Mid-level ethanol blends such as E12, E15, E20 and even as high as E40 have garnered a lot of attention lately. Mainly because ethanol producers want a quick and easy way to soak up a surplus of ethanol that will soon reach the saturation point for the current supply in the marketplace.
Under current federal law, conventional fuel cannot contain more than 10 percent ethanol, known as E10, but proponents for higher mid-level blends would like to replace the current gasoline mixture with higher levels of ethanol, which would change the fuel used in vehicles and small engines.
GM’s concerns with higher ethanol blends include the capability of our engines and fuel systems to handle them. Anecdotally, some might do fine. But there are 250 million vehicles on the road in the U.S. and only about 7 million of them are designed to handle higher ethanol blends.
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|The 2009 E85 Ethanol-Capable Buick Lucerne. GM has sold over 3.0
million flexfuel cars in the U.S., operable on any mixture of gasoline
and ethanol up to 85% ethanol. Conventional engines, however, are
not necessarily equipped to run on ethanol mixes greater than 15%.
In addition, there are marine and industrial engines, plus a host of outboards, lawn and garden equipment, motorcycles and various off-road vehicles that would be impacted as well. None of this equipment was designed to use mid-level ethanol blends and some was not designed to use ethanol at all.
Higher ethanol blends run hotter in many non-flex-fuel equipped vehicles and virtually all of the non-automotive equipment, and the way this process works is that a small change in temperature produces a very large change in behavior.
The biggest question is long-term durability. The only durability study conducted on these fuels to date was done for the Australian Department of the Environment (ref. Fuel Quality Publications, Australian Government).
It found corrosion, seal attack, and catalyst damage due to the engine control system’s failure to adapt to the ethanol and using the wrong mixture at high power.
When the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) released its preliminary test findings on E15 and E20 last month, little was said about six of 13 vehicles tested exhibiting catalyst overheating. A damaged catalyst is less effective at eliminating pollutants and allows increased tailpipe pollution. The leaner fuel mixture – ethanol is 35 percent oxygen – also lead to drivability and operability issues in older vehicles and non-automotive equipment.
GM is working with other automakers, the oil industry, DOE and EPA to develop and execute test programs to determine and document the effects of these higher blends on the existing fleet. This work takes time.
At GM, we think E85 ethanol is the best alternative to petroleum in the near term, but in order for ethanol, or any alternative fuel, to succeed it needs the good will of the public and government behind it. Prematurely implementing a higher ethanol blend that damages the gasoline-fueled equipment could cause irreparable harm to ethanol’s reputation. And ethanol took a big hit with the Australian public following the introduction of mid-level blends in limited areas. This is what prompted the Australian Department of the Environment to fund the E20 study performed by Orbital Engine Co.
GM has worked to expand the E85 infrastructure in this country, assisting more than 300 stations in 15 states with securing state and other grants to help offset the cost of installing E85 pumps. We are now implementing a partnership with the National Governors Association to help 10 states grow their E85 infrastructure (ref. States to Enhance Access to E85 Fueling Stations, National Governors Association).
Our commitment to E85 includes making 50 percent of our vehicles capable of running on gasoline, E85 or any combination of the two by 2012, provided there is sufficient infrastructure in place. Let’s be clear about the math: No combination of mid-level blends will add up to enough ethanol use to meet the Renewable Fuels Standard that calls for 36 billion gallons of ethanol a year by 2022.
E85, which is an alternative fuel vs. a fuel additive, is a choice we provide free to GM customers. We know choice can work, as it has in Brazil and Sweden, where governments required fueling infrastructure to support FFVs. Customers typically choose between ethanol and gasoline, depending on which is the best deal.
The bottom line is GM supports and encourages greater ethanol fuel availability for our flex-fuel vehicles, but we are concerned about customers misfueling conventional vehicles by using fuels containing more than 10 percent ethanol. The long-term durability of higher ethanol blends in conventional engines needs to be tested thoroughly because advocates are proposing to change gasoline for all of us, forever.
Coleman Jones is the Biofuels Implementation Manager at General Motors.