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With the rapid rise in the cost of fuel, it has made many of us take a step back and look at what options we have to replace or supplement our current choice of conventional fuels.
The most attractive of these alternative fuels is ethanol. Ethanol is the most widely used alternative fuel today. Ethanol is a alcohol made from corn and other starch crops such as barley and wheat that have been converted to simple sugars and then fermented and distilled. Because feed grains are used to produce ethanol, it is a renewable fuel. The use of ethanol lowers emissions of both carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. In the United States more than1.5 billion gallons of gasoline is blended with ethanol to produce E10 (10% ethanol an 90% gasoline). The blended fuel is readily available and many times is required by state and local laws to help reduce emissions. Secondly there is E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline). And thirdly there is E96 (95% ethanol and 5% gasoline). This fuel is considered a potential replacement for diesel. According to the Energy Policy Act 1992 only blends containing 85% or more ethanol can be classified as an alternative fuel.
For our discussion, we will concentrate on E85. Commercially available vehicles that can fuel with E85 are called flexible fuel vehicles (or FFVs). They can run on E85, gasoline or any mixture of the two. The National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition or (NEVA) estimates that approximately 6 million FFVs have already been sold in the United States to date, although many buyers are unaware that their vehicles can operate in E85. The benefits of E85 far outweigh the negatives associated with this fuel source. On the benefit side, E85 is the most oxygenated fuel available to us today and will greatly reduce exhaust emissions. Also, since ethanol is water soluble and biodegradable it is less of a threat environmentally in the event of a spill and by using E85 we can drastically reduce our dependence on petroleum. Another benefit, at least for now, is that E85 costs less than regular gasoline grades. On the downside, vehicles that operate on E85 tend to have poorer fuel economy which does somewhat offset the reduced price of E85 when compared to gasoline.
Some frequently asked questions about E85 and FFVs:
What are the differences between a FFV compared to a regular fueled vehicle? Are different parts used?
The major part difference between the two vehicles and that is the FFV has a fuel sensor that detects the ethanol/gasoline ratio. A number of other parts of a FFVs fuel system are modified to make them compatible with ethanol. The fuel tank, fuel pump, fuel lines, fuel injectors, anti-siphon valve, computer systems and dash board gauges are changed or modified on a FFV. Alcohol is more corrosive than gasoline and absorbs water so therefore any part that comes in contact with this fuel must be upgraded to make it tolerant to alcohol. Normally, these parts include stainless steel fuel tanks and Teflon line fuel lines and injectors.
Is it possible to convert a vehicle that was designed to operate on gasoline to run on E85?
Technically the answer is yes, but in reality that answer is no. Currently, there are no aftermarket parts or kits available that have been certified by the EPA by meeting the current standards for clean exhaust emissions. Based on the federal authority provided to the EPA through the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, the EPA implemented regulations that required vehicles converted to run on alternative fuels “be as clean as the exhaust emissions of the original gasoline equipment”. A company converting a vehicle to operate on an alternative fuel such as propane or E85 must be able to certify that the converted vehicle exhaust emissions are clean as the original. The differences in injector size, PCM calibrations, material composition of fuel line, pumps and tanks are just a few of the components required in E85 conversions making it quite complex and expensive. Additionally, the production vehicles of the automobile manufacturers that are capable of operating on E85 are produced for little or no additional cost over a gasoline only vehicle; this provides little incentive for an aftermarket company to undertake the expensive and time consuming task of aftermarket certification.
What happens if I fuel my gasoline only vehicle with E85?
Although your vehicle was not manufactured to run on E85, no problems should occur if you mistakenly fill once with an alternative fuel. The main difference between an E85 powered vehicle and one powered by gasoline is that the engine management systems are calibrated to read different amounts of oxygen within the fuel. E85 contains more oxygen than gasoline and E85 compatible vehicles are made to read the higher oxygen content. When the higher amount of oxygen is read in a gasoline only vehicle your “check engine” light may illuminate and your vehicle may have reduced power or other drivability issues. A number of parts on a FFVs fuel delivery system are modified to handle the corrosiveness of ethanol. Therefore, fueling your gasoline powered vehicle with E85 for extended periods may cause damage to the fuel delivery system. Ultimately it is going to be the driver’s choice, but we need to be firm in recommending that only FFVs use E85 and to clearly state that we are not responsible for damages.
Alternative fuels are here to stay and will only be increasing in popularity as they are viable options to help our environment and our dependence on crude oil.
Other alternative fuels that we currently hear about are propane (LPG), compressed natural gas (CNG), and Bio-Diesel. All of these are also attractive alternatives and one other added advantage to these fuels is the tax incentives to fleets that use them in the vehicles.