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Ethanol 101

Written by Bill Siuru

Biofuels, i.e., biodiesel and ethanol, are alternative fuels produced from renewable crops and waste organic materials. Unlike fuel cells that still require technological breakthroughs and major investments in a hydrogen infrastructure, biofuels are almost old as the internal combustion engine itself. The Model T was originally designed to run on ethanol produced from corn. Rudolf Diesel ran his first engine on peanut oil, a biodiesel fuel.

Producing ethanol, i.e., grain alcohol or ethyl alcohol, is a very mature technology. Humans have been making alcoholic beverages since prehistoric days. Widespread use of ethanol basically requires modest investments in the production, transmission and distribution infrastructure.

Ethanol got a big boost when President Bush, in his 2006 State of the Union address made a commitment “to replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025.” Furthermore, he said, “We will also fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol, not just from corn, but from wood chips and stalks or switch grass. Our goal is to make this new kind of ethanol practical and competitive within six years.”

While ethanol is produced from corn in the U.S., it can be produced from sugar cane, sugar beets, wheat, barley and vegetable wastes. Cellulosic ethanol, as mentioned by Bush, could rotationally be produced for much lower cost than corn-derived ethanol.

Additional feedstocks probably will be needed to meet any future large-scale demand because the use of crops for fuel has to compete with other uses such as food and adult beverages. It probably will be many years before there is enough cellulosic ethanol to meet the president’s target—some experts say 10 to 20 years, about the time fuel cells may be coming into their own.

E85 Ethanol and E10 Gasohol

To fuel vehicles today, ethanol (alcohol) is blended with gasoline. E85, the fuel for Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFV), is 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline. Gasoline is needed because pure ethanol is difficult to ignite (initiate combustion) in cold weather. Because ethyl alcohol burns with a colorless flame, pure ethanol also could be a safety hazard.

E85, with 85% ethanol is very different from gasohol (E10), which is a blend of 10% ethanol and 90% gasoline. Gasohol became popular during the fuel shortages of the 1970s. All passenger vehicles can use E10 or gasohol. Though not considered an alternative fuel it, does replace petroleum-based gasoline, at least 10%.

Virtually all the “gasoline” sold today is pure gasoline mixed with some small percentage of ethanol. The higher octane, medium grade gasoline that sells for about the same price as unleaded regular is almost certainly E10 gasohol.

Flex Fuel Vehicles

Since the late 1990s, Ford, GM, DaimlerChrysler and other automakers have sold about 5 million Flexible Fuel Vehicles or FFVs. Many of the Ford Taurus sedans in government service are FFVs. FFVs can operate on E85, E10 gasohol, pure gasoline or any combination of these.

Recently, U.S. automakers announced they will double production of FFVs by 2010, or about 2 million annually. Automakers receive a 1.2-mpg credit of 1.2 miles against federal fuel-economy requirements by producing FFVs.

Unfortunately, the 1988 Alternative Motor Fuels Act that provided incentives to automakers to produce alternative fuel vehicles included no companion incentive for developing the needed fueling infrastructure. Thus, there now there are just 800 E85 stations in the entire U.S. These are mostly in Midwestern corn-producing states. Thus a very small percentage of FFVs ever actually have E85 in their fuel tanks. You can find stations dispensing E85 on various Web sites.

This situation is slowly improving. For instance, the Illinois Clean Energy Infrastructure Program has increased the number of E85 stations in Illinois from 14 to about 100. Ford and VeraSun Energy, a renewable energy company, have launched the “Midwest Ethanol Corridor” by expanding E85 availability by about one-third throughout Illinois and Missouri this year, as well as planning to increase the availability in neighboring states. Finally, Wal-Mart is considering selling E85 at its more than 380 gasoline stations, and Meijer (a Wal-Mart competitor in the Midwest) already is doing this.

Making Vehicles E85-Compatible

Modifying an engine to operate on E85 is pretty simple. Add a fuel sensor to detect the ratio of ethanol to gasoline, replace fuel system components that are not compatible with the corrosive ethanol, and reprogram the engine management computer account for the varying blend of gasoline and ethanol that can range between all gasoline and all E85. The oxygen sensor determines the ratio of pure gasoline to ethanol alcohol since ethanol blends contain more oxygen than gasoline.

A number of other parts on the FFV’s fuel delivery system are modified to be ethanol-compatible. The fuel tank, fuel lines, fuel injectors, computer system and anti-siphon device have been modified slightly. Alcohol fuels can be more corrosive than gasoline. Therefore, all fuel system parts exposed to ethanol have been upgraded to be ethanol-compatible.

While these modifications are simple, they also are required for successful, long-term use of E85 ethanol. Unlike E10 gasohol, ethanol should not be used in vehicles that are not specifically designed to operate on ethanol. Only use E85 in E85-compatible vehicles.

E85 in A Non-E85 Vehicle

What if a gasoline-only, non-E85 vehicle is accidentally refueled with E85? While virtually no component damage will occur from the more corrosive ethanol, the car will not run very well. And due to the much higher oxygen content, the “check engine” light will almost certainly come on.

On E85-compatible vehicles, drivers will not notice any performance difference between operating on E85 versus gasoline. The specifications for FFVs versus gasoline vehicles show no difference in torque or horsepower ratings. While ethanol produces less energy than gasoline, it has a much higher octane rating (100 to 105). If you look at a container of “Octane Booster,” it will probably include ethyl alcohol.

Mileage Penalty With E85

E85 contains only about 72% of the energy on a gallon-for-gallon basis compared to gasoline. This results in a theoretical 5% to 15% decrease in fuel economy, depending on operating conditions. In practice, the mileage penalty when using E85 is more like 25% to 30%.

The EPA fuel mileage estimates for the retail Crown Victoria are 25 mpg highway on gasoline and 18 mpg highway on E85. Likewise, the EPA estimates for the retail Chevrolet Impala are 31 mpg Highway on gasoline and 23 mpg highway on E85. These estimates involving police-size sedans reflect a 26% to 28% mileage penalty on E85.

E85 Prices

On a gasoline gallon-equivalent basis, which accounts for E85’s lesser energy content, E85 is currently more expensive than gasoline. Naturally, E85 is less expensive in the Midwestern states and more expensive in on the East and West Coasts.

On this gasoline-equivalent basis, E85 is more expensive than gasoline because of the added cost to blend ethanol with gasoline, as well as the added cost to ship ethanol into areas where corn is not grown. Ethanol cannot be transported readily through existing petroleum pipelines and must now be transported by barge, rail, or truck. Up-to-date prices on all alterative fuels are on the Web.

In some cases, E85 is much less than unleaded regular, and in some cases is as high as premium-grade gasoline. Actual E85 pricing includes local incentives, differing state taxes, depreciation expense for new pumps and the fact that in the grand scheme of things, it is a low-volume, specialty fuel.

Like other fuels, the price of E85 is also determined by supply and demand. This includes both the other demands for corn and other uses of ethanol, including large quantities now used as oxygenate in reformulated gasoline (RFG) to reduce smog-forming and toxic pollutants. Ethanol has replaced MTBE (methyl tertiary butyl ether).

MTBE has been detected in groundwater when it leaked out of storage tanks. At best, low levels of MTBE can make the water undrinkable because of its offensive taste and odor. Studies are under way to determine its harm to humans. This use of ethanol alone has created a demand that is currently outpacing supply, thus driving up prices of ethanol by 20 to 80 cents more per gallon.

With the lower mpg fuel mileage from E85 and parity or even higher fuel prices for E85, why would any police fleet even consider the use of E85? Of course, some fleets are under mandates to use alternative fuels, and the use of E85 is an easy way to meet them.

For the other fleets, the answer is in the term “flexible” in FFV. FFVs, which now cost little or no more than gasoline-only vehicles, represent insurance should gasoline, or E85, become unavailable or much too expensive.

This has already happened in Brazil where consumers can already buy FFVs that can run on any fuel from gasoline to E100 and even tri-flex vehicles that can also operated on natural gas. They have the flexibility to fill their tanks with the fuel that is cheapest or most convenient. Almost all fueling stations in Brazil offer the different fuels. The bottom line is that Brazil is almost immune to the instabilities—and price fluctuations—in gasoline supplies.

While the benefits of using E85 might be small on a per-vehicle basis, if used in millions of vehicles, the results could be dramatic in helping in reduce the nation’s dependence on imported oil. For example, in 2004, the ethanol usage reduced the U.S. trade deficit by $5.1-billion by eliminating the need to import 143 million barrels of oil. FFVs could be the answer to fuel shortages and large spikes in pump prices.

Rather than releasing petroleum from the national petroleum reserve, more ethanol could be produced, provided that the production facilities were in place and feedstocks were immediately available. Also, the gasoline producers would have serious competition, making price gouging less likely.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 will result in many more renewable fuels, including ethanol and biodiesel. The Renewable Fuel Standard Program (RFSP) requires the ethanol industry raise its production to 4 billion gallons in 2006, gradually rising to 7.5-billion gallons in 2012.

There is some controversy about the benefits of using ethanol as a transportation fuel. Critics say it actually takes more energy to produce ethanol than the petroleum-derived energy it saves when calculated on a “field-to-wheel” basis. However, according to the Argonne National Laboratory, if 100 BTUs of energy is used to plant corn, harvest the crop, transport it, etc., a total of 138 BTUs of energy is available in the fuel ethanol. This is a 38% increase in available energy.

Future improvements in crop yields and processing technologies, and especially cellulosic ethanol, could increase this percent substantially. Fermentation of Brazilian sugar cane produces much more ethanol compared to corn. For each unit of energy expended to turn cane into ethanol, 8.3 times as much energy is created. Research is under way in Brazil to increase this to 10 to 1. Incidentally, it also takes energy to produce gasoline, about 20% of the total energy available.

When it comes to emissions, according to Alterative Fuel Vehicle Institute, E85 reduces oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide emissions. The higher hydrocarbon emissions can be relatively easily handled by exhaust emission control systems. Ethanol advocates point out the E85 CO2 emissions are offset by the CO2 used by the crops grown to produce the ethanol.

How can the local police department find bulk, non-retail E85? The best way is to contact organizations such as the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition (www.e85fuel.com) or the National Alternative Fuels Training Coalition (www.naftc.wva.edu). Because E85 requires an investment in handling and storage equipment, except for large fleets of E85 vehicles, pumping at a commercial E85 station, if available, is probably most cost effective.

Why should the police use E85 if their overall fuel expense goes up if E85 costs about the same as gasoline but results in worse mileage? Unless the department is in an ethanol-producing state in the Midwest, E85 probably does not make economic sense. However, some agencies may want to use it for its “good neighbor” image, cleaner burning and reduced dependence on imported oil.

When will E85 be cheaper than gasoline? Probably not until cellulose ethanol is available, if even then, and the price of petroleum fuels continue to climb. Ethanol is a functional alternative to imported petroleum-based gasoline, but it is not necessarily a cheaper fuel, except in corn-growing states or where subsidies exist to lower the cost.

However, the police department’s buying Flex Fuel Vehicles makes excellent sense. This provides a choice of fuels—gasoline or E85—whichever is less expensive on a miles-per-dollar basis, or in the case of fuel shortages, whichever is available.

Bill Siuru is a retired USAF colonel. Since retiring, he has done consulting and writing. He currently is the technical editor for several publications—Diesel Progress, Green Car Journal, and Police and Security News. He has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. Highlights of his military career include a professor at West Point, commander of the research laboratory at the Air Force Academy and director of Engineering at Wright-Patterson AFB. He can be reached at wds@nethere.com.

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Sep/Oct 2006

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