October 9, 2005

ISAF 2005: Alcohol Fuel Flexibility - Progress and Prospects

NOTE: The International Symposium on Alcohol Fuels held its 15th annual meeting Sept. 26-28, 2005 in San Diego, CA. There were many important and timely papers and presentations delivered at the event for which I will provide abstracts.

Thomas MacDonald of the California Energy Commission provided evidence that "alcohol flexible fuels vehicles" (a.k.a., Flex-Fuel Vehicles - FFV - that run on blends of gasoline and ethanol) "represent a mature, low-cost technology option for reducing reliance on petroleum transportation fuels." Should FFV development and infrastructure continue and expand, "alcohol fuel flexibility offers an achievable and inexpensive means of adding motor fuel supply diversity and of substituting alcohol fuels for gasoline."

The most obvious evidence of this is taking place in California. Pollution considerations in metropolitan areas of the state created substantial interest in additives that would oxygenate gasoline to combust more of each gallon while reducing harmful emissions. MTBE's were the initial additive backed and implemented by the petroleum refiners. However, MTBE's could not be stored without leakage, which fouled water resources - the cure being worse than the disease. At the end of 2003, California banned MTBE's in favor of more plentiful and benign ethanol. As a result 5.7% of all gasoline sold in California is actually ethanol as mandated by regulations, approaching one BILLION gallons per year. Currently 99% of this ethanol is imported into California from other states. This E6 (6% ethanol) gasoline runs without modification in all gasoline engines as would for any blend containing up to 10% ethanol (E10).

How costly would it be to modify current models of automobiles to make them FFVs? MacDonald states that "the incremental cost to the industry of producing full model lines of FFVs has been reduced to a very nominal amount, $100 per vehicle or less by some industry estimates." Because of FFV demand in Brazil and the Midwestern U.S., most major manufacturers of automobiles (including Ford, GM, Chrysler, and Volkswagen) offer FFV versions of their most popular automobiles.

He offers Brazil as an example of a society that has made a commitment to a fully ethanol/gasoline FFV fleet after 30 years of ethanol and infrastructure development. In Brazil, the average price of gasoline is 1.66 times the average price of ethanol. By 2007, all new automobiles sold in Brazil will be FFVs.

He concludes that "further national initiatives and investments aimed at expansion of FFV production and E85 fueling infrastructure need to be part of a clear overall national agenda for petroleum reduction and a specific straegy for the role of ethanol as a transportation fuel."


Christopher Monnier said...

I wonder if sugar-based ethanol (Brazil) is better/cheaper than corn-based ethanol (US).

C. Scott Miller said...

The end product is the same - ethanol - neither better nor worse. Sugar cane fermentation results in a higher energy yield for the amount of energy needed to make it. Aside from the relatively low availability of sugar cane in the U.S. (it is cheaper to import it than grow it here) they have laxer regulations regarding the harvesting process and disposing of wastes (through combustion). Brazil could benefit from implementing onversion technologies that would generate more ethanol yield from the sugar cane waste without the harmful emissions.