Pure ethanol or E100 is also known as ethyl alcohol or grain alcohol. It is made when corn, grain, or other agricultural products are fermented, distilled, and denatured and because of this, it is a continually renewable resource, a true benefit in the world of alternative fuels. Another benefit is the fact that, unlike many other, mainly petroleum based, fuels, it contributes nothing to the build-up of greenhouse gases. Because of its renewable nature, it is possible to extensively reduce a nation's dependence on foreign oil products.
Pure ethanol is never used as an alternative fuel, but ethanol blends are. For example, E10 is a fuel made of 10 percent ethanol and blended with 90 percent gasoline. The most common blend is E85, a fuel made of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. E85 is officially classified by the U.S. Department of Energy as an alternative energy fuel. It could be used in most cars today that are run on gasoline with some modification, and new, flexible fuel vehicles, are being developed that could use E85. Recently, lobbyists have been pushing for its use in FFVs or flexible fuel vehicles, alternative vehicles that have a lesser impact on the environment than today's gas guzzling cars.
Why is E85 gaining in popularity to the point that lines of vehicles are being developed that will run on it alone? Compare it to the properties of gasoline, and see for yourself:
Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFV)
- It is a renewable resource
- Reduces dependence on foreign oil
- Reduces smog and emissions
- 96 octane to 86-94 octane in gasoline
- 12,500 lower heating value to 18,000-19,000 lower heating value of gasoline
- 1.4 gallons of E85 is equal to 1 gallon gasoline
- Per gallon, E85 gets 72% of the miles that gasoline gets
- Holding tank is 1.4 times larger than a gasoline holding tank
- In cold weather, E85 starts the car as well as gasoline
- Vehicle power is increased 3-5% with E85
A flexible fuel vehicle is a car that runs on any ethanol blend, E85 or less, and can also run on regular unleaded gas. They have been in production for almost a decade and continue to be built by some major car manufacturers including Ford, GM, Mercury, Isuzu, and more. Over 2 million of today’s vehicles are flexible fuel vehicles, which can run on ethanol, gasoline, or a mixture of the two. You may own one of these FFV's without even being aware of it. Some of the benefits of flexible fuel vehicles include:
Hybrid Vehicles And Ethanol
- Emissions that create smog are reduced 25 percent
- Cost effectiveness is equal to that of cars run on gasoline
- Similar warranties and original equipment are manufactured as they are for gasoline run vehicles
- Emissions that create greenhouse gases are reduced 35 to 40 percent
- Vehicle horsepower increased up to 5 percent
- Fuel is renewable
- New vehicles can be ordered with a flexible fuel engine option
- More and more E85 pumps are springing up all over the country
- Gasoline can be mixed with any amount of E85 if E85 is not available
Most cars, including hybrid cars have no problems with a 10 percent ethanol blend. However, at this time, the combination of E85 and the hybrid car is only slowly making its way from the drawing board to the highway. Some instances have occurred where the two have been combined, but these are primarily in fleet situations and concept cars so far. However, it shouldn't be too long before you can buy a hybrid car that will run on E85.
Drawbacks of E85
There are a few disadvantages to E85 at this point in the game, though they hardly outweigh the benefits. Some of these include:
- The cost of E85 is formidable due to the cost of the fermentation process but research has already begun to develop a new and cheaper fermentation process that utilizes lower-grade feed stocks.
- Ethanol is quite a bit more corrosive than gasoline, which could lead to engine problems.
- Issues of things like vapor lock, flame visibility, and cold starts have experts concerned.
- The miles per gallon of E85 is less efficient than the miles per gallons of gasoline.
- It's not easy to find E85 gasoline tanks because distribution is difficult.
One present disadvantage that DOES outweigh the ecological value for the consumer is the scarcity of locations selling E85. This will probably continue to change over time however. For those in the military, there are some military bases where E85 can be found.
Despite the limitations, ethanol based alternative fuels like E85 are an incredible improvement over the use of gasoline. Some car manufacturers are offering to upgrade regular engines to E85 capability for no cost, and the fact that flexible fuel vehicles are not reliant upon E85 but can use gasoline in any combination with the ethanol blend makes it a simple choice. Scientists and researchers are working on ways to fix the remaining issues. This new technology is more than a trend but the direction in which the future is taking drivers.
You can learn more about alternative fuels and flexible fuel vehicles, including what vehicles are flexible fuel vehicles, and where to find E85, at the United States Government's Alternative Fuel Data Center. You can locate them online at http://www.eere.energy.gov/afdc/infrastructure/fuel_inf.html
The author is retired from the Army after 21 years of service, has worked as an accountant, optical lab manager, restaurant manager, and instructor. He has been a member of Mensa for several years, and has written and published poetry, essays, and articles on various subjects for the last 40 years. He is keenly interested in the fuels of the future, America's dependence on foreign oil, the physical limits of stores of petroleum based products, and the futures of his grandchildren. Learn more about hybrid cars, and fuel economy.