Ethanol is liquid alcohol. It is generally manufactured by fermenting plant biomass such as corn or wheat. Ethanol is quite flammable and, as such, makes a great transportation fuel. Ordinary cars can use up to 10% ethanol mixed in with standard gasoline but higher percentages than that require a “flex-fuel” vehicle. Flex-fuel Vehicles (FFV) are vehicles that are designed to operate on fuels that are a mixture of ethanol and gasoline in higher percentages. The highest percentage of ethanol to gasoline mix that these vehicles can use is 85% ethanol/ 15% gasoline. This is commonly referred to as “E85”.
Why are there flex-fuel vehicles?
You could think of FFVs as “transitional vehicles” and E85 as a “transitional fuel”. Both the vehicles and E85 fuel are engineered to bridge the gap between our current petroleum-based supply and steadily growing bio (plant-based alcohol) fuel supply. They are an attempt to get ready for the possible demand for this type of fuel.
General Motors has been a leading proponent of FFVs but many automotive manufacturers haven’t signed on because there aren’t a lot E85 stations in the US yet. It’s a bit of a chicken or egg kind of thing. In other countries, E85 is vastly more popular than it is here in the US. In Brazil, for example, most gas stations carry E85 fuel because the biofuel is made locally and in huge quantities. Here in the US, many manufacturers are waiting to see if the demand for flex-fuel vehicles increases before they jump in.
What’s the advantage of Flex-fuel?
Is E85 fuel cheaper than gasoline? Well, currently it isn’t. While the prices of E85 are typically less than standard gasoline, there is less energy per unit volume (27% less) which means less fuel mileage. You need to buy more this fuel than gasoline to travel the same distance. This, of course, would change if the prices of E85 would decrease, which is always possible if supply increased.
What about the future of E85?
The fuel distribution infrastructure for ethanol is still in its infancy, and it will take many years and money to fully develop. During the possible transition from petroleum-based fuels (gasoline and diesel) to biofuel, vehicles will need to be able to run on both types of fuel as availability of one or the other may be spotty.
Will this actually happen?
Well, the United States is a “market economy” and the market will determine if there is a future for this type of transportation fuel. The problem is that it is difficult to “try it out” if you don’t have a flex-fuel car or truck, and access to E85 fuel.
Article Courtesy of: Brown Daub Chrysler