Ethanol gains ground as alternative fuel

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When the subject is ethanol, the consumer might rightly ask the proverbial question, "What’s in it for me?" The answer, according to Ford Motor Company, is, "Your future."

Ethanol and other alternative fuel sources are hot news these days because of their ability to help address two major global issues — independence from imported oil (with its national security implications) and global warming.

In the U.S., ethanol is most commonly made from corn, but it can also be made from sugar cane, sugar beets or even inedible bio-mass, like corn stalks or switch grass.

"Ethanol is renewable, made from virtually limitless feedstocks, and does not come from fossil energy sources such as petroleum or natural gas," said Brian Rippon, policy manager, Global Public Policy, Government Affairs. "It can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the process of making it recaptures carbon. No other currently available vehicle technology or alternative fuel — including hybrids or natural gas — provides those benefits."

Specifically, Rippon is referring to E85, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. E85 can be used in flex-fuel vehicles (FFVs), capable of running on anything from straight unleaded gasoline to 85 percent ethanol. Ford has built more than 1.6 million FFVs in the U.S. over the past 25 years and will make 250,000 FFVs this year.

Ethanol is also commonly used in smaller concentrations of 5 to 10 percent that is sometimes known as “gasohol.” Most vehicles on the road today can operate on gasoline combined with up to 10 percent ethanol.

Ford FFVs use sensors to automatically detect the mixture of gasoline and ethanol being used, making the process seamless and invisible to the consumer.

"FFVs are gaining support as the most likely way to accelerate the use of ethanol in the U.S.," Rippon said. "There are now about 6 million FFVs on U.S. roads, and Ford will have produced almost 2 million by year’s end. The Ford F-150, Crown Victoria, Grand Marquis and Lincoln Town Car round out Ford’s 2006 FFV retail lineup."

Other Ford initiatives include research into an hybrid vehicle capable of running on E85 as well as efforts to increase the availability of ethanol, beginning in the Midwest.

"Ford has partnered with VeraSun Energy — a leading ethanol producer — to build a ’Midwest Ethanol Corridor’ stretching through Missouri and Illinois," Rippon said. "The corridor will allow FFV owners to travel from Chicago to Kansas City operating only on E85. Ford believes that helping our FFV customers to conveniently find and use E85 is the right thing to do."

E85 is typically less expensive at the pump than gasoline. However, a gallon of E85 contains about 25 percent less energy than a gallon of gasoline, resulting in fewer miles to the gallon. So the benefits of using ethanol may not come immediately in the form of savings at the pump (unless gasoline prices rise considerably or ethanol production becomes more efficient as it becomes more prevalent). But increased use of ethanol can help free the U.S. from what President George W. Bush called “our addiction to oil.”

"Studies have shown that it may be possible to replace up to 30 percent of U.S. gasoline with ethanol from various sources including biomass," Rippon said. "No other near-term alternative fuel has that kind of potential."

In terms of global warming, the use of biofuels like ethanol can reduce CO2 (carbon dioxide) emissions, one of the main suspected culprits in the earth’s temperature changes.

Research at the Argonne National Laboratory’s Center for Transportation Research indicates that on a per-gallon basis, today’s corn ethanol reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 18 to 29 percent; ethanol produced from cellulose-based feedstocks such as agricultural wastes, grasses and woods offers an even greater benefit with an 85 percent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.

Both issues — energy impendence and global warming — are becoming more urgent as events unfold. Last year, both the U.S. House and Senate passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005, which includes several important ethanol provisions. This energy bill contains a Renewable Fuels Standard that will double America’s production of ethanol to at least 7.5 billion gallons annually by 2012.


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