Don’t look, Ethyl

Nancy Friedman’s Word of the Week is “octane,” properly an alkane with eight carbon atoms (C8H18), more typically used to describe that quality which the last tank of gas you bought didn’t have enough of.

When I took chemistry back at the dawn of time — there were only 40-odd elements then — one thing we covered in excruciating detail was how to tell an alkane from an alkene or, even weirder, an alkyne. (Short version: alkanes have single carbon bonds only, alkenes have a double bond somewhere, alkynes a triple bond.) This was almost, but not quite, as amusing to us as the difference between “alkaline” (pH over 7) and “Al Kaline” (#6 for the Detroit Tigers).

About 90 percent of octane talk these days, I suspect, is along these lines:

Q: Do I have to use premium gas? I have a [fill in make/model of car that says it requires premium gas].

A: Why would you ask such a thing? Modern cars have computers to evaluate what fuel is being used and can adjust accordingly. Of course, your mileage may vary. And if you hear a steady knock-knock-KNOCK from under the hood, well, that’s why they put those megawatt stereos in those fancy luxury cars. Besides, you’re saving almost a quarter a gallon. After about 2500 gallons you’ll have saved enough for one-tenth of a brand-new engine, which is good, because then you’ll only have to come up with 90 percent of the repair bill, your warranty having (1) expired 2,000 miles ago and (2) been voided because the computer has been logging all the crappy gas you’ve been buying because you wanted to save a quarter a gallon.

(Title reference: “Ethyl” was the trademark of the Ethyl Corporation, founded as a joint venture of General Motors and Standard Oil of New Jersey. It denoted their fuel additive, tetraethyl lead, now banned for health reasons. Boogity, boogity.)

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