel Basics

Related Information

Ethanol is a renewable fuel made from various plant materials collectively known as "biomass." More than 95% of U.S. gasoline contains ethanol in a low-level blend to oxygenate the fuel and reduce air pollution.

Ethanol is also available as E85, or high-level ethanol blends. This fuel can be used in flexible fuel vehicles, which can run on high-level ethanol blends, gasoline, or any blend of these.

There are several steps involved in making ethanol available as a vehicle fuel:

  • Biomass feedstocks are grown, collected and transported to an ethanol production facility
  • Ethanol is produced from feedstocks at a production facility and then transported to a blender/fuel supplier
  • Ethanol is mixed with gasoline by the blender/fuel supplier and distributed to fueling stations.

Ethanol as a vehicle fuel is not a new concept. Henry Ford and other early automakers suspected it would be the world's primary fuel before gasoline became so readily available. Today, researchers agree ethanol could substantially offset our nation's petroleum use. In fact, studies have estimated that ethanol and other biofuels could replace 30% or more of U.S. gasoline demand by 2030.

The use of ethanol is required by the federal Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS).

Fuel Properties

Ethanol (CH3CH2OH) is a clear, colorless liquid. It is also known as ethyl alcohol, grain alcohol, and EtOH. (See Fuel Properties search.) Ethanol has the same chemical formula regardless of whether it is produced from starch- and sugar-based feedstocks, such as corn grain (as it primarily is in the United States), sugar cane (as it primarily is in Brazil), or from cellulosic feedstocks (such as wood chips or crop residues).

Ethanol has a higher octane number than gasoline, providing premium blending properties. Minimum octane number requirements prevent engine knocking and ensure drivability. Low-level ethanol blends generally have a higher octane rating than unleaded gasoline. Low-octane gasoline is blended with 10% ethanol to attain the standard 87 octane requirement. Ethanol is the main component in high-level ethanol blends. (See E85 Specification to learn more.)

Per unit volume, ethanol contains about 30% less energy than gasoline. E85 contains about 25% less energy than gasoline. High-level ethanol blends contain less energy per gallon than does gasoline, to varying degrees, depending on the volume percentage of ethanol in the high-level blend.

Ethanol Energy Balance

In the United States, ethanol is primarily produced from the starch in corn grain. Recent studies using updated data about corn production methods demonstrate a positive energy balance for corn ethanol, meaning that fuel production does not require more energy than the amount of energy contained in the fuel

Cellulosic ethanol, which is produced from non-food-based feedstocks, is expected to improve the energy balance of ethanol, because non-food-based feedstocks are anticipated to require less fossil fuel energy to produce ethanol. Biomass used to power the process of converting non-food-based feedstocks into cellulosic ethanol is also expected to reduce the amount of fossil fuel energy used in production. Another potential benefit of cellulosic ethanol is that it results in lower levels of life cycle greenhouse gas emissions. (Find out more about emissions related to ethanol.)

For more information on the energy balance of ethanol, see the U.S. Department of Energy's Bioenergy Technologies Office's Ethanol Myths and Facts, and download the following documents.