What is E85 and Why Does It Matter? Because Yellow is the New Green

2008 Indianapolis 500 Corvette Pace Car w/ E85

You have probably heard the term E85 used before, witnessed some vehicles badged with the FlexFuel signature or even stopped at a gas station that offers it and been slightly puzzled. E85 is an alcohol fuel mixture that is composed of up to 85% denatured ethanol with the remainder standard gasoline. Currently, most fuel is composed of roughly 90% gasoline and 10% percent ethanol. With E85, this formula is pretty much reversed. As E85 can reduce the dependency on oil and has been touted as a superior option for the environment, it is quickly becoming a powerful force in the automotive industry. For better or worse, E85 is being added to the growing list of eco-friendly alternative-energy sources to rival electric, hydrogen powered and hybrid vehicles.

FlexFuel E85 Logo

From a political standpoint, the biggest benefit is that E85 is a biofuel as opposed to a fossil fuel. E85 is mainly derived from corn but can also be produced from other grains such as sugar cane, beets, wheat, milo or potatoes. The fact that these are all renewable resources is a major selling point. The equipment required for E85 is similar to the current infrastructure required for oil so there is not a prohibitively high cost for handling or distribution. Vehicles that can run on E85, known as Flexible Fuel Vehicles, are becoming increasingly available and are no more expensive than their gas counterparts (as opposed to hybrids, which are). And with more than 1900 E85 capable fueling stations in the US, which is expected to double in the next year, availability should become widespread.

Opponents against electric powered vehicles often suggest that the additional production of electricity required to charge larger and larger numbers of cars ultimately does more harm than good. This is also the case with E85 where opponents claim that the production of grain alcohol actually is harder on the environment than using fossil fuels such as oil. This is also known as the “net energy” effect of ethanol production. Basically, more energy is used to grow and process the raw materials in ethanol than actually ends up in the final ethanol product itself. The agricultural machinery used to both plant and harvest vast amounts of crops creates a massive carbon footprint. Shipping and processing grains is a more energy intensive process than simply converting oil into gas or diesel fuel.

Large amounts of arid land are required to grow corn and other ethanol sources which can lead to deforestation, typically by burning. Because of this, there are fewer trees and plants to reduce CO2 emissions which results in a hefty environmental impact by changing the balance of oxygen. Resources such as water are needed in vast amounts which can lead to deficiencies elsewhere such as a reduction in ground water and natural reservoirs. And all of the fertilizers and pesticides used in grain production ultimately harm the soil and ecosystem.

Proponents of the ethanol production provide equally compelling arguments. The entire life cycle of ethanol production using corn provides roughly a 20% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions compared to gasoline. As efficiencies improve, this number will approach over a 50% reduction using corn and over an 80 percent reduction using cellulose. Ethanol is biodegradable and is a safe alternative to harmful additives like MTBE which is a groundwater pollutant and soil contaminant. Ethanol based fuels adhere to strict emission standards. Overall, not only are there fewer evaporative emissions but those also contain less carbon monoxide and dangerous toxins. (Although opponents will correctly point out that acetalkdehyde, a known toxin, is emitted in greater quantities than with gasoline alone).

So, who’s getting involved? General Motors is the biggest manufacturer right now in the flex-fuel market. For the current calender year, there are 18 different models with E85 capability available. Chrysler offers 10 models, Ford 8 and Nissan and Toyota just 2. Honda is not playing ball at this point. Even luxury manufacturers such as Bentley are coming on board. The company plans to provide flex-fuel options across its entire product line by 2012. Bentley has a fascinating study surrounding their new approach which is available here

And, what’s the biggest difference to your engine? Commercial automobile gasoline has an octane rating between 85 to 94. However, E85 has an octane rating between 100 and 105. An octane rating basically is a measurement of how resistant a fuel source is to detonation and in turn, engine knocking. In addition, higher octane ratings mean that higher activation energies are required for detonation. Each engine has a specific compression ratio. The higher the number the better an engine is at extracting energy and producing more power. Racing engines have high compression ratios and therefore need higher octane fuels. Regular gasoline powered cars have lower ratios and require lesser octanes. Engines that use E85 necessitate higher compression ratios due to the higher octane level. But they also have to be capable of running regular gasoline.

Therefore, most current flex-fuel vehicles have to use a compression ratio that will work well for both gasoline and E85. Because of this, E85 is used up quicker than using strictly gas alone. The majority of fueling stations discount E85 anywhere from 5 to 15% to compensate. So, if you see a lower price for E85 don’t assume it’s cheaper because in the long run it is not. In flex-fuel vehicles E85 also gets less miles per gallon. The extent of which varies model to model. As technology quickly improves, rest assured that this disparity will disappear in short order and the discount built in as well.

E85 Logo

I hope that this article presented a balanced argument both for and against the production and use of E85 and that you are better informed because of it. More and more scientific studies are sure to emerge that both support and negate the benefits of E85 and other biofuels but this trend is definitely here to stay. As auto manufacturers get more proficient at using ethanol look for fuel economy to improve, power outputs to increase and biofuel engine options to become more available and widespread.

Source: www.e85vehicles.com | www.e85fuel.com | GM | Ford

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  1. Visitor

    I’m a knitter, not a scientist, but it seems our politicians’ heads are in the sand about the ethanol energy equation. If it takes more fossil fuel energy to produce it than you get out of it, what’s the point? I’ll support ethanol when the energy balance for producing and transporting it becomes positive.

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