Ethanol: A Growing Market with New Firefighting Challenges

Ethanol, also known as “grain alcohol” and derived primarily from a corn fermentation process, is being embraced by federal and state governments through numerous subsidies as a viable bio-fuel. Today, ethanol joins biodiesel in a growing demand for reduced emissions nationwide, resulting in increased ethanol production, distribution and transportation. One consequence of increasing ethanol blends is that the volume of bulk ethanol transported, handled and stored continues to increase, creating new risks and challenges for firefighters worldwide.

The impetus for this and previous blogs (see Ethanol, The New Hazmat; and Emerging Ethanol Regulations) was concerns from county officials regarding increasing ethanol shipments and the cost of stockpiling alcohol resistant firefighting foam (one example is AR-AFFF). This is a local response to a national issue: which counties need the most foam, where should we put it and how are we going to pay for it?

As part of a statewide regional hazardous materials study, IEM is helping officials and emergency responders in one state answer these questions in addition to figuring out what other chemicals are being transported through their backyard.

Rail providers are also getting into the act, as bulk ethanol is now the #1 commodity for some Class I railroads. To help local emergency responders, railroads are positioning AR-AFFF Trailers at strategic locations throughout their railroad system to be ready in the event of unforeseen ethanol fire incidents.

Another good example of an ethanol public/private partnership includes an example where multiple petroleum companies have joined forces  to ensure requirements for sufficient supplies of alcohol-resistant foam were written into the local ordinance. In this example, the petroleum companies, not the municipality, helped pay for foam and the foam trailers from which the foam would be deployed.

Ethanol is becoming more visible in the automobile industry at a time when both planners and politicians are advocating for reduced carbon emissions. Each year motor vehicles in the US consume over 10 billion gallons of fuel ethanol.[1] Used primarily in ethanol-blended gasoline, biofuel advocates argue that ethanol reduces air pollution and green-house gas emissions, supports local agriculture and, in times of high oil prices, is a cost-effective alternative to petroleum.

Produced primarily in the nation’s heartland, fuel ethanol is shipped via rail to urban areas along the US eastern and western coasts, where you will find 80% of the US population. It is shipped by rail because of the distances involved and the fact that ethanol’s corrosion properties limit using pipelines. Pipelines capable of transporting ethanol are only just starting to become available.  Major difficulties include the need for ethanol-resistant seals in the pipeline and pumping equipment and ethanol’s tendency to absorb water—which is not such a problem when transporting petroleum products.

Federal and local ethanol fuel incentives are having a significant impact on the ethanol market. For example, seven states have enacted renewable fuels standards that require the use of ethanol-blended fuel. They include California, Hawaii, Iowa, Louisiana, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, and Washington.

A total of 14 states have retailer incentives for ethanol blends and E-85. These states include Alaska, Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, Minnesota, North Dakota, Oklahoma, and South Dakota.

Another 22 states have some type of incentive for ethanol producers, including Hawaii, Illinois,Indiana, Kansas, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New York, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Wyoming.

One consequence of increasing ethanol blends is that the volume of bulk ethanol transported, handled and stored will increase in coming years, creating new risks and challenges for firefighters. Storage tanks are also increasing in size and volume. The most important differences in terms of fire performance between ethanol and gasoline concern flammability, burning behavior and extinguishment methods. Ethanol blends have a flammability range between pure ethanol and gasoline, depending on the specific composition. As a result, the possibility for flammable conditions in a storage tank, and thereby the risk for ignition, is greater for ethanol than gasoline.

To learn more about emergency response and ethanol, go to Ethanol Emergency Response Coalition (EERC) at



Author: David Willauer, Manager, Transportation & Geospatial Technologies Division

[1] The U.S. Renewable Fuels Association (2010) estimates 2009 ethanol demand at 10.8 billion gallons. Domestic production in 2009 is estimated at approximately 10.8 billion gallons.