Energy

Reason #347 to Be Skeptical of Ethanol

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burn baby burn

Ethanol is a close cousin to the grain alcohol that's used to fuel various flaming beverages (e.g. the Forest Fire: 4/5 shot Everclear plus 1/5 shot Tabasco sauce–light and shoot). Perhaps unsurprisingly, ethanol fires are tricky. Water won't put them out, and neither will the foam that most fire departments have used since the 1960s.

Many fire departments around the country do not have the [ethanol-specific] foam, do not have enough of it, or are not well trained in how to apply it, firefighting specialists say. It is also more expensive than conventional foam.

While firefighters will eventually adapt, there have already been a few incidents:

In the last three months of 2007, three major fires highlighted the danger. In western Pennsylvania, nine ethanol tanker cars derailed and triggered a blaze that tied up a busy rail line.

In Missouri, a tanker truck carrying several thousand gallons of ethanol and gasoline crashed near the state Capitol, killing the driver.

And in Ohio, a train heading through the northeastern part of the state to Buffalo derailed and burned, forcing more than 1,000 people from their homes.

Just one more point for the "con" column on ethanol. For tons more skepticism about the great alcoholic hope, read reason articles on ethanol here.

Via Jacob Grier

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  1. but on the plus column it makes hilarious videos

  2. Why is it almost impossible to buy ethanol-free gasoline?

  3. The politics of corn.

  4. Water won’t put them out, and neither will the foam that most fire departments have used since the 1960s.

    WHAT? Says who? Alcohol and water are miscible. I can’t believe that.

  5. “…In Missouri, a tanker truck carrying several thousand gallons of ethanol and gasoline crashed near the state Capitol, killing the driver…”

    We all know this never happens with a tanker truck carrying pure gasoline, right?

  6. I RTFA to find out why water won’t extinguish an ethanol fire, but they never directly addressed it. However, the Industrial Fire World website says:

    “Many firefighters put forward the theory that it is possible to dilute an ethanol spill with water. The lab work says otherwise. Lab tests show ethanol diluted to 500 percent still burns steadily. Results do not support fighting a polar solvent tank fire by flooding it with water.”

    Now I’m merely unsure how something is diluted to greater than 100%.

  7. Who drinks these flaming drinks?

    Hey Katherine, a few weeks ago I was at wd~50. My cousin is friends with Dufresne. Ever been? Really interesting stuff from him.

    I ask because you seem to the reason cuisine expert.

  8. re Episiarch@2:56pm

    “Who drinks these flaming drinks?”

    Um … drunk people?

  9. Epi,

    People with no facial hair or who don’t want the facial hair they have.

  10. Shirt,
    I susspect they misplaced a period and they’re talking about 50.0% My experience with ethanol is that if it’s hot it will continue to burn down to about 40%. But if you apply water with a fog nozzle, that sucks the heat out of the air. At room temperature however, even 50% alcohol won’t ignite.

  11. Jesus Christ, I set up a “who drinks these flaming drinks” and nobody goes there?

    I’m disappointed.

  12. Libertarians believe “the market will handle it” and it will. The economics off ethanol-as-fuel are terrible: ethanol, as produced by present technology, will never succeed in the marketplace as fuel. BUT – the objection that ethanol fires are too dangerous is ridiculous. Ethanol fires ARE quenchible by water. Ethanol and water are miscible. Dilute the ethanol enough and it won’t burn. Everclear (95% ethanol) burns readily. 80-proof (40%) liquor burns, but not so readily. Beer (less than 20%) won’t burn at all.

  13. Chemically speaking, ethanol IS grain alcohol, not a close cousin.

  14. Just one more point for the “con” column on ethanol.

    For those keeping score at home:

    Cons
    —-

    Gasoline: Funds illilberal regimes that spend it on encouraging people to blow each other up. Flammable.

    Ethanol: Flammable.

  15. Odd- based on personal experience in both CART and the IRL, I can attest that water does a damn fine job of putting out methanol fires. That’s why they [originally USAC] mandated alcohol fuels decades ago. They are now using ethanol, but I am not aware of a fire suppression issue. (I am no longer an active participant.)

    Now, putting out ten or twenty gallons of invisible flaming alchol is a different proposition from putting out a thousand or more. That would take a whole lot of water, which may be what they are actually trying to say.

  16. Epi,

    Your heteronormative humor is not welcome here.

  17. Mr Brooks, don’t the motorsports folks use METHANOL, not ethanol? Chemically similar alcohols, but still different from each other.

    –chuck

  18. Your heteronormative humor is not welcome here.

    You and the patriarchy are trying to keep me down!

  19. Jesus Christ, I set up a “who drinks these flaming drinks” and nobody goes there?

    Fags.
    Happy now?

  20. During a recent trip to a bourbon distillery, the tour guide informed us that they can’t put out a bourbon fire, they can only contain it. Of course, that’s dealing with hundreds or thousands of gallons of that wonderful hooch, not the little bit that would be in an average auto’s fuel tank.

    Anyhoo, I think poor energy effieciency of creating and then using ethanol, combined with its apparent environmental and social destructiveness, is already more than enough to convince me that corn alcohol should always be drunk rather than burned.

  21. If I am not mistaken a lot of the best firefighting foams contain loads of CFCs. CFCs are very inert gases and thus very good at fighting fires.

  22. Mr Brooks, don’t the motorsports folks use METHANOL, not ethanol? Chemically similar alcohols, but still different from each other.

    USAC (when it sanctioned open-wheel races like the Indy 500) then CART/Champcar and IRL (after the split) originally used methanol. The IRL switched to ethanol a few years ago. Champcar essentially folded (er, yes merged with the IRL or IndyCar, but really it looks more like folding to me) so now open-wheel racing in the US uses ethanol. Either way, both are fully miscible with water so it shouldn’t matter.

  23. From the Methanol institute:

    Methanol flames are almost invisible in daylight, producing no soot or smoke. …Dry chemical powder, carbon dioxide (CO2) and alcohol-resistant foam extinguish methanol fires by oxygen deprivation. Water will remove heat and dilute the liquid methanol. Fog or fine sprays will absorb methanol vapours, quench heat and provide a curtain shield for upwind advancement to a fire source.
    Small fires can be extinguished using powder, CO2, or foam in the early stages. Be aware that the methanol may re-ignite spontaneously, due to surrounding high temperatures that may exceed the auto ignition temperature.
    In addition to its cooling effect, water can be effective by diluting methanol to the point where it is no longer flammable. The amount of water required will be three to four times the volume of methanol.

    Ethanol, from the European Material Data Sheet of THE ONLINE DISTILLERY NETWORK FOR DISTILLERIES & FUEL ETHANOL PLANTS WORLDWIDE

    FIRE FIGHTING MEASURES

    5.1 EXTINGUISHING MEDIA
    Use extinguishing media appropriate for surrounding fire. Water, dry chemicals,
    (BC or ABC powder), CO2, sand, dolomite, etc. Foam.
    DO NOT extinguish fire unless flow can be stopped first.

    5.2 SPECIAL FIRE FIGHTING PROCEDURES
    Keep upwind. Shut down all possible sources of ignition.
    Water may be ineffective but use to keep fire-exposed containers cool.
    Keep run-off water out of sewers and water sources. Dike for water control.
    Avoid water in straight hose stream; will scatter and spread fire. Use spray or fog nozzles.
    Cool containers exposed to flames with water from the side until well after the fire is out. …

  24. Didn’t read this article, but did read a different one the other day.

    Fires involving flamable liquids should not be put out with water, because the burning liquids just spreads out over all larger area. There are problems in particular with fires going down drains or sewers and causing major problems 😉

    So firefighters use foams to smother these fires. Unfortunately, the foams used to put out gasoline fires do not work well with ethanol (the ethanol causes the foam to break down reducing its ability to smother the fire).

    Does that help.

  25. “Cons
    —-

    Gasoline: Funds illilberal regimes that spend it on encouraging people to blow each other up”

    That’s not a con of gasoline – it’s a con of the political policy of catering to the eco-socialist wackos and preventing drilling for oil in ANWAR, off the coasts of Florida, California, etc., not making more utilitzation of coal (which we have huge amounts of) – including making synthetic gasoline out of it, not utilizing the oil reserves locked up in oil shale deposits in the western U.S. (which amount to 3 times the total oil reserves of Saudi Arabia) – and on and on.

  26. I think this video sums up the water and alchohol fire problem nicely:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ytqbVjLD5Yc

  27. BakedPenguin: (I prefer fried, btw) The amount of water required will be three to four times the volume of methanol.

    P Brooks: Now, putting out ten or twenty gallons of invisible flaming alchol is a different proposition from putting out a thousand or more. That would take a whole lot of water, which may be what they are actually trying to say.

    I think that these two explain the issue – for small alcohol fires water works great, for large ones, it is probably impractical. I also wonder if the fact that for automotive use it is typically blended with gasoline, doesn’t further complicate the use of water to extinguish the fire.

    And maybe someone else has mentioned this, but ethanol is exactly what fuels flaming

  28. ^drinks.

  29. perhaps diluted to 500% is a poorly phrased attempt to say they used 5X the volume of ethanol. IOW, 1 liter of ethanol, 5 liters of water (or maybe 4 liters, since the total volume would then be 5 liters, 1 L EtOH + 4 L H2O)

  30. Brian Courts-

    I, also, would characterize the “re-unification” of open wheel racing as finally taking CART off life support. Which is a shame, because I would much rather see them racing at places like Portland and Elkhart Lake than on the mile-and-a-half NASCAR ovals.

  31. Preface: I’m not a fan of ethanol fuel, or at least not ethanol fuel from subsidized corn. Repeat: I am not a fan of ethanol fuel, or at least not ethanol fuel from subsidized corn.

    Still, I gotta say, if this were any other chemical substance, few here would be complaining about fire hazards. Instead, the bloggers would remind us that The Market will solve the problem and deliver a safer additive or something, and maybe even remind us that privatized fire departments would have a natural market incentive to find ways to combat fuel blazes.

    I’m not saying we should adopt subsidized ethanol as the fuel of choice for our cars, but it seems strange to hear this. If some entrepreneur came along with a profitable biofuel and somebody objected on the basis of fire hazard, I know what the response would be.

  32. “Why is it almost impossible to buy ethanol-free gasoline?”

    Because the federal government, pandering to “big corn”, outlawed the petroleum based fuel additive MTBE and mandated the use of ethanol instead.

  33. Brian – also, with alcohol fires the ambient temperature is apparently really important, (I suppose due to a relatively low flash point) so the cooling affect of water becomes important.

    thoreau – Dave W and his cronies will provide a solution by suing everyone who buys, sells, or transports ethanol and suffers a fire that harms anyone in any way. Ethanol, of course, is merely a more powerful version of korn sirup.

  34. Shirt – They probably mean 500% of original volume.

    It wouldn’t suprise me that you can dilute an ethanol and water solution quite a bit and it will still burn. Hard liquor is only about 40% ethanol v/v and it burns just fine with an ignition source at room temperature – it wouldn’t suprise me if it could keep going down to 20% and a fire that’s already going is even harder to dillute down. The water angle is a bit odd, since putting a large gasoline fire out with water is a bad idea for reasons mentioned in the article.

    The problem is that the prefered foams for putting out gasoline fires don’t work well with ethanol. Based on the description, the issue probably is that the foam is water-based and anhydrous ethanol is hygroscopic, so the foam dissolves into the fuel instead of sitting on it and cutting off the air flow like it would for a non-polar fuel like gasoline. A foam that worked with both would have to hold up well with both non-polar and polar sovlents, so you’re pretty constrained in what could be used; it would probably have to have to contain a high level of fluoropolymers, which would make it a bit more pricey.

  35. Which is a shame, because I would much rather see them racing at places like Portland and Elkhart Lake than on the mile-and-a-half NASCAR ovals.

    P Brooks, as someone who attended many races at Portland, and generally prefers those road-courses as well, those are my sentiments exactly. These last few years it was really sad to see how far things had fallen compared to the level of competition and huge crowds of the early 90’s.

  36. I’m not saying we should adopt subsidized ethanol as the fuel of choice for our cars, but it seems strange to hear this. If some entrepreneur came along with a profitable biofuel and somebody objected on the basis of fire hazard, I know what the response would be.

    Thoreau-

    Think of this as a deeply cynical pander to the fears of the general public; “we” all know the economic arguments against the current corn-based boondoggle are compelling in and of themselves, but the general public might be dissuaded from their habitual support for Doing Something if they could be made to fear it.

  37. but the general public might be dissuaded from their habitual support for Doing Something if they could be made to fear it

    1) Pandering to fear is generally a bad idea.

    2) For any other product we’d be replying to such fears with “But of course the market will provide the appropriate ethanol additive/appropriate firefighting equipment/whatever, and private insurance companies will of course help price and allocate any associated risks. Besides, if you’re really concerned about this, the correct course of action is to privatize the fire departments, and let them respond to market incentives for dealing with this.”

  38. re: MattXIV @ 4:04pm

    5X dilution was my guess also, but it’s an odd way of phrasing it. I expect to see concentrations written as >100% and dilutions as

  39. “Why is it almost impossible to buy ethanol-free gasoline?”

    I never use ethanlol, I only use regular gasoline.

    I suspect that you live in a area with pollution control mandates from the federal government (I used to live in Phoenix). The feds required the addition of an oxidizer to limit pollution. During the 80’s and early 90’s when I lived in Phoenix, MTBE was the choice.

    It was later shown that MTBE caused more troubles than it solved. The only other option for an oxidizer is ethanol. Hence, you are screwed.

  40. That was odd. Here’s the rest:

  41. “Pandering to fear is generally a bad idea.”

    Very true

  42. OK. I give up. Something’s cutting off my posts.

  43. Oh great, now even thoreau is supporting government mandated ethanol. 🙂

  44. shirt and MattXIV: I said that @ 3:51

    shirt, if you’re trying to use greater than/ less than symbols, html is probably attempting to read them as formatting tags, cutting off your post

  45. Shirt,

    You’re probably got a <. You need to enter &lt; to get it to show up in HTML.

  46. Ethanol is a close cousin to the grain alcohol that’s used to fuel various flaming beverages

    No, it isn’t. IT IS THE SAME ALCOHOL. Ethanol is Ethyl Alcohol, C2H5OH – drinkable spirits have water in them in addition, alcohols are miscible with water – but the actual alcohol that is in them is the same.

  47. Timothy, it depends. If the C2H5OH comes from subsidized corn then it’s worse than if it comes from cane sugar imported at market rates. Same for glucose and fructose.

  48. thoreau, what you say is true, but doesn’t negate Timothy’s point (also made by someone else earlier). Ethanol and grain alcohol are two names for the exact same chemical. Here’s another: ethyl alcohol.

  49. I take back my criticisms of this post: Given KMW’s blogging patterns (this is, after all, the person who brought us the awesome Lobster Girl picture) I think she blogged this just to show us the picture of the flaming cocktails.

  50. MattXIV:

    That was it. Thanks. Shoulda’ just said “less than”.

    Also, many, many years back when I used to flambe desserts, I couldn’t get 40-proof ethanol to ignite at room temp. I had to pre-heat it by immersing the bottle in hot water for about 20 minutes prior.

  51. Dang, I scanned the thread looking for that, but I see my reading-fu was outmatched by somebody’s quick-wit style!

  52. Brian – also, with alcohol fires the ambient temperature is apparently really important, (I suppose due to a relatively low flash point) so the cooling affect of water becomes important.

    BP, I think you meant relatively high flash point. Alcohol has both a much higher flash point and much higher autoignition temperature than does gasoline. That would explain why it is possible to lower its temperature sufficiently with (enough) water to extinguish the fire.

  53. Timothy | March 3, 2008, 5:27pm | #
    No, it isn’t. IT IS THE SAME ALCOHOL. Ethanol is Ethyl Alcohol, C2H5OH – drinkable spirits have water in them in addition, alcohols are miscible with water –

    To get technical, that’s only true of the light alcohols, methanol, ethanol, propanol and isopropyl alcohol (2-propanol). The butanols and higher alcohols are not miscible with water, getting less soluble as you add on carbons.

  54. Also, many, many years back when I used to flambe desserts, I couldn’t get 40-proof ethanol to ignite at room temp. I had to pre-heat it by immersing the bottle in hot water for about 20 minutes prior.

    Speaking of flash points, that isn’t surprising given that pure Ethyl alcohol has a flash point of about 55 degrees F. That means the fire-point is probably in the 60’s (F) for pure alcohol. Dilute that down to 20% and I’m not surprised that it doesn’t readily burn at room temperature.

  55. And that should have read 40% alcohol, not 40-proof.

  56. And that should have read 40% alcohol, not 40-proof.

    Out of curiosity (and a desire to avoid what I should be doing) I went looking and found one table that lists flash points for various ethanol water mixtures. For 40% alcohol the flash point is about 79 F so for sustained combustion you’d probably need to warm the alcohol to at least the upper 80’s.

  57. http://epa.gov/otaq/rfg/whereyoulive.htm

    “Why is it almost impossible to buy ethanol-free gasoline?”

    Depends on where you live (click handle for link). If you live near, but outside of the mandated areas in not uncommon to see E10 stations next to straight gas stations. Due to some technical requirements (separate tanks required etc.), gas stations generally sell one or the other. I’ve run both through my car and have kept record of mileage. For my car, E10 delivers about 95% MPG of straight gas. At current prices, E10 would need to sell for 15 cents less per gallon to break even on a dollar per mile basis. This past weekend my local E10 station had people lined up to pay 2.979 for E10, while the line-free Exxon next door was selling straight gas for 3.039. Heh – go figure the same people who will wait in line to *save* six cents per gallon, won’t bend over to pick nickel up off the street.

  58. By the way US Nickels are an excellent and almost risk free way to speculate on commodity prices. Although; storage, transportation and some legal issue might pose a problem. If it doesn’t work out you still got 5 cents.

    http://www.coinflation.com/

  59. Got this from msnbc.com:

    Water is not used against gasoline fires, because it can spread the blaze and cause the flames to run down into drains and sewers. Instead, foam is used to form a blanket on top of the burning gasoline and snuff out of the flames. But ethanol, a type of grain alcohol often distilled from corn, eats through that foam and continues to burn.

    Such fires require a special alcohol-resistant foam that relies on long-chain molecules known as polymers to smother the flames. Industry officials say the special foam costs about 30 percent more than the standard product, at around $90 to $115 for a five-gallon container.

    ‘Let the foam gently run’
    Fighting ethanol fires also requires a change in tactics. Brent Gaspard, marketing director for Williams Fire & Hazard Control Inc., an industrial firefighting company in Texas, said firefighters cannot just charge ahead and attack an ethanol fire with foam.

    “If you just plunge the foam into the fuel, it’s going to be less effective. You have to let the foam gently run across the surface so you create a shield,” he said.

    Industry officials said fire departments in just the past few months are becoming more knowledgeable about ethanol blazes and the special firefighting foam.

  60. When scanning over the page, I thought the flaming drinks were Olympic torches. Come to think of it, a flaming shots contest at the Olympics would be a great event. Perhaps we could combine it with the biathlon to make a truly libertarian event.

  61. Come to think of it, a flaming shots contest at the Olympics would be a great event.

    My money’s on Bode Miller.

  62. We need to get Ms. Ward on the air out here in North Dakota, where they’re trumpeting the stuff like it’s the re-invention of the wheel.

  63. For what it’s worth I see plenty of reasons to oppose ethanol use, or at least the subsidies. Its flammability is not among them.

    I mean to say, it wouldn’t be much of a fuel if it wasn’t flammable, would it? 🙂

  64. re: Isaac Bertram: “I mean to say, it wouldn’t be much of a fuel if it wasn’t flammable, would it? :)”

    Maybe. Many fuels for jet engines are extremely difficult to ignite. And purposely so — you don’t want hundreds of pounds of fuel igniting on its own at 35,000 feet. Or, I suppose, anywhere else.

  65. My mind saw, “If it didn’t have bones it wouldn’t be crunchy now , would it?”

  66. Shirt, I forgot to put < tongue in cheek >…< / tongue in cheek > tags on my comment.

  67. With many new announcement about the wizard of oz movies in the news, you might want to consider starting to obtain Wizard of Oz book series either as collectible or investment at RareOzBooks.com.

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