By on April 1, 2006

 E85 proponents tout "flex fuel" as a Bridge Over Troubled Waters. They believe that vehicles running on E85's mix of ethanol and gasoline will take us to America's "hydrogen future", where zero emission vehicles power up with super cooled fuel supplied by alt-powered micro-refineries. Meanwhile, less utopian thinkers see E85 as a hammer-simple solution to the fuel cell's (and hybrid's) Rube Goldbergian complexities. With a few minor changes to our modern gasoline engines– a corrosion-proof fuel system, new software and rejigged ignition– a nation of bio-powered vehicles could thumb its nose at OPEC crude dealers. If only.

Supporters point to Brazil. In less than two decades, the Brazilians have just about achieved energy independence. Now that they grow millions of acres of sugar cane for fuel production, and have converted the vast majority of their vehicles to ethanol-friendly propulsion, nothing can cut off Brazil's energy supply or screw up their economy– save a strike by the sugar cane farmers. Or a climactic catastrophe. Or a huge rise in labor costs. Or land values. Meanwhile, Brazilian retailers sell E85 for a buck-a-gallon less than gas. America seems ready, willing and able to follow suit: to make the jump from fossil to bio-fossil fuel. So what's the hold-up?

It's not the vehicles. Every day, tens of thousands of E85-compatible car, trucks, SUV's and minivans enter active service, from America's best-seller (Ford F150) to the Chrysler Sebring. Thanks to federal legislation, every Flex Fuel Vehicle (FFV) sold helps bump-up its manufacturer's CAFÉ numbers to SUV-protecting averages. No, the real problem is supply. In rough numbers, only 600 out of 200k US gas stations stock E85. A quick search on reveals that there isn't a single E85 pump within 50 miles of my Indiana-based computer. Even our local Farm Co-op– which happily sells bio-diesel– is an ethanol-free zone.

This despite the fact that there's an ethanol plant forty miles away. The plant's proximity is a critical and, alas, limiting factor. Ethanol's corrosive nature and purity requirements preclude it from being pumped through the nation's underground pipelines. Virtually all ethanol must be shipped by barge, train or tanker truck– adding considerable expense to the final price. It would take many years and billions of dollars to build an ethanol-tolerant US pipeline network; regional production is the only way around current distribution issues. Hence the fact that corn-growing Minnesota has the most E85 pumps: around 200. Which is still less than 5% of The Gopher State's gas stations.

Even if they can find a supply of E85, motorists have to think twice about filling-up their FFV with the bio-fuel blend. Although ethanol has higher octane than gasoline (about 105), burns more cleanly and combusts more smoothly (increasing engine life), it contains roughly 25% less energy density. A vehicle that gets 20mpg on gas will only achieve around 15mpg on ethanol. Assuming a twenty gallon tank, an E85 driver will run dry after 300 miles, instead of 400. Americans, who are not keen to sacrifice any aspect of their motoring pleasure for any reason, ever, will not be amused.

It's also important to note that we're dealing with a commodity priced to a TENTH of a cent. The average driver will soon learn to factor in the 25% loss of mileage to the price of a gallon of E85. In other words, economic viability demands that E85 cost at least 25% less than the price of an equivalent gallon of gas. Even with tax subsidies, E85 struggles to compete against the availability, efficiency and price of good old gas.

When it comes to making E85 from corn (America's donor crop of choice), the energy in – energy out equation for grain ethanol keeps the purchase price relatively high. Industry boosters say there is an answer: enzymatic cellulosic fermentation. They claim that applying this process to cornstalks, bean pods, switch grass and wood fiber will dramatically increase ethanol production efficiency. Perhaps. The Canadian company pioneering the new technology still refers to its efforts as "feasibility studies". Iogen's largest pilot plant is processing about 30 tons of biomass per day. The company estimates each plant would require up to 1500 tons of biomass per day to make 45 million gallons of ethanol per year. That's a lot of switch grass, hay, woodchips and old houses. To create enough gas to make a dent in America's foreign policy, the country would have to be riddled with new plants.

I want to drive E85. But America is not Brazil. We don't have the cheap land or labor we need to produce and distribute ethanol on the kind of scale that would significantly curtail our dependence on foreign-born gas. Given current E85 production efficiencies and transportation limitations, there's only way to clear these hurdles and put our "oil addiction" into rehab: technological innovation combined with legislative intervention. To do that, we need the most potent commodity of all: political will.

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One Comment on “I Can't Drive E85...”

  • avatar

    While it appears you are quite intelligent and well versed regarding general Oil concerns, it surprises me that you are so mis-informed regarding Alcohol production, and it’s ir-refutable benefits to society as a whole (including your own driving experience Mr. Weir.)  Each of your critiques come up short when you know the actual facts, not those presented by the countless skewed studies performed by big Oil.  I suggest you read any of the books written by Richard Freudenberger, Keat B. Drane, and most importantly David Blume (Alcohol Can be a Gas).  Try not to forget that the Big Oil propaganda machine has been eating away at your mind for quite some time now. It may be time for a fresh look.

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