In a video produced by the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE),
scientists from the Lake Area Technical Institute in South Dakota
disassemble the engine of a 2000 Chevrolet Tahoe.
Part by part, they compare what a year’s worth of driving on E85 has
done to a standard engine—and part by part, the technicians show that
the engine is in better shape than a comparable engine run on regular
Despite the positive results, ACE officials say they would not recommend
burning E85 in standard vehicles. But the test demonstrates what could
be a pivotal point in ethanol’s future: Maybe, just maybe, standard
vehicles will be able to run on higher ethanol blends (though not as
high as E85) without ruin.
Two things have prevented the use of higher blends thus far. One is
federal regulatory hurdles. The other is the automakers, who won’t
warranty engines to be used with blends higher than E10.
Now there’s a chance the regulatory hurdles will come down. There’s no
guarantee it will happen, but the government is taking another look.
One concern the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has,
according to the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), is that
higher blends have the potential to increase harmful emissions that
contribute to air pollution. Those pollutants include nitrogen oxides,
volatile organic compounds and carbon monoxide.
However, newer model vehicles are better equipped to reduce harmful
emissions, making it less likely that higher ethanol blends would
contribute significantly to additional air pollution, according to NRDC.
Federal approval to use such blends in standard vehicles would create a
much larger market for an industry that is about to hit the E10
“blending wall” as new ethanol plants continue to come on line.
Brian Jennings, ACE executive vice president, said his organization
shares the same sentiment that the federal agencies do in wanting to
thoroughly study the potential effects of using higher ethanol blends.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say frustrated,” he said. “We have a vested
interest in ensuring that a fuel blend—whether E10, E20, E30, etc.—is
going to be compatible with autos, that the fuel will work effectively
and efficiently, that it will be safe, reliable and meet EPA emissions
regulations. So, we recognize the hoops are in place for a reason. I
think our concern is how would-be opponents might try to draw out the
process and stand in the way. After all, we would be attempting to
increase our market share.”
The day when higher ethanol blends will be available to standard
vehicles, however, is squarely in the hands of the U.S. Department of
Energy (DOE), EPA and the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Margot Perez-Sullivan, EPA media representative, said EPA and DOE have
been looking at higher ethanol blends since the establishment of the
Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) in the 2005 Energy Act.
At this time, she said, the federal government will not share results of
testing that is ongoing on the current U.S. vehicle fleet.
“When we have results, we will make a public announcement,”
Denny DeVos, director of corporate finance for Sioux Falls, SD-based
ethanol producer Poet, said that regulatory bottlenecks are a major
constraint to additional ethanol sales, rather than poor ethanol
economics or an RFS that’s too low.
Federal authority to allow blending of ethanol above the legal
10-percent cap, he said, would be the fastest, most effective way to
cure the ethanol industry’s current glut.
Simply increasing the RFS up to a proposed 36 billion gallons from the
current 7.5-billion-gallon cap by itself won’t fix the problem, DeVos
“The nation’s non-flex fuel vehicles could use ethanol blends of 20 to
40 percent without harming the environment and without the
infrastructure challenges of E85. “It’s definitely very safe to blend
ethanol at 30 percent without engine modification,” DeVos said. Higher
blends up to 40 percent are the “upper operating range” of what oxygen
sensors can detect in today’s engines.
At $93-per-barrel crude oil, he said blenders could make an estimated $1
more per gallon with ethanol than using conventional gasoline, with
federal tax credits included.
The reason blenders aren’t doing it now with crude oil approaching $100
per barrel is that retailers can’t sell more ethanol because of federal
regulatory barriers, DeVos said.
Federal studies are underway looking at both exhaust emissions and
evaporative emissions from the fuel blend or blends we would want
approved, Jennings said.
Scientists are looking at materials compatibility—immersing parts and
materials in the higher ethanol blends to compare how they react versus
how those same materials react to gasoline.
Jennings said the work also includes studying drivability and
durability, or how well cars operate on the higher blends, and the
potential health effects and air quality.
In 1999, ACE published the results of a year-long study conducted at
Minnesota State University in Mankato; the study looked at the effects
E30 and E10 ethanol blends had on 15 different vehicles including Ford,
Chevrolet, Oldsmobile, Buick, Dodge, Cadillac and Geo, ranging in year
from 1985 to 1998.
The study found a reduction in fuel economy on E30 and “no apparent
trend in vehicle emissions was identified,” the study said. “Some
emissions increased, while others decreased. Almost all emissions were
below federal standards.” Researchers applied the same vehicle-emissions
test used by EPA, the study said.
“There was not one drivability problem reported during the study,” the
study said. “There were no fuel system compatibility problems
experienced by any participants.”
If the federal government decides to allow higher blends, attention will
turn to whether the automakers will warranty cars for their use.