E85 Ethanol Fuels

You may have already seen the commercials for the new Go Yellow, Live Green campaign. E85, or ethanol-based fuel made from fermented corn, sugar beets, and other common crops is the latest attempt to find an alternative to the U.S.’s petroleum dependency. Is it just another short-lived solution, like the all-electric car and the accompanying visions of a giant extension cord, or is E85 something the public – and the automobile industry – could actually get behind?

According to www.goyellowlivegreen.com, “E85 is an alcohol fuel mixture of 85% ethanol (grain alcohol) and 15% gasoline (petrol) that can be used in new Flex Fuel Vehicles. It is clean-burning, domestically produced, renewable fuel that contributes to decreased dependence on imported oil… [These FFVs] are designed to run on any mixture of gasoline or ethanol up to 85% ethanol by volume.”

And if there isn’t an E85 pump nearby? No problem, said the website – you can put gasoline into an FFV even if you’ve been running on ethanol, and vice versa. The fuel injection computer can account for the different levels of each fuel and the car will run accordingly. For a list of the E85 stations currently in operation, visit www.e85fuel.com/database/search.php.

A new study cited by the website, conducted by the University of California, Berkeley, found that “even in the most critical eye, ethanol’s energy balance is positive and its environmental benefits clear. Ethanol is an efficient fuel made through an efficient process, and it pulls more than its own weight in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

The cost of this new fuel can vary, according to the website, but it can be “as much as 40 to 50 cents per gallon cheaper than gasoline.”

In addition, “all vehicles in the U.S. are ‘ethanol-capable’ and can use up to a 10% blend of renewable fuel. The majority of ethanol in America is retailed as E10, [and] this 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline blend is covered by the warranty for all vehicles,” according to the website.

So why haven’t we seen these new cars around, you may ask? You probably have.

Ford and GM have been producing these FFVs for several years, but since there are no E85 pumps here on the West Coast as of yet there hasn’t been too much talk about them. For a list of the vehicles currently available, go to www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/afv/models.html.

Ethanol does seem to be taking off in the Midwest, however, with 95 plants already in operation and upwards of 30 more under construction or in the planning stages, more than half of which are, or will be, owned by the local farmers and investors involved in corn production. That’s a far cry from the petroleum industry, which is controlled by only a handful of giant corporations.

The U.S. is not the only nation to be working on using ethanol as an alternative fuel source. The technology is also not as new as it seems. Brazil is the world’s number one nation using bio-fuels, or fuels made from organic renewable compounds. More than half of Brazil’s road fuel needs have been supplied by sugar beet derived ethanol for decades now, according to an article in The Scotsman. European countries have started to get on the bandwagon as well – the first E85 station opened this week in Norwich, England.

If and when E85 does reach California, however, Dave Curtis, a retired Navy engineer, automobile enthusiast, and hobby mechanic, is skeptical.

The problem with alcohol-based fuels, he said, is that our vehicles’ engines require twice as much pure alcohol as gasoline to travel the same distance because these fuels burn at different rates. Older fuel-injected vehicles could be made to accept ethanol because the cars’ computers can measure and compensate for the different types of fuels and the amounts needed.

The problem, he said, arises at higher speeds – the older injectors may simply not be able to push enough fuel through the system to satisfy the engine’s needs. Ethanol is also highly corrosive, and the newer vehicles, the FFVs, have been fitted with a fuel system made of stainless steel and lined with Teflon – a modification that would be quite costly for a pre-FFV.

“Yes, [ethanol] might be cleaner burning,” Curtis said, “but a cost to mile-per-gallon comparison is necessary to see whether it’s actually a better value. I don’t think it’s the end-all, be-all solution.”

Older, carbureted engines would be unable to make the conversion, he said. The fuel systems on classics from the 1970s and earlier put out a steady flow of fuel and they couldn’t be easily made to compensate for the amount needed to keep and engine running on E85. There go all the old Mustangs and pink Cadillacs that Americans are so fond of, to name a few.

The other issue worrying Curtis is the fact that E85 is made from crops that would normally be produced for food.

“I’m concerned because I don’t see it as an endless supply,” said Curtis. “How much land can I put into corn production [for fuel] before I start cutting into the food supply?”

Rather than alternative fuels at this point, Curtis would rather see the vehicles we already own be able to run more efficiently.

In Los Angeles alone, he said, if all the vehicles were able to run at the posted speeds – at the speed limits rather than the slow crawl they normally manage – all those engines would be running more efficiently and that would save almost 1 billion gallons of gas per year. And that’s just Los Angeles.

Yes, that would require widening the roads to accommodate the current populations, said Curtis, but if each major metropolitan city could boast that kind of savings it could make quite a difference.

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One Comment

  1. Gecko
    Posted 2 Nov 07 at 7:30 am | Permalink

    I’ve been following developments in biofuels as an interested observer for some time. I’d like to be more excited about ethanol, but it seems inferior to biodiesel in a few critical ways. There are some biotech folks working on a ‘biocrude’ that would make all the which-fuel-is-best talk essentially go away.

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