By Jim Kerr

With all the talk of hybrid and electric vehicles recently, there is one part of the vehicle market that has quietly slipped from the spotlight: I am talking about ethanol-fueled vehicles.

2008 Chevrolet flex fuel Impala
2008 Chevrolet flex fuel Impala. Photo: Brian Early. Click image to enlarge. Click here for more Impala flex fuel photos.

That doesn’t mean ethanol still isn’t an important part of our transportation future. Ethanol received bad press a while back, when some groups blamed the rise in food prices on the fact that some food stocks, mainly corn, are being used to produce ethanol.

However, there are many ways to produce ethanol, and much of the rise in food prices can also be attributed to the rise in production costs. Everything from fertilizer to fuel for agricultural equipment and transport to markets has increased in price and that has a significant impact on food prices.

Before we look at some of the innovative ways of producing ethanol, let’s look at the advantages and disadvantages of using ethanol in our vehicles.

A major advantage is that ethanol reduces tailpipe emissions. Gasoline is a complex mixture but a large part of it is made up of carbon and hydrogen. Engines use the hydrogen portion during combustion but the carbon is left over, forming carbon monoxide, which is converted almost completely to carbon dioxide (CO2) by the vehicle emission systems. Carbon dioxide is classed as a greenhouse gas and contributes to global warming at it enters our atmosphere. Ethanol, on the other hand, contains much less carbon in its formula. By operating a vehicle on ethanol, you can cut the CO2 output almost in half.

Another advantage of ethanol is that it is a renewable resource. The products it is made from receive their energy from sunlight, so you could say ethanol is indirectly a way to convert sunlight in to energy for our vehicles. Traditional methods of producing ethanol require a lot of heat often generated by fossil fuels, but new methods use waste materials or unwanted materials such as grasses, wood pulp and straw, and processes that either create their own heat or use natural fermentation. In New Zealand, ethanol is even being made from waste milk – yes, milk! – to fuel vehicles.

Some of the disadvantages of ethanol include its corrosive properties. Fuel systems need different rubber seals and stainless steel fuel lines or tanks for durability. This isn’t a problem, but it does increase manufacturing costs slightly. Another disadvantage is that ethanol doesn’t evaporate quickly at very low temperatures. This would make it more difficult to start an engine on a cold winter morning. Mixing the ethanol with a small percentage (15%) gasoline will overcome this problem and that is why ethanol sold today is called E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline).

Finally, ethanol has less energy than gasoline so it takes more to produce the same power. A vehicle running on E85 will probably get about 15 to 25 per cent lower fuel economy. In the past, this was a major disadvantage, but with today’s high gasoline prices, E85 is now competitive in many markets. For example, at a filling station in Colorado E85 was recently selling for $3.39 a gallon while gasoline was $4.29 a gallon.

The number of filling stations selling E85 has also increased. There are now 1,783 E85 filling stations listed on the E85Refueling.com website. Minnesota has the largest number of stations, and the U.S. midwest has the largest percentage of stations overall. Canadian regular gasoline now has between five and 10 per cent ethanol, but currently only three filling stations sell E85 – all in Ontario. They are located in Chatham, Guelph and Ottawa.

There is no shortage of vehicles on Canadian roads that can use E85 fuel. Depending on powertrain choice, vehicles such as the Toyota Sequoia and Tundra, Nissan’s Titan and Armada and Mercedes C-Class sedans can use E85. Ford has eight E85 models for 2009, Chrysler has 11 models, and GM has 23 2009 models that can operate on E85.

All these vehicles can be called “flex fuel” in that they can run on regular gasoline, E85, or any combination of the two fuels. Sensors on the fuel provide information to the engine computer so that it can modify the fuel delivery depending on the percentage of ethanol in the fuel tank. With one of these vehicles, you can use gasoline today but be ready for ethanol fuels when they become available in the future. A bonus is that the auto manufacturers are selling these “flex fuel” models at the same price as conventional models.

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