Fuel’s errand

Posted on 10 Aug 2006 at 3:30pm
By Casey Williams – Auto Reviewer

Biodiesel and other renewable fuels may still sound futuristic, but the reality is closer than you think



The Avalanche is just one GM car with the potential to be fed on a strict diet of corn.

If the powers that be are successful with their alternative fuel initiatives, the Midwest could become the new Mid East. Corn-derived ethanol and soy-based biodiesel have the real potential to give us a cost-effective alternative to the “oil standard.”

E85 ethanol is an 85 percent ethanol/15 percent gasoline fuel blend that is mostly renewable through the distillation of corn. It has the potential to reduce dependence on gasoline from almost 100 percent of fuel use to only 15 percent. Not only could that have a dramatic impact on economic stability, but it could also change the faces of international relations. (The Indy Racing League announced that next year’s Indianapolis 500 will be run completely on ethanol.)

GM is launching a campaign called “Live Green Go Yellow” to promote E85. General Motors already has 1.5 million E85-capable flexible fuel vehicles on the road and will increase that figure by 400,000 during 2006.

To get E85 into gas stations, Ford is working with VeraSun Energy, a renewable energy company, to create what it calls a “Midwest Ethanol Corridor.” The initiative includes expanding E85 availability by one-third in Illinois and Missouri; Ford estimates there are 50,000 owners of its flexible fuel vehicles in Illinois and 28,000 in Missouri. If you’ve seen a Ford Taurus or other vehicles driving around with the FFV logo on its front quarter panel, now you know those are E85-capable vehicles.

Ford is getting into the game, too.

Ethanol is derived from distilling corn in a process that is not entirely dissimilar from making whisky. Which, brings to mind all kinds of jokes like George Jones promoting the new white lightning and black and white gas station signs replacing yellow and red or green and white. Could E85 change our opinions of “drinking and driving?” Should we buy stock in Jack Daniels?
Not hardly.

In addition to E85, DaimlerChrysler is pushing a diesel resurgence through B20 biodiesel fuel and its BLUETEC diesel engine. As truck drivers and anybody who lived through the 1980s knows, diesel engines are very fuel-efficient, but typically pollute more than gasoline engines. That’s not necessarily true anymore.

“Biofuels represent a huge opportunity to reduce fuel consumption and our dependence on foreign oil,” says Chrysler Group President and CEO Tom LaSorda.

B20 is 20 percent soy bean-derived diesel fuel that can be burned in Dodge Ram pickups equipped with Cummins diesel engines aimed at military, government, and commercial fleet customers. DaimlerChrysler is partnering with industry and academic organizations to create a national B20 standard specification and to develop new technologies. BLUETEC six-cylinder diesel engines, which will be found in the Mercedes and Jeeps, are the world’s cleanest.

Burning corn and beans while telling Saudi princes to stick it may sound like nirvana, but it won’t happen soon. One hundred Illinois E85 stations are better than 14, but they are hardly enough to fill a relatively small town. Finding E85 outside of the Midwest is nearly impossible despite automakers’ commendable efforts to produce and promote flex fuel vehicles. Ethanol also produces less energy per gallon, requiring much more to do the same work as gasoline. In other words, gas mileage is much lower with E85 than gasoline.

The Bush administration has backed the technology, too: Bush’s budget increases funding for clean-energy technology by 22 percent and anticipates a move to hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2020.

Of course, every president since the 1970s has had the same goal while keeping us in good graces with OPEC. There’s still a lot of debate about whether E85 development will be economical and make a dent in the oil deluge. But it’s a first step that needs to be taken.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition, August 11, 2006.

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