Carley’s Corner: Hybrid Hazards – UnderhoodService
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Carley’s Corner: Hybrid Hazards

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Is E85 motor fuel a corny way to reduce American’s dependence on foreign oil? E85 is being touted as an eco-friendly, alternative fuel that can provide a home-grown solution to reducing our need for imported oil.

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E85 is a mixture of 85% ethanol alcohol and 15% gasoline. The alcohol is made primarily from corn, but it can also be made from a variety of crops including potatoes, sugar cane and beets. In fact, ethanol can be made from anything that contains fermentable sugar, including organic garbage. Gasoline is added to E85 to improve its cold-start characteristics and to make the fuel poisonous (otherwise the government would have to tax it the same as drinking alcohol!).

Actually, the government gives fuel alcohol producers and retailers some rather significant tax credits. Gas stations that sell E85 receive a federal income tax credit of 51 cents per gallon. Corn growers receive farm subsidies. Alcohol distilleries also get various tax credits and incentives.

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E85 currently sells for about 30 to 50 cents a gallon less than gasoline. That sounds pretty good, but E85 doesn’t contain as much energy as straight gasoline. Alcohol contains only about 80,000 BTUs per gallon compared to about 120,000 for gasoline. Because of this, the fuel economy you get with E85 isn’t as good as with gasoline. The fuel economy may be 10% to 30% less depending on driving conditions.

E85 also requires a specially modified fuel injection system that can deliver a richer fuel mixture. Alcohol likes an air/fuel ratio of 9:1 compared to 14.7:1 for gasoline, so higher flow rate fuel injectors are required. The fuel system must also be equipped with a special fuel sensor. The engine computer uses the fuel sensor’s input to adjust fuel delivery and spark timing according to the concentration of alcohol in the gas.

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General Motors and Ford have both been building “flex fuel” cars and light trucks capable of running on either gasoline or E85 for a number of years. Recent models include flex fuel versions of the Ford Taurus and Explorer, and GM’s Avalanche. In fact, there are nearly 5 million of these flex fuel vehicles on the road today. Trouble is, finding E85 to fuel them is a challenge.

Currently, there are only about 600 gas stations nationwide that sell E85, and most of these are concentrated in the Midwest where most of the fuel-grade alcohol is made (Archer Daniels Midland, located in Decatur, IL, is the largest producer). Consequently, many flex fuel vehicles have probably never been driven on E85, just straight gasoline.

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GM and Ford want to see E85 offered at more service stations so they can build and sell more flex fuel vehicles. In return, they’ll receive more alternative fuel credits from the government to offset their gas-guzzling models that hurt their Corporate Average Fuel Economy numbers. It’s a win-win situation for everybody.

Personally, I’m in favor of making all the alcohol fuel we can burn regardless of how much it really costs to produce or what it costs at the pump. The long-term costs of renewable home-grown fuels, such as ethanol alcohol, are far less than what it’s costing us now to buy and protect crude oil from Middle East sources. With the economies in China and India booming, the day is coming when there’s not going to be enough oil for everyone. We need alternatives and we need them now.

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Geologists estimate the world contains at most about 3 trillion barrels of recoverable crude oil. We’ve already used more than a quarter of that amount, and are now sucking oil out of the ground at a rate of 75 million barrels a day. Nearly 80% of this is being burned by various modes of transportation.

Here in this country, we use 15.5 million barrels of oil a day. Of this, about 10 million barrels of oil a day are imported (65% of the total!). One barrel of crude oil typically yields a little more than half a barrel of gasoline, so that translates into a burn rate of roughly 9 million barrels (or 495 million gallons) of gasoline a day!

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Back in 1980, I wrote a book called How To Make Your Own Alcohol Fuels. The book was written at a time when Americans were in a panic over rising fuel prices and over dependence on foreign oil (which was less than half of our total need at that time). The book was as much about the need for self-sufficiency and renewable energy as it was about building stills, making mash, brewing and distilling alcohol, and modifying engines to burn ethanol. The book sold surprisingly well, but I think most of the people who bought it were more interested in making moonshine than alcohol fuel.

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In 1980, Jimmy Carter was President and Congress passed the Synthetics Fuel Bill that earmarked $1.45 billion dollars (peanuts by today’s standards) for alternative fuels development. For awhile it looked like we were actually going to do something to reduce our dependency on foreign oil. But when the price of crude oil came back down, the alternative fuels movement withered on the vine. So here we are 25 years later facing the same issues.

The big picture hasn’t changed. In fact, we’re more dependent on foreign oil today then we were 25 years ago. But we’ve also made some moves in the right direction. Alcohol production has grown significantly in recent years, and is now close to 1.8 billion gallons per year (one bushel of corn yields about two gallons of ethanol). Most of this is being used as an octane booster and oxygenate in “reformulated” gasoline and premium grade fuels.

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If E85 can be made widely available, some say it might offset up to 30% of our current use of gasoline in another 25 years. It’s certainly a step in the right direction, but it is only a small part of the overall solution to reducing our dependence on foreign oil.

We also need more fuel-efficient vehicles, including more hybrids, which are coming. We also need smarter traffic controls to reduce urban gridlock.

And most importantly, we need smarter urban planning to reduce the negative effects of urban sprawl. Suburbia needs to become more pedestrian friendly, and public transportation needs to be more practical and affordable.

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