This week’s article is about E85 fuel, another intermediate solution before drivers stop using petrol all together. E85, I believe is an intermediate solution because it still uses petrol as a base.
E85 is a mix of ethanol and petrol – 85% ethanol and 15% petrol, so it helps to reduce the consumption of crude oil, however it increases the plant based ethanol production that in some instances uses huge amounts of water.
Some manufacturers have developed flex fuel vehicles that can burn ethanol and other fuels. To do this, the vehicles need to have some modifications to cope with the fuels. All rubber, magnesium and aluminium needs to be removed from any area that will get fuel on them. Ethanol corrodes or rots these materials. This means that a normal car cannot use that volume of ethanol, in fact some cars don’t even like the lower volume ethanol fuels on offer today.
E85 has a higher octane rating than normal fuel but is less efficient when burned, i.e. its combustion produces less power. So to get the same power, the cars need to use more fuel. In the US, E85 is on average 40c a gallon cheaper than petrol, which reduces the pain of having to buy more. www.e85prices.com provides a view on US pricing.
As an example, the V8 Supercars series race on E85 from fuel made by CSR – the Colonial Sugar Refining Company. They have been growing sugar and converting it into products for over 150 years. Their ethanol comes from sugar cane and when burned as part of E85 produces 50% less CO2 and they are quoted on their web site as saying that a SAAB 9-3 running the fuel will produce less CO2 than a Toyota Prius hybrid. The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition in the US discusses how the CO2 produced by a flex fuel car will get absorbed by new plants grown to produce more ethanol. A nice concept, however the published article on their web site (www.e85fuel.com) does not discuss the process of refining the plant extract into the useable fuel.
Which leads to another question: why can’t hybrid cars be developed to run E85? That would reduce consumption of oil and the production of CO2 even further! Well, the Chevy Volt, Ford Fusion and Ford Escape Hybrids are flex fuel vehicles, so expect this technology to spread across the globe. In fact Ford developed the Escape Hybrid Flex Fuel way back in 2006.
Over the years the big problem for any fuel – logistics and infrastructure – has been solved for E85. There are a handful of countries fully geared up for E85, Brazil and some Scandinavian countries use E85 extensively and have done for decades. The rest of the world though, is catching up with the infrastructure to supply E85 to the market – it is a plus point that many new cars are fitted with the necessary components. In recent weeks I have seen more targeted advertising to encourage more use of E85 fuels and the general benefits of doing so – primarily for the producer but with a marketing spin to make the consumer think they are doing something good.
I believe consumers must understand where their ethanol comes from. Some sources use a huge amount of water to refine and use a food crop in the process which will compete with needs of humans. Could that crop be used in a better more humanitarian way? There is still a battle for the dominant future fuel and it will be interesting to see which one wins and what the damage is to the ecology – everything humans do causes some damage. Importantly, it will be the least taxed option that has the short term advantage!