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Ethanol has a long history of being added to gasoline to increase octane and to help the engine burn cleaner and more efficiently. There are benefits and disadvantages; until technology advances more, the ethanol mix E85 will only be available to those who buy select models that are capable to run on E85. There are numerous costs involved in this technology, due to limited demand and limited technology. Most of the people who own E85-capable vehicles do not fill them with ethanol due to decreased mileage and scarce availability. Now, the federal government is pushing to further advance this technology in hope that it will be promising enough to help the country both on an economic and an environmental level.
Ethanol is an alternative energy source that can help to reduce the use of both foreign oil and fossil fuels in general. Ethanol fuel has a long history of use even before motor vehicles were invented. This type of fuel is easily manufactured and can come from numerous sources. Ethanol is a clear liquid made from feedstock, which is organic material such as sugar beets and sugar cane, corn, and trees and grass (How Is Ethanol Made?, 2005, para. 1). To produce ethanol, feedstock is ground up, and the sugar from it is dissolved (How Is Ethanol Made?). If corn or trees and grass are ground up, the cellulose from them must first be converted into sugar (How Is Ethanol Made?). The sugar from the feedstock is fed to microbes, producing ethanol and CO2 (How Is Ethanol Made?). Then, the ethanol is purified to make it ready for consumption (How Is Ethanol Made?).
Fig. 1 (How Ethanol Is Made, 2007, para. 1)
The Ethanol Process
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Henry Ford first pioneered ethanol use in automobiles in 1896 in his horseless carriage (Energy Kids Page, 2007). When he developed the Model A in 1908, Ford engineered it to be a flex-fuel vehicle, able to run on both gas and ethanol (Energy Kids, 2007). Ethanol was then used in both World War I and World War II to increase capabilities. As World War II ended, production of ethanol dropped until the 1980’s when lead was banned as an octane booster (Energy Kids, 2007). In 1978, gasohol was used in some applications, consisting of ten percent alcohol (Energy Kids, 2007). In 1997, automotive manufacturers Ford Motor Company and General Motors began to mass-produce flex-fuel vehicles, or FFVs, able to run on E85, a fuel mix that is 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline or to just run on unleaded gasoline only (Energy Kids, 2007).
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Fig. 2 (GMC, 2007, para.1)
GM Flex-Fuel Badge
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Currently, ethanol has limited benefits over unleaded gasoline due to lack of advanced technology. First off though, ethanol can be produced entirely on our own land. This means there will be decrease in demand on foreign goods and foreign trade. The drop in the price of farming supplies and the elimination of methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE) as a fuel additive has increased the demand for ethanol (Graham et al., 1996). MTBE was used in the 1970’s and 1980’s when carburetors were used to add oxygen to the fuel system to keep the fuel burn cleaner and lower emissions (Graham et al., 1996). MTBE was banned in gasoline to be replaced by ethanol after it was linked to groundwater contamination (Bedard, 2006, para. 12). Although the environmental effects of ethanol are about the same as gasoline, the carbon dioxide produced in the burning of ethanol is lower, as it theoretically is recycled from the atmosphere (Graham et al., 1996). The corn plants and other feedstock used to produce ethanol absorb the carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; and when the feedstock is made into fuel and burned, it lets off carbon dioxide, which is then absorbed by plants again and the process continues (Wiesenfelder, 2007). According to the U.S. Department of Energy, E85 reduced carbon dioxide by four percent and reduced NOx (oxides of nitrogen) by 59 percent (Bedard, 2006). However, it raises hydrocarbons by 43 percent (Bedard, 2006). E85 usually sells for about ten to 30 cents less than a gallon of gasoline, although there are few E85 pumps currently available (Bedard, 2006). The production
Fig. 3 (Jeff Lawson Photography, 2007)
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premium for an ethanol engine over its gasoline counterpart is about $200, which is about $3500 to $13,000 less than the premium over a hybrid (E85 Hybrids, 2007, para. 5). There is such a great amount of research left to be done on this technology that there is great opportunity for jobs and for business in this area.
On the other side, there are numerous disadvantages of burning ethanol. The soil erosion from corn plants is times as fast than that of soil formation, causing land strength issues (Venere, 2004, para. 1). Corn plants are expensive and there are insufficient amounts of these plants to produce enough ethanol to replace gasoline completely in the United States in transportation uses (Venere, 2004). Ethanol has less energy content than gasoline, meaning each gallon would yield fewer miles per gallon than does gasoline (Wiesenfelder, 2007). Most cars would see a decrease of about four to five miles per gallon in city driving and about six to eight fewer miles per gallon in highway driving (Wiesenfelder, 2007). Ethanol takes about 1.5 gallons of ethanol to make the same energy output of a gallon of gasoline (Bedard, 2006). To be specific, we have to look at the overall yield of corn crops. A bushel of corn makes 2.8 gallons, and an acre forms about 145 bushels of corn, or about 400 gallons (Bedard, 2006). To meet the 2005 requirement for 7.5 billion gallons by 2012, that would mean 1.25 billion more bushels and 8.7 million more acres would be needed (Bedard, 2006). There are few E85 filling stations in the country, due to a low demand and low availability. Recently, ethanol has only been has only been about ten to 30 cents cheaper than a gallon of gas, for about four to eight miles per gallon less (Bedard, 2006). This would increase the cost of every mile dramatically.
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Discussion Not all engines can run on ethanol. There are special fuel system parts that must be replaced to handle the stronger solvent properties of ethanol. The solvents in ethanol would destroy fuel lines and the insides of fuel components like the fuel filter and fuel pump (Bedard, 2006). Additionally, ethanol absorbs water, which is the main enemy in an engine’s fuel system (Bedard, 2006). In a car’s fuel system, water can accumulate easily in the tank and in the fuel lines, especially after sitting in one place for an extended period of time (Bedard, 2006). So, thicker fuel lines and stronger components are used (Bedard, 2006). Electronics also are an important part of a FFV engine. An oxygen concentration sensor, or O2 sensor, is used to determine the oxygen levels in the exhaust (Technews, 2007, para. 3). A gasoline engine uses this sensor as well to determine if it is following emission standards, but in a FFV engine, the computer determines from oxygen concentration data what percent of ethanol is being burned (Technews, 2007). That way, the engine computer can adjust to the fuel, so that the engine will burn cleaner and more efficiently (Technews, 2007).
There are many cars sold in the United States that are Flex-Fuel Vehicles. Ford was the first to mass-produce the technology in the 1996 Taurus. Since then, General Motors and DaimlerChrysler have developed many models for mass-production. Nissan and Mercedes also have a few models. For 2007, Ford offers the Ranger V6, the Explorer V6 and Mercury Mountaineer V6, Crown Victoria, Lincoln Town Car/Mercury Grand Marquis, and F-150 with the 5.4 Liter V8 (How To Read A
Fig. 1 (E85 Capable 2007 Avalanche, 2007, para. 1)
2007 Chevrolet Avalanche E85 FFV
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Vehicle Identification Number, 2007, para. 1). General Motors offers the Chevrolet Silverado and GMC Sierra pickups with the 5.3 Liter V8, the Chevrolet Impala and Monte Carlo V6, the Express/Savana cargo vans, Chevrolet Uplander/Saturn Relay/Buick Terraza minivans, and the Chevrolet Tahoe/Suburban/Avalanche and GMC Yukon/Yukon XL with the 5.3 Liter V8 (How To Read A VIN Number, 2007). Chrysler offers the Dodge Durango/Chrysler Aspen 4.7 Liter V8, the Chrysler Sebring Sedan 2.7 Liter V6, the Dodge Ram 1500 and Dakota with the 4.7 Liter V8, Jeep Grand Cherokee/Commander 4.7 Liter V8 and the Chrysler Town and Country and Dodge Caravan/Grand Caravan with the 3.3L V6 (How To Read A VIN Number, 2007). Nissan offers the Armada and Titan with the 5.6 Liter V8 (How To Read A VIN Number, 2007). Mercedes-Benz offers the C240 and C320 sedans (How To Read A VIN Number, 2007). All these vehicles are flex-fuel vehicles capable to run on E85.
Ethanol seems to have its upsides and downsides; but it definitely is important to move away from fossil fuels and to change our footprint on the environment. Although there is still much research to do before it can become a main source of fuel, there are many people who are working hard to develop new technology as soon as they can. We already have millions of cars on the road that are flex-fuel vehicles, but most likely they are not running on E85. Even though the cost for having a FFV is slightly higher, it is worth the price to pay a little more out of our pocket than to pay the price of increased environmental impact and global crisis.