By Jim Kerr

Ethanol continues to loom large in the automotive world as one of the fuels we will be using more of in the future. It is a renewable resource, it can be produced from a variety of sources, and it can be delivered in our existing fuel infrastructure. Are we ready for ethanol? A better question yet – are our vehicles ready for ethanol?

Ethanol is ethyl alcohol. While it is possible to operate a vehicle on pure alcohol, it doesn’t provide very good cold weather starting capabilities because it doesn’t evaporate quickly at colder temperatures many Canadians experience in the winter. To provide better cold starting capability, and to prevent someone from trying to drink the fuel, the fuel companies mix the alcohol with 15% gasoline. This 85% alcohol and 15% gasoline mix is known as E85. To use E85 in your vehicle, you will need to own a Flex-Fuel vehicle. A Flex-Fuel vehicle is specially designed to operate on any combination of gasoline and/or alcohol up to 85% alcohol. Special sensors or programs in the engine computer monitor the amount of alcohol in the fuel and modify the fuel injection rate accordingly. The auto manufacturers offer many Flex-Fuel vehicles for sale. Trucks like the Ford F150 or Nissan Titan, SUV’s such as the Chevy Tahoe or GMC Yukon and cars such as the Ford Crown Victoria or Chevrolet Impala are all offered as Flex-Fuel models. Chrysler also has a large range of vehicles designed for E85 operation, with other companies such as Mazda beginning to introduce models. Check the website for a list of E85 compatible vehicles.

Just because you have a Ford F150 or a Chevrolet Impala doesn’t mean you can use E85 however. The manufacturers designate special engine codes for vehicles equipped to use this fuel. If you are looking to purchase a new vehicle, you can ask the salesperson about Flex-Fuel options. Often there is no or very little difference in price between a vehicle designed to operate on gasoline and a Flex-Fuel one.

Other ways of identifying a flex fuel vehicle are to look in the owner’s manual or to open the fuel filler door and read the fuel label. If it says it is E85 compatible, you have a Flex-Fuel vehicle.

Now comes the hard part – finding fuel. Of the over 170,000 filling stations in the United States, there are less than 700 selling E85 (see for exact locations). The situation is worse in Canada. You will have to drive to Ottawa to fill up!

So why would you want a Flex-Fuel vehicle when there is no fuel for it? It’s a bit like the chicken and the egg – which comes first? In this case, the vehicles are coming first, ready for the future. Gasoline prices are high and will probably go higher. Ethanol production is being ramped up, and while most ethanol is produced from grains, research continues into using straw, grasses, wood waste, and other plant by-products. Already, up to 10% ethanol is being added to gasoline at many locations across Canada. This amount of ethanol can be used in regular gasoline powered fuel injected vehicles without any changes required. The next step is to make E85 available.

If you have an E85 Flex-Fuel vehicle, you can run regular gasoline in it and switch to E85 at any time. You will be ready for the future. Can other vehicles be retrofitted to use E85? Not easily. There are no aftermarket conversion kits available. While it would be easier to convert a vehicle to use just E85, it is more difficult to install a system that will allow any mixture of E85 and gasoline.

One of the disadvantages of using alcohol as a fuel is that it contains less heat energy compared to gasoline. Fuel economy will be lower by about 20 to 30% depending on how the vehicle is driven. There is no change in the power of the vehicle, but more fuel has to be burned to develop the same power. Reducing taxes on ethanol-based fuels and developing cheaper methods of producing ethanol can offset this difference in fuel economy. As gasoline prices increase, ethanol E85 will also look more economically attractive.

Finally, E85 cuts the production of greenhouse gases, specifically CO2, to almost half of that emitted by gasoline engines. That fact alone could make ethanol and E85 the fuel of the future.

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