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Does E85 Fuel Damage Your Engine?

You’ve probably seen your local gas station’s big, yellow E85 fuel pump. If you’ve got a traditional vehicle, steer clear. 

This specialized blend won’t run in regular cars. If you purchase the right car, though, the choice is yours. 

Today we’ll cover the story behind this eco-friendly option and what it might mean for your tank.

Let’s take a look!

What Is E85 Fuel?

E85 fuel is a type of gasoline with anywhere between 51% and 83% ethanol. The number varies depending on the weather and seasonal availability of the corn alcohol. This propellant is cheaper and runs cleaner than traditional fuel for vehicles designed to use it. 

Ethanol, a bio-alcohol, is usually produced from corn in the United States and sugar cane in Brazil. Oil companies mix the additive into most gasoline sold in the US. Standard unleaded is usually 10% ethanol. But unless your car’s tank has a bright yellow cap, you can’t use E85. 

Ethanol provides less energy because it burns at a lower temperature than petroleum. More like diesel than unleaded, traditional cars only get around 25% of the same energy from ethanol. But car manufacturers capitalize on the full potential of the additive in their Flex Fuel vehicles.

What Is the History of E85 Fuel?

America’s dependence on imported oil and gas caused problems in the 1990s. OPEC and the Gulf War drove fuel prices up to record levels. Scientists and engineers sought out an alternative that was both renewable and affordable. It turns out that the answer grew in the soil of the midwest. 

Ford released the first Flex Fuel vehicle in 1996 with the Taurus. At the time, it made sense to supplement gas reserves with ethanol. Since it’s derived from plant matter, it has a greening effect on the transportation industry.

Surprisingly, it doesn’t significantly affect greenhouse emissions in the United States. Corn used in its production still releases CO2 during the growing process. American producers could reduce pollution by using waste from plant material. That’s not on the horizon currently, but it would reduce the carbon footprint of E85 significantly.  

Pro Tip: Before you head to the pump, find out How to Fill and Transport a Gas Can the Right Way.

Woman refilling gas tank
E85 fuel has anywhere between 51% and 83% ethanol.

Does Using E85 Fuel Have Benefits?

In small concentrations, the blend doesn’t make much difference. As the percentage of ethanol increases, the benefits start to pile up.  

Race cars use E85 fuel because of the high octane rating. Depending on the percentage of ethanol, it’s as high as 100-105. High-priced traditional gas was the only way to attain this octane rating before companies started using it. In performance-oriented vehicles, the boost makes a difference. 

Another positive of ethanol-based fuels is what’s known as the cooling effect. This translates to a safer environment in the combustion chamber in high-performance engines. When tuned correctly, engines produce more horsepower with E85 than traditional unleaded.

Are There Disadvantages to E85 Fuel?

One of the most significant disadvantages of the fuel is that it’s produced from one crop source. Technology currently in development has the potential to change that, but for now, it’s corn only. Corn used for E85 production reduces the amount of corn on the market. That may drive up the price of animal feed for farmers. 

Reduce gas mileage is another concern among experts. Even though ethanol has a higher octane rating, it contains less energy. 

Finally, fewer stations around the country sell it. That means you’ll have to use regularl unleaded if you can’t find it anywhere. Luckily, flex-fuel vehicles have sensors that detect what’s in the tank. 

Different gas types
E85 fuel isn’t likely to damage engines, but it may not be necessary to use.

So, Does E85 Fuel Damage Engines?

E85 on its own doesn’t damage engines. Cars designed to burn ethanol have sensors that adapt to your fuel. That said, there’s evidence that alcohol-based gas can cause issues in machines that aren’t optimized for them.

Ethanol can absorb more dirt than traditional unleaded. These mpurities can corrode engines that aren’t adequately cleaned. But most non-Flex Fuel cars handle small percentages just fine. Blends of 10% or less stretch the supply during the peak travel season. 

In 2022, an executive order allowed vendors to sell E15 during peak travel due to shortages. While the higher percentage increases smog, it doesn’t necessarily cause engine damage. 

The truth of the matter is that ethanol cleans out deposits in engines. It’s the perfect solution to high prices at the pump for cars designed to use it. 

Can You Use Flex Fuel in a Car? 

A dealership may be the best place to answer this question. When you purchase a new or used vehicle, understanding the fuel type is part of the process. Most cars run on unleaded and have a black gas cap. 

Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) usually have one external indicator that they run on this alternative power. A yellow gas cap lets you know you’re choosing a car that can run on E85. Check before you choose at the pump.

Putting the wrong kind of gas in a car is never a good idea. You’d never use diesel in a normal truck , and E85 is no different. 

Pro Tip: Filling up? We took a closer look at Can You Pump Gas While Your Vehicle Is On?

Should You Get A Flex Fuel Vehicle? 

In an uncertain world, the ability to produce energy alternatives is essential. Choosing an E85 fuel-compatible vehicle is a smart choice for some car owners. It uses a natural byproduct of corn and sugar that helps keep gas reserves secure. 

Technology improvements continue to improve the alternatives, which can help keep prices at the pump down for longer.

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