Ethanol powers its way to Indy

America's E-85 Ethanol Producers held a press conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday (May 22nd) to promote the use of ethanol fuel in a wide variety of demanding energy applications ranging from automobiles to small engines and ...

America's E-85 Ethanol Producers held a press conference at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Thursday (May 22nd) to promote the use of ethanol fuel in a wide variety of demanding energy applications ranging from automobiles to small engines and recreational vehicles.

The effort is part of a renewed campaign to refute many of the unsubstantiated criticisms levelled against the fledgling ethanol industry at a time when oil is cracking the $130 per barrel market worldwide. No small part of that effort is the association of the fuel-grade product with high-performance motorsports both in the United States and abroad.

The IndyCar Series was the first motorsports league to sanction a renewable fuel, racing on an ethanol blend fuel in 2006 and holding its season-opening Miami 300 with 100 percent fuel-grade ethanol in the tanks on March 29th, 2007. The American LeMans Series and A1GP World Cup of Motorsport followed suit one year later.

The aim is to improve racing's environmental footprint worldwide and reinforce the notion of energy independence. It also provides assurance to the enthusiast that the fuel does indeed pack all the punch they want at the stoplight and for passing.

Many American drivers are already burning the E-10 blend of ten percent ethanol, ninety percent gasoline without realizing it. Others have made the choice to switch their personal transportation to one of the many American-made vehicles that burn the E-85 blend of eighty-five percent ethanol and fifteen percent gasoline.

The fuel is not new to automotive use. The Ford Model T was designed to run on either ethanol or gasoline, making it the world's first flex-fuel vehicle, (FFV). There are more than three million such vehicles on America's roads today, with Chevrolet leading the way with more models to choose from than any other manufacturer.

What is new is the technology that extracts the starch from the corn kernel along with the oils and vitamins, creating ethanol as a by-product of fractionating the germ. The kernel, with its fuel-making contents removed, can then be processed into high-protein feed for livestock, and (partially) to produce steam energy for the huge plants that produce the fuel-grade substance.

Corn isn't the only source for ethanol. Brazil produces the stuff from sugar cane, even beets. In the future cellulosic biomass (think sawdust, waste wood products, citrus, and switchgrass) will produce nearly half the anticipated output of ethanol nationwide, lessening any potential impact on food prices. The cellulosic biomass approach also uses less water (two gallons) to produce a gallon of ethanol versus 2.5 gallons to produce gasoline now.

The drawback of pure fuel-grade ethanol in the tank is, theoretically, reduced gas mileage -- perhaps by as much as thirty percent. The rule of thumb is 1.5 to 3 percent poorer mileage with E-10 than unleaded gasoline; and 20-25 percent less with E-85. This disadvantage is offset, however, by the price of E-85: typically fifty to sixty-five cents per gallon less than regular unleaded gasoline and sixty to eighty cents less than premium and diesel.

The industry hopes to counter many of the doubts in the public eye about its fuel through its "Mythbusters" flyers that it is distributing nationwide. The light green and blue printed card quotes from scientific and industrial studies that show little relation between food prices and the ethanol fuel that comes from corn, or that the production of ethanol creates a negative energy balance.

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Series Automotive , IndyCar