Concentrating on Consumption

Concerns are mounting that E85 vehicle production and infrastructure growth aren't expanding quickly enough to keep up with the growing U.S. ethanol supply. E10 is already blended in more than half of all U.S. gasoline, which has caused some in the industry to wonder if that we're moving towards an E10 wall, and if E20 could help scale that obstacle.
By Lindsey Irwin | June 05, 2007
Growing an industry is no easy task. Although it has taken several years, the United States has finally started to embrace ethanol. The renewable fuel also has made friends in the auto industry, the political arena—left and right wing—in agriculture and even with oil companies, which didn't seem possible when the fuel was first starting to be produced on a commercial scale. Creating excitement for the production of both corn and cellulosic ethanol in this country in recent times has been surprisingly simple—the reaction to President George W. Bush's call for 35 billion gallons in the next 20 years is a perfect example. Now that the ball is rolling and ethanol production is growing by leaps and bounds, all eyes are focused on consumption.

During the past five years tremendous strides have been made to produce more flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) and to make E85 more accessible to motorists. With increasing FFV options from General Motors Corp., Nissan, Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler Corp. and other auto manufacturers, consumers have a wider variety of vehicles from which to choose. Today, there are more than 5 million FFVs on the road and E85 is available at more than 1,200 U.S. filling stations. In addition, approximately half of all gasoline currently sold is blended with E10, which is being used in nonflexible fuel vehicles. While all of this growth is positive, it may not be occurring fast enough. When U.S. ethanol production reaches 15 billion gallons per year it's estimated that blending E10 into gasoline will be maxed out causing the demand for the alternative fuel to wane and the industry to hit what has been dubbed the "E10 wall." Coincidentally, 15 billion gallons is also predicted to be the maximum amount of ethanol that can be produced from the U.S. corn crop before encroaching on food and feed reserves. This scenario has caused some to wonder, how is all the ethanol that's being produced going to be used?

Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., believes the answer is to increase the ethanol-to-gasoline ratio. In early March, Thune, a ranking member of the Energy Subcommittee of the Senate Agriculture Committee, penned a letter to the U.S. EPA urging the agency to make preparations for the review of an application from the state of Minnesota to approve the use of E20 in automobiles. That would ensure ethanol's access to the market over the next few years after America hits its E10 wall, and would allow E85 to catch up. According to the Congressional Research Service, approximately 99 percent of domestically consumed ethanol is E10 or blends of gasoline with up to 10 percent ethanol, while only 1 percent is consumed as E85, Thune noted in his letter. The waiver application he referred to is being spearheaded by Minnesota's Department of Agriculture, which is currently funding a number of tests to determine E20's effects on nonflexible fuel vehicles.

Ralph Groschen, director of agriculture marketing services for the state's Department of Agriculture, says that E20 came up in the Minnesota legislature because the state has implemented an ethanol use standard targeting the replacement of 20 percent of all its liquid fuels with renewable sources by 2013. In order to help meet this goal, legislators decided that if E85 doesn't appear to be able to replace the full 20 percent by 2010, then the government will move ahead with implementing E20, Groschen explains. "There are a lot of things that have to happen before E85 becomes a significant market factor," Groschen says. "I guess a lot of people feel that we shouldn't put all our eggs in one basket and we should look at a variety of approaches to this issue."

To prepare for a possible transition to E20 and because the EPA must certify E20 as a motor fuel through a waiver under the Clean Air Act, the Minnesota state legislature provided funding for E20 testing that is being conducted in collaboration with the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA), Groschen says. In order to look at all aspects of E20 use, four separate tests are being conducted: drivability (with a 26-month durability portion), materials compatibility, fuel quality and emissions. The year-long, two-pronged drivability test is being conducted at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis and has already gathered vehicle performance data for three seasons since the research was begun last fall. Of the campus fleet of 525 vehicles, 80 were chosen to participate in the blind study, which pairs similar vehicles with similar driving cycles. One is filled with E20 while the other runs on a base fuel containing no ethanol. For one portion of the drivability test, mechanics monitor for any vehicle problems, such as nonstarting, poor starting, illumination of the check engine light, hesitation while accelerating, etc. For the second portion, a team of professionally-trained drivability raters recommended by the RFA come in each season and follow a protocol designed by the Society of Automobile Engineers to evaluate drivability issues associated with a random sample of the test vehicles. So far this portion of the testing has gone surprisingly well, Groschen says.

The Minnesota Center for Automotive Research (MnCAR) at Minnesota State University in Mankato is handling the materials compatibility test, which looks at metal materials, plastics, initial component testing and E20 performance in small engines, Groschen says. Meanwhile, the Minnesota Department of Commerce is examining fuel quality and the RFA is conducting the emissions portion of the testing, Groschen adds. Because these are scientific tests the results won't be determined until all of the data has been collected and analyzed, which is expected to happen late this summer. Groschen believes that additional research will be needed in order to convince the EPA to issue an E20 waiver. "This is not the whole program that would be needed for a full [waiver] application and proof to the EPA that [E20] would work, but it's a significant step," he says.

Proceed With Caution
The idea of implementing a new mid-level ethanol fuel doesn't appeal to everyone, especially the auto manufacturers. "We absolutely guarantee the destruction of the engine and the fuel injection system if we go the E20 route," General Motors Vice Chairman Bob Lutz told the Detroit Free Press. "It will not work." Ellen Shapiro, director of automobile fuels for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, says that while her group is entirely supportive of the growth and development of the ethanol industry and increasing the use of ethanol as a transportation fuel, there are many design-related issues that have to be investigated before E20 is widely used. "The issue with mid-level blends is that conventional vehicles are not designed to handle it, and we produce flexible-fuel vehicles that are," Shapiro says. "Ethanol is a particularly corrosive chemical, and design is a very important factor in making sure that the vehicle or the product operates properly and successfully for the consumer and for emission control purposes for the EPA and things like that."

So what exactly does ethanol do to an automobile engine? No one can say for sure, but there are concerns about stalling, clogging and increased emissions. A 2002 study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) on the use of higher ethanol blends—E17-E20—showed that vehicles made before 1995 may have more technical issues than those manufactured after that time when run on E20, but the study ultimately concluded that more research was needed. The American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) also conducted a scientific study in 2005 on fuel economy differences between using unleaded gasoline, E10, E20 and E30. The ACE study found that "the vehicles using concentrations of ethanol higher than 10 percent operated normally during this test." However, because the vehicles were run for only 600 miles, ACE couldn't recommend using ethanol blends higher than those recommended by the vehicle manufacturers. Similar to the research it is doing now, the University of Minnesota's MnCAR conducted a year-long study on the use of E30 in unmodified passenger cars and light-duty trucks in 1999. That study found no drivability problems and no trend in emissions was identified, but there was a reduction in volumetric fuel economy with E30.

The possible effects that mid-level ethanol blends can have on automobile engines can also appear in smaller, carbureted engines like those found in lawnmowers, chainsaws, boats, motorcycles and snowmobiles, says William Guerry, legal council for the Outdoor Power Equipment Institute. The Australian government's environmental agency conducted extensive research on the impacts of 20 percent ethanol blends on Mercury outboard marine engines and line trimmer engines in 2002. Guerry says the results of that research have led his organization to believe that more in-depth research is needed. According to the report, E20 increases the heat of an engine because it contains more oxygen. In the off-road sector where 95 percent of engines are carbureted with a fixed air-to-fuel ratio it is a linear relationship—the higher the ethanol content, the more oxygen, and the hotter the engine will become. This leads to engine seizures and the distortion of the components in the engine, Guerry says.

In addition to the heat issue, ethanol's corrosive nature could pose problems for fuel dispensers, which were produced for up to E15 use. Also disconcerting is the fact that ethanol is a water absorber. The more water in the ethanol, the more corrosion it causes in small engines. The Australian research found that ethanol use in marine engines causes seizure, stalling, stopping and throttle sticking due to the degradation of rubbers and metal components by the alcohol that then leaks into the fuel tank and gums it up, Guerry says. Emissions are at their peak at mid-level ethanol blends, also a cause for concern. The amount of evaporative and permeation emission vapors are the highest somewhere between E20 and E30, the middle of the bell curve, because the increased heat in the engine causes the production of more nitrogen oxides. Both of these symptoms do not occur with E85, Guerry says.

With all these issues in mind and with what is currently happening in the U.S. Congress, Guerry believes that the best possible place for more ethanol in America is in E85. "Let's set it up in a way that we build the right structure, we work together to understand and find ways to avoid these problems before we could inadvertently poison the market by hurting consumers and damaging products," he says.

The Next Step
Depending solely on E85 to shoulder the nation's increasing supply of ethanol in the next few years may be the preferred avenue of approach for some, but prospects look somewhat dim. In a House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee hearing in May, Andrew Karsner, the assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy for the U.S. DOE, told the group that at the current rate of E85 growth in the United States, it would take at least 100 years before E85 is offered at 50,000 stations across the country. There are currently 170,000 U.S. gasoline stations. It was suggested during that hearing that one of the major obstacles to that growth involves the cost of converting a station pump to handle E85, which can cost between $5,000 and $200,000, according to Paul Reid, a representative of the Independent Gasoline Marketers of America and the National Association of Convenience Stores.

Given those circumstances, still others wonder if it would be possible to consider E15 in order to find a middle ground for automakers and the ethanol industry? Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., introduced a bill in March targeting the production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels by 2020 that would also require the DOE to study E15 and E20 blends.
In the meantime, Groschen says he's taking resistance to E20 from the auto manufacturers with a grain of salt and believes that they may be exaggerating. "We heard this about 15 years ago [from automobile makers] when we were talking about mandating E10 and the answer was 'it can't happen, it's not possible,'" Groschen recalls. "We are going to try two avenues of approach in case one doesn't work, and we'll give them both our best shot. Between the two of them we hope to make some significant progress."

Lindsey Irwin is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at or (701) 746-8385.