Near 100-degree heat. Engines roaring through the stoplight. The possibility of a call coming over the scanner. The buzz-hum-bang of men working on cars.
There were a thousand things for Willie Jones to focus his attention on Wednesday afternoon, as he filled his sheriff”s cruiser at a Columbus Chevron station.
He gave little thought to the sign at the pump: “Contains up to 10-percent ethanol.”
“Most of them have ethanol fuel,” shrugged Jones, a lieutenant with the Lowndes County Sheriff”s Office.
He, like many, is resigned to the changing times. Today, more than three-fourths of the country”s gasoline contains ethanol, most in a blend of 90 percent unleaded fuel, 10 percent ethanol, according to ethanol.org.
“It used to be several service stations that didn”t have ethanol,” Jones said, as he shook the final drips of fuel off of the nozzle.
Inside, Andy Atkins, who makes his living in car repairs and selling 10-percent ethanol fuel, admitted even he doesn”t like the stuff.
“It”s basically like putting sugar in your gas tank the way it”s made,” said Atkins, owner of A and W Service Center on Fifth Street North in Columbus.
Ethanol is made from corn. The corn is ground and then mixed with water and enzymes to create a slurry. The starch is broken down into fermentable sugars, and yeast is added to allow the mixture to ferment into a “beer.” The result is 190-proof ethanol, with some solids, which are filtered out. More water is taken out to create 100-proof ethanol, which is mixed with gasoline to denature it. From there, it can be blended for use in vehicles.
Vehicles older than 1999 “hardly run” off of ethanol-blended fuel, Atkins said.
Misfires. Over-carbureted engines. Ruined fuel lines.
Atkins knows firsthand. He had a Jeep that fell victim to ethanol fuel.
“I will run (ethanol-blended fuel) in my newer vehicles, but my older vehicles, I don”t,” Atkins said.
He has his own list of gas stations he hits to get ethanol-free gas — Malone”s Grocery in Caledonia, owned by Atkins” father-in-law, The Country Mart on Highway 182 in the New Hope area (where Atkins lives), and the Pump and Save on 18th Avenue North, in front of the Town Square Shopping Center.
The Pure station on Highway 373, just outside of Columbus city limits, boasts a sign, in all capital letters, on the side of its pumps: “No ethanol in this gas.”
“A lot of customers won”t run ethanol in their vehicles,” said Jimmie Sue Kolb, manager of the store. “You can”t put it in your boats, your lawnmowers — it”ll tear ”em up.”
Kolb ruined a motorcycle by using ethanol-blended fuel in the tank.
“I had to take my gas tank off, clean it, then I had to get all new gas lines,” she said.
Pointing to her 2003 Mazda, Kolb said she makes it a point not to put ethanol blends in it either.
“It”ll start jumping, and I”ll have to pull over and cut it off, then it”s good for another two or three miles,” she said.
There is one gas station in West Point, where Kolb lives, with no ethanol in its fuel, she said. There”s also only one in Aberdeen, Kolb added.
“If you”re in another town, you have to search and search until you find one, and it”s usually these old country stores,” she said.
Aside from potential problems in vehicles, ethanol-blended fuel allows for less mileage per gallon, Atkins said.
“I think it”s just the faster-burning alcohol,” he said. “That”s basically what (ethanol) is — alcohol.”
Fuel additives like Stabil, Sea Foam and Chevron”s Techron help “neutralize” many negative affects of ethanol,” Atkins noted. But then, he said, “you”re spending $10-$13 on a treatment, plus $3.50 to $3.75 a gallon for fuel.”
Ethanol burns cleaner than traditional fuel, with less harmful emissions, and it “yields 25 percent more energy than the energy invested in its production,” according to a 2006 entry in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal.
Its production also is driving the cost of corn up and so hitting other markets, such as hog farms, where pigs are being raised in smaller numbers and sizes as the price of feed rises.
The push to replace imported oil with domestically produced ethanol comes with its own benefits — job creation for one. “Nearly 700 permanent jobs will be created in the area near an ethanol plant,” ethanol.org reports.
It also comes with its own price.
“From what I hear, they are going to start raising the ethanol level in fuel, and it”s going to create more problems,” Atkins said.
Jones paid for his fuel and drove away, leaving behind the whir of the service center.
He, like thousands of others in the area, probably will pump another tank full of ethanol-blended fuel this week and take a bite of over-priced bacon, never equating the two.