Ethanol, Alcohol, Fuel Treatments & You; What You need to Know

There is a pretty lively debate about the role alcohols play as ingredients in some fuel treatments, and whether or not they are appropriate for use in ethanol blended fuels. Some websites admonish you to check the MSDS sheets for each product and to not use any products containing alcohol. They don’t explain why, but seem to rely on an assumption that if it is an alcohol, it somehow must be bad. Some say any additional alcohol “attracts water” and will only cause more grief than the ethanol in E10 already does. We think it’s time to dig a bit deeper and set the record straight.

Let’s all understand what an alcohol is

First of all, let’s all understand what an alcohol is: Chemically, alcohols are compounds in which one or more hydrogen atoms in an alkane have been replaced by a hydroxyl (A hydroxyl is a single atom of hydrogen combined with a single atom of oxygen, symbolized as -OH). To illustrate this, methyl alcohol, also known as methanol or wood alcohol, the simplest of the alcohols, is chemically CH3OH. (The C is for carbon) Its chemical cousin, methane, is chemically CH4. Ethane is C2H6, and ethanol is CH3CH2OH. In each case, the alcohol has one less hydrogen atom, and a hydroxyl in its place. Propane and propanol, butane and butanol all share these same relationships. As the number of carbon atoms increases in the alcohol compound, its characteristics change. If the number of carbon atoms is three or less, the alcohol is infinitely soluble in water. Four or more, and solubility decrease markedly. Alcohols can be either liquids or solids at room temperature, depending on how long the carbon chains are. There are primary alcohols, secondary alcohols and tertiary alcohols, each determined by how many alkyl groups (CH3 or CH2) the carbon atom attached to the hydroxyl group is itself attached to.

So, what does this have to do with alcohol in fuel treatments? If you’ve made it this far, we think you’ll have to agree that the blanket condemnation of a product due to its use of an alcohol in its formulation is far too simplistic and ignores the fact that some alcohols have very useful properties. There are literally hundreds of alcohols, and they are all different. Some alcohols can cause harm in fuel systems, but many do not. Ethanol, a two carbon alcohol, is fairly harsh on some older fuel system components, like certain kinds of rubber hoses and seals. Isopropyl alcohol, with three carbon atoms, is also detrimental in a similar manner. Butanol, a four carbon alcohol, is not. It behaves exactly like a high octane gasoline and can be used as a direct substitute.

But, instead of asking if something contains an alcohol or is formulated from them, what we really have to ask ourselves is this: How does a product perform when we put it into our fuel system, and what do we need the fuel treatment to do in order to solve the problems we are experiencing? In the case of E10 and other ethanol blends, we know that there are two principle issues: water contamination and long term stability.

Let’s talk about water first. The ethanol in ethanol blended fuels is hydroscopic; that is, it is chemically attracted to water. When the ethanol/gasoline fuel mix is exposed to moisture, the ethanol will bond with the available water, and if there is enough water present, the heavier ethanol/water molecule will sink to the bottom of the tank, causing what is called phase separation. (See article on Phase Separation elsewhere in the “Hot Topics” section) It turns out that it takes about .5% water concentration at room temperature to initiate phase separation, so it’s a significant issue, particularly for ventilated fuel systems. (Cars and trucks have sealed fuel systems; toys and tools have vented systems.) In order to prevent or delay phase separation, a fuel treatment must be more chemically reactive with the water than ethanol. As long as the water, when combined with the fuel treatment, is chemically unavailable to combine with the ethanol/ gasoline solution, phase separation cannot occur.

So how can you tell if your fuel treatment can prevent or delay phase separation?

There are two simple tests you can do by yourself to prove that your fuel treatment is up to the job.

The first test is this:  mix one part water with one and a half parts fuel treatment in a clear glass jar and see what happens.  (.5 ounces of water to .75 ounces of treatment is plenty.)  This is a demonstration of the fuel treatment’s ability to react with water.  If the product simply floats on top of the water, chances are it’s not going to do much of anything to prevent or delay phase separation.

The second test will demonstrate this more conclusively. You’ll need a 4 ounce clear glass jar with a lid.  Put 2 ounces of E10 gasoline into the jar, and then add 1 teaspoon of the fuel treatment you want to test. (It is important that you be accurate in your measuring for this test.)  Next, add 1 milliliter of water to the jar of E10 plus your fuel treatment. (1ml is one common 3” eyedropper using one full squeeze of the bulb.) Put the cover on the jar, shake it up to mix everything well, and watch what happens.  Hold the jar up to a light at an angle, and look at the sample. If the treatment is working to prevent phase separation, you will have clear gasoline with no layering in the bottom of the jar.  If the mixture is cloudy, or there is a distinct milky layer in the bottom of the jar, phase separation has occurred.  Did your fuel treatment pass the test?

K100 uses two primary alcohols and several other chemicals mixed in a multi-step reaction process to create a complex organic compound that is exceptionally reactive to water.  That is why it completely envelops the water in the first test, and prevents phase separation in the second.  Clearly, the alcohols used in K100 make it safe and effective, precisely what you bought it for.  Finally, to put this into a further perspective, the amount of alcohol K100 adds to the fuel is vanishingly small:  less than .13% (.0013) if mixed at the 1:300, the recommended ongoing treatment ratio, and less than .26% (.0026) at 1:150, the recommended initial treatment ratio as well as the longer term storage ratio.

An interesting thing about this formulation is that it was invented nearly fifty years ago to solve an entirely different problem, but one that also had its roots in unwanted water, and fuel’s lack of stability.  K100’s success then is a testament to its capability today.  (See “History & Evolution of K100 Fuel Treatments” in the Hot Topics section.)

As a fuel stabilizer, K100 has a distinguished record of success among thousands of users that have relied on it for decades.  The introduction of ethanol to our gasoline supply has made K100’s stabilizing and water management capabilities all the more important to fuel users of all types, as the challenges of keeping ethanol blended fuels fresh become more apparent each season.

So, the next time you hear “Don’t use that; it’s got alcohol in it”, tell them to read this article and then continue using K-100 With Confidence, because it’s the One Proven to Work.

Our fuels continue to provide us with problems…. K-100 continues to provide the solutions!