E85: Flex-Fuel Vehicles

E85: Flex-Fuel Vehicles

Are they corny?

Nearly five million alternative-fuel vehicles are currently on U.S. roads-and many of their owners don't even know it. Flexible-fuel (flex-fuel) models first appeared in 1991. Since then, each of the Big 3 domestic automakers has manufactured about 1.5 million flex-fuel cars, and hundreds of thousands more are expected to arrive by the end of 2006. A flex-fuel vehicle, or FFV, is a vehicle that is capable of running on either gasoline or E85, which is a blend of 85-percent ethanol and 15-percent gasoline. The idea of such vehicles is not a new one; Henry Ford designed his Model T to operate solely on ethyl alcohol, also known as ethanol. All current vehicles can accept fuel containing up to 10-percent ethanol.


Ethanol can be manufactured from various sources, but "corn is king," according to Phillip Lampert, executive director of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition. Ethanol production is therefore strongest in the upper Midwest region of the United States. "That's where our political support is," Lampert adds. Clean Air Choice, a clean fuel program from the American Lung Association of the Upper Midwest, estimates that a bushel of field corn can be processed into at least 2.7 gallons of ethanol.

Partly motivated by fuel-economy credits from the federal government, automakers have decided to make certain engines of specific car models operational on both fuel types as a no-cost option. In most cases, either the salesperson fails to explain, or the buyer overlooks the flex-fuel feature. "Probably the vast majority of drivers don't know they have a flex-fuel vehicle," Lampert says. GM intends to put special labeling on upcoming flex-fuel models, though mostly they look and behave like regular vehicles.


Ethanol advocates emphasize that using E85 results in decreased reliance on imported oil, reduced environmental pollution, and a lower negative impact on the public's health. Lampert adds that ethanol is 100-percent renewable and non-carcinogenic. At the same time, production is 100-percent domestic. "Absolutely without doubt," the use of ethanol enhances America's energy security, says DaimlerChrysler spokesperson Nick Cappa. "Also, it helps farmers."

E85 has a substantially higher octane rating than today's gasoline, which means improved performance by way of greater horsepower. Clean Air Choice reports that E85 has the highest oxygen content of all available fuels, so it burns more fully. Its use can result in a nearly 30-percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. The EPA claims that making the switch from gasoline to ethanol blends can lower the environment's carbon monoxide levels by as much as 40 percent, and smog-forming pollutants by 15 percent.

Greenhouse gas emissions are likely to be cut by 15 to 20 percent. Lampert notes that you need high volatility in winter for cold starts, and low volatility in summer to prevent vapor lock. The mixture may be seasonally adjusted. In colder months, it can be tweaked to contain less than 85-percent ethanol which will, of course, effect the vehicle's overall mileage rating.


As for drawbacks, ethanol has a noticeably lower energy content than gasoline-exactly how much lower seems to be a matter of some controversy. According to Lampert, this decreased energy content rating translates to roughly a 12- to 20-percent reduction in fuel mileage. John Howell, product director for Cadillac, states there is a "15- to 25-percent difference in the level of energy by liquid measure." EPA fuel-economy estimates for flex-fuel models reveal that E85 reduces gas mileage by 21 to 31 percent during city driving and 20 to 34 percent while on the highway. Assuming that E85 typically costs just slightly more than the average going rate of gasoline, annual fuel costs could climb to levels as high as 30 to 52 percent greater when using E85 rather than gasoline.

Currently, E85 is sold at only about 640 filling stations nationwide, and more than two-thirds are in the upper Midwest, meaning availability is proving to be a large obstacle. Although the number of E85 stations doubled last year from the previous year, Lampert believes the total number of stations is still tiny, especially when compared to the 170,000 stations that dispense conventional gasoline.


GM's available flex-fuel vehicles include Chevrolet's Monte Carlo, Impala, Avalanche, Silverado, Suburban, and Tahoe, along with GMC's Sierra, Yukon, and Yukon XL. Chrysler offers a flex-fuel Sebring, and Dodge makes available its Stratus, Caravan, Ram, and Durango. DaimlerChrysler, which includes Dodge, recently announced that it will now offer its flex-fuel vehicles for sale to the public. Ford has an FFV Crown Victoria and F-150 pickup, while its Mercury line submits the Grand Marquis, and Lincoln grants its Town Car. Nissan is currently the only foreign auto manufacturer offering a flex-fuel vehicle model-the Titan pickup. More than half of all new Titans can run on E85.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), as reported by Clean Air Choice, for every unit of energy used to produce ethanol (and co-products), 1.67 units of energy emerges. In contrast, each unit of energy used to produce gasoline results in 0.79 units of energy. Not everyone agrees with those figures. Some critics charge that ethanol results in a net energy loss, not a gain, when considering the production and distribution process. Wisconsin auto writer Matt Joseph urges caution, citing a Cornell University study concluding that ethanol does indeed deliver negative net energy, contradicting the USDA's findings. To make E85 a truly valuable alternative to gasoline, Joseph believes, "the positive factor would have to be huge."

At this year's 2006 Chicago Auto Show, Ford Motor Company and General Motors both announced a new project in cooperation with VeraSun Energy Corporation to expand the number of ethanol stations. Ford also displayed an Escape Hybrid E85, which would be the first hybrid powertrain to run on an ethanol mixture.

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