Ethanol: fuel of the future?

Ethanol: fuel of the future?

Steve Noe

U.S. President George W. Bush touched on it in his most recent State of the Union address, and Fred Whyte, president of Stihl Inc. and chairman of the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute (OPEI), raised the issue during his state-of-the-industry keynote address at the Outdoor Power Equipment and Engine Service Association’s (OPEESA) recent annual meeting.

“Ethanol is going to become the next big political issue,” Whyte told OPEESA members. “The goal is to raise awareness that ethanol may not be an ‘end all, cure all’ across the board. More definitive testing and information is required before we can fully understand the impact to our industry and, more specifically, to our products.”

Bill Harley, president and CEO of OPEI, said, “OPEI and its member companies fully support a properly structured increase in ethanol usage within the United States. Broadening the use of E10 fuels throughout the United States provides a consistent fuel supply and helps to reduce emissions, global warming and our dependence on foreign oil.”

In President Bush’s aforementioned State of the Union address on Jan. 23, 2007, he asked Congress and America’s scientists, farmers, industry leaders and entrepreneurs to join him in pursuing the goal of reducing U.S. gasoline usage by 20 percent in the next 10 years–Twenty in Ten. “For too long our nation has been dependent on foreign oil,” President Bush said. “And this dependence leaves us more vulnerable to hostile regimes, and to terrorists–who could cause huge disruptions of oil shipments, and raise the price of oil, and do great harm to our economy.”

One way that America can reach the President’s Twenty in Ten goal is by increasing the current Renewable Fuel Standard, which was established in 2005 and required fuel blenders to use 7.5 billion gallons of renewable and alternative fuels in 2012, by nearly five times to 35 billion gallons in 2017. This would displace 15 percent of projected annual gasoline use in 2017.

One of the alternative fuels that will play a key role in achieving this goal is ethanol. In the United States, one out of every 10 gallons of gasoline currently sold contains ethanol. Ethanol is a renewable form of alcohol extracted from plants, usually corn. It not only acts as an octane booster, but also helps to improve air quality.

E10 is the most commonly sold ethanol-blended gasoline in the United States. It contains 10-percent ethanol and 90-percent gasoline. Most automobile manufacturers warranty their vehicles to work with E10. At 10 percent, the ethanol generally does not cause corrosion or starting problems. But at higher concentrations, the fuel tank, pump, lines and fuel delivery system–whether a carb or fuel injection–must be designed differently. The same is true for other engines, including outdoor power equipment, though a slight carburetor adjustment may be needed.

Whyte noted that in Brazil, where E20 is used, the ethanol is made from sugar cane (E20 is an 80/20 blend of gasoline/ethanol). However, Whyte further added that Stihl machines using E20 still have fully adjustable carburetors, unlike the carburetors in the United States, which are basically semi-adjustable, with limiter caps, because of the emissions regulations.

Another alternative fuel is E85, which is made of 85-percent ethanol and 15-percent gasoline. It is being pushed strongly by the U.S. government for fleet use and is being sold extensively in the Midwest, where most of the corn and grains used to manufacture ethanol is grown. Vehicles that run on E85 are called flexible-fuel vehicles (FFV) and are offered by several vehicle manufacturers. An FFV will run on any mix of gasoline, including E85. But there are tradeoffs:While it may cost less at the pump, E85 produces less energy in the engine. According to the Department of Energy, it takes 1.4 times as much E85 to drive the same distance as it does using pure gasoline. Also, very cold weather poses starting problems for fuels with high levels of alcohol.

And while Harley states that expanding the fuel supply infrastructure for E85 for use in widely available FFV is in the best interest of reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil, he cautions, “The broad proliferation of ethanol fuels between E10 and E85 does present some concerns for outdoor power equipment, which include potential product failures, engine performance issues, product safety and environmental impacts.”

Whyte echoes Harley’s sentiments. “Certainly,” Whyte adds, “increased use of ethanol is an issue that we in the OPE industry must investigate further and test extensively.”

Questions remain about ethanol

Ethanol production in the United States has skyrocketed from 12 percent a year with 175 million gallons in 1980 to 1.4 billion gallons in 1998, to more than 300 percent since 2000, according to the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) (http://www.ethanolrfa.org). In 2006, it reached 4.9 billion gallons, which was a record 1-billion-gallon, or 25-percent, increase over 2005. The United States is poised to surpass Brazil as the world’s number one ethanol producer at slightly more than 5 billion gallons a year and produce more than 10 billion gallons of ethanol annually in the not-too-distant future.

However, according to the May 3, 2006, edition of the USA Today, “Even with a 54-cent-a-gallon subsidy, ethanol hasn’t caught on nationally because it’s too expensive, can’t be shipped in pipelines, and delivers about 30 percent fewer miles per gallon than gas does, necessitating more fill-ups.”

It’s important to note that for these fuels to be legally produced and distributed (according to the Federal Clean Air Act), the U.S. EPA would need to grant a waiver to individual states. If the U.S. EPA grants a waiver, states can mandate the use of ethanol fuel blends included within the waiver request. Should the U.S. EPA fail to act upon the waiver request within 180 days, the waiver is automatically granted.

The future of ethanol as a true replacement for gasoline remains unsure. While promising with lower level blends like E10, the advantages of using higher concentration levels as a broad-based solution may be overshadowed by the inherent problems faced with ethanol.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Bev-AL Communications, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2007 Gale Group