Dispatches Do Brazil: Ethanol Levels in Gasoline, Car Killer or Life Saver?

Marcelo de Vasconcellos
by Marcelo de Vasconcellos

The Senate of Brazil has just approved the law permitting that an additional 2.5% of anhydrous ethanol be put into what is sold as gasoline in this country. After an increase in 2013 from the previous 20% limit to 25, now cars will have to adjust to the new limit of 27.5%. Now, gasoline cars, made to run on fuels with much less ethanol content, will now have to perform with as much as 30% of ethanol in their fuel.

This time around, the National Association of Autopropelled Vehicle Makers (Anfavea, which encompasses most car manufacturers present in Brazil) openly criticized the measure. According to Anfavea’s president, Luiz Moan, the government asked for the association’s input and they conducted a study that came back with some rather alarming info,

“Our engineers point out that there will be a 20% increase of aldehyde pollutants emissions and 75% of NOx emissions. We are very worried, because this will reduce clients’ levels of satisfaction and will be a negative for the environment.”

Besides this, Mr. Moan highlighted that even though flex fuel cars are not affected, gasoline only powered cars, which make up 38% of this country’s fleet, estimated at 14.4 million, will have firing issues, corrosion problems in metallic parts in contact with the new fuel and that rubber parts should also suffer and face durability issues. Finally, even flex fuel cars will pay for this at the pump as global consumption for all kinds of cars will increase between 2.5 and 3%.

Seeking some confirmation on this, I called my mechanic. He rubbed his hands and said gasoline powered cars will have all sorts of engine problems as more ethanol would affect metallic parts. People will have to change sparkplugs earlier, fuel pumps, especially electric ones, should start failing forthwith and exhaust pipes will be corroded and in need of changing. As to flex fuel cars he said the newer the better, but even some of them could present problems. According to him, even if more resistant to corrosion, flex fuel car parts also face more problems, especially those related to start up and detonation as these parts do tend to go sooner on cars that use ethanol. However, he did point out that, in general, ethanol is burned more efficiently so problems with sludge formation are minimized. Asked what he recommends he said, “Gasoline always”.

However, more acclaimed engineers and professors disagree. Renato Romio, head of the Motors and Vehicles Division of the respected Brazilian research center Insituto de Tecnologia Mauá said that certainly flex fuel vehicle will handle the increased ethanol content without any problem whatsoever, but that for cars built to run on gasoline, things are not so clear. According to him, there are tolerances built into Brazilian cars for ethanol, but that these have varied over time. He stresses that, “roughly-speaking, there should be no problems”, but he does agree that cars built in the 90s, with electronic injection, could present some functioning problems as well as pollute more on a case by case basis.

Franciso Nigro, considered one of the “fathers” of the ethanol powered car, and today a professor at the renowned Escola Politécnica of the University of São Paulo is even more confident of the capacity of even gasoline cars to run well even with the increased ethanol content. He declares that though the buyer will be buying less energy, this should represent only a 1% drop in consumption levels and that there will be no unwarranted wear on the engines,

“Car makers use materials made to be ethanol resistant and we {Brazilian car makers} have been doing this for a long time. The differences are small and the engines make up for it. Increased consumption is almost imperceptible.”

Echoing the experts’ words, the Sugarcane Industry Union (UNICA, which congregates the whole sugarcane industry chain sector) that proposed the measure to the Ministry of Agriculture back in April, 2014, is all for it. Its president, Elizabeth Farina, seeking sympathy for their cause, appealed to consumers’ wallet,

“Any increase in the mix of ethanol into gasoline means the substitution of a component, pure gasoline that costs R$2.4 per liter at the refinery, by another, anhydrous ethanol sold by the producer for around R$1.5. This difference allows for, potentially, a reduction in the final price of gasoline at the pump.”

According to Ms. Farina, raising the mix to 27.5% is a question of coherence, since the government has been controlling and keeping gasoline prices low at the refinery level (a state company, Petrobras, refines almost all the gasoline in Brazil) and causing the sugarcane sector enormous problems. Always according to UNICA’s president, the increase will end up benefitting Petrobras itself as the artificial squashing of internal gasoline prices under production or importation levels has led to an explosion in gasoline consumption. More ethanol in gasoline would not only help Petrobras control its bottom line, it would also be good for the country of Brazil itself since the country’s trade balance would be helped along staying in the black as there would be no need to spend foreign currency reserves on gasoline.

UNICA claims ethanol’s advantages over gasoline in environmental terms are “widely known and profound”. It points to a University of São Paulo study showing that the better air quality obtained with more ethanol usage leads to less hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, less deaths and costs for public health care. Besides that, the use of ethanol would reduce up to 90% the emissions of climatic change causing gases. UNICA even throws in the EPA into their defense, saying that that number has led the American agency to classify Brazilian biofuel as “advanced” and that Brazilian ethanol is the only worldwide large-scale production operation to earn that grade.

Disputing Anfavea’s numbers, UNICA has their own. According to them aldehyde pollutant emissions will increase by only 15% and 20% in the case of NOx emissions. The sugarcane industry entity argues that any damage from that is far outweighed by ethanol burning cars producing much less of other kinds of pollutants, like sulfur oxides and carcinogenic hydrocarbons like benzene (in direct proportion to the rise in ethanol usage), not to mention carbonic gases, carbon monoxides, different organic hydrocarbons and particulate matter. Finally, UNICA claims cars should experience in consumption of only 1%.

As to the government, the official proponent of the rise, the Ministry of Agriculture, cites the need to balance ethanol production and consumption and the need to continue incentivizing the sugarcane sector because of the creation of technology, jobs, protection of the environment, among other factors. Of course, naysayers affirm this measure contemplates other interests, like the need for the government to control inflation, most especially in an election year.

Depending now just on the authorization of the Minister of Mines and Energy, Brazilians will soon be using more ethanol in their cars, unsure of what the final impact of this decision will be on them directly. Dependent as always on the currents and countercurrents of the big boys’ games, they feel like so much flotsam on a dirty beach.

Marcelo de Vasconcellos
Marcelo de Vasconcellos

More by Marcelo de Vasconcellos

Join the conversation
7 of 60 comments
  • Heavy handle Heavy handle on Sep 05, 2014

    Question for any chemists reading this: Why would NOx go UP with higher alcohol content? I thought that NOx was a product of higher combustion temperatures, and that alcohol lowered combustion temps. This is why we now have high-EGR engines, because higher EGR reduces combustion temperature, and thus NOx.

    • See 3 previous
    • Big Al from Oz Big Al from Oz on Sep 06, 2014

      @Marcelo de Vasconcellos We used run a V8 car at the drags in the early 80s, 13.5:1 compression, ran it on methanol. Good stuff, except expensive and you use lots more of it to make the horsepowers;) Oh, and you had to strip down and inhibit the fuel system after every use!

  • Big Al from Oz Big Al from Oz on Sep 05, 2014

    I would hazard to guess that this is more than just economics here. I really thought there was some oil off the coast of Brasil. How good is this for the Brasilian economy? Money must come from the economy to support the use of ethanol. So, is the economy better off not having to construct infrastructure that requires subsidization, or import fuel? The US is similar with the corn farmers and ethanol. They receive massive protection and subisidies, for example, Brasilian ethanol imported into the US is taxed at 56%. The corn farmers are receiving an average of $125 000 per farm per year. At the end of the day this is good news for the Australian cane farmers. But, at the expense of growing food for people. Another green wasteful idea, like EVs, Hybrids, irresponsible CNG use, windfarms, solar, etc. Maybe we should just use nuclear reactors. That's the cleanest and best energy. That's what powers Sol, can't get more natural than that.

    • Marcelo de Vasconcellos Marcelo de Vasconcellos on Sep 05, 2014

      Hey Big Al! Of course there is more to this than economics...But economics is part of the reasoning that helps each side pull the debate this way and that. As to money better spent importing oil, I don't think so. The money spent importing oil would just have been burned by cars and then so much smoke. Putting money into this, even if at a high cost, means, more road construction, trucks bought and sold, more energy demand and thus plants, creation of technology to use the stuff in cars, jobs, university courses, professors, students, and so and so on. So, you got that in this industry's defence. As to oil on the Brazilian coast, yes lots. Just being tapped into now. Having a flex fuel car base gives the freedom, in future to export oil or burn it ourselves depending on market conditions. Some years ago Brazil gas petrol sufficient. Now, with the explosion in consumption, Petrobras is having trouble refining the quantities needed (some refineries under construction), so soon we will have to much petrol and could become a major exporter. Not to mention the major deposits already found in the Amazon, the São Francisco River basin and other places. From a country without a drop of petroleum in the 50s, we could soon be a major exporter (this experience could probably be replicated elsewhere). And agree, we need more nuclear power here. The second plant is being built, the third plant is being drawn up. The recent energy shortages we have been experiencing should spur that along nicely after the election is over.

  • Probert No, they're not the future. BEV sales are growing every year, and, along with sound energy policy, result in cleaner air, lower CO2, foreign policy not based on oil, and will continue to drive like a smooth powerful nearly silent turbine. Some 19% of new car sales in 2023 were BEVs - this will continue.
  • Mishab Agree with you. Thanks for sharing this insightful update about the upcoming Mini Cooper models! It's fascinating to see Mini's shift towards electrification and the unique design elements they're incorporating into the new John Cooper Works edition.Speaking of Minis, if you're a Mini Cooper owner in Sharjah looking for spare parts or considering common repairs, you might find this article on 7 common Mini Cooper repairs quite useful. ( for reading it). It covers some of the typical issues Mini owners might encounter and offers valuable insights into maintaining these iconic cars.Looking forward to more updates on Mini's electrified lineup and the exciting changes they're bringing to the automotive industry
  • Redapple2 Love/lust a 110 diesel defender. Should buy one since the INEOS is gas only (and double the price). Had a lightweight in Greece. Wonder how this rides.
  • Ajla There is inventory on the ground but as pointed out it is generally high dollar trims of high-dollar models and at least around here dealers still aren't budging off their mandatory nitrogen tires and Summer weather protection packages.You aren't paying '21-'22 prices anymore but it's still a long way to go.
  • Slavuta Every electric car must come with a film about lithium mining