More than a century after Henry Ford built his ethanol-powered quadricycle, the renewable energy source is making a comeback — big time — and Ford Motor Company is a leader in its resurgence. By year’s end, Ford plans to have nearly 2 million ethanol-capable vehicles on the road.
In a heads-up race with petroleum, ethanol might one day take the lead. It doesn’t deplete oil reserves or result in dependence on other countries. What’s more ethanol can be made from virtually limitless feedstocks, such as corn — the most common source in the U.S. — sugar cane, sugar beets or any edible biomass.
"It can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions because the process of making it recaptures carbon," said Brian Rippon, policy manager, Global Public Policy, Ford Government Affairs. "No other currently available vehicle technology or alternative fuel — including hybrids and natural gas — provides those benefits."
Essentially ethanol is alcohol. Unlike the pure ethanol Henry Ford burned in his quadricycle, today it is combined with various percentages of gasoline to power flexible-fuel vehicles (FFVs) that have been modified to burn the mixture. FFVs also can run on 100 percent gasoline.
"Our FFVs are capable of operating on up to 85 percent ethanol (E85), or gasoline, or any mixture in between," said Sue Cischke, Ford vice president of Environmental and Safety Engineering. And all of our gasoline-powered engines are designed to operate on 10 percent ethanol or E10."
Today there are more than 5 million E85 FFVs on the road. This year, U.S. domestic automakers alone are expected to sell nearly 1 million more. If all of these vehicles ran on E85, it would displace the need for 3.6 billion gallons of gasoline per year.
E85 typically costs less than gasoline, although prices vary. But it also provides about 25 percent less energy than a gallon of gasoline. Should gas prices escalate significantly and/or the cost of ethanol production decrease, ethanol will likely become more attractive to consumers.
One of the biggest challenges facing widespread ethanol availability is the lack of infrastructure. Right now, only about .35 percent, or 600, of the nation’s approximately 170,000 retail gas stations offer E85. It is estimated that 20 to 30 percent would be needed to support increased FFV production.
Ford is committed to improving the infrastructure. The automaker and VeraSun Energy Corporation, the nation’s second-largest ethanol producer, have formed a first-of-a-kind partnership to increase the number of fueling stations offering E85 and promote consumer awareness, particularly in the Midwest. Most of the E85 fuel stations are located in the region.
Together, the companies are developing a "Midwest Ethanol Corridor", which will expand E85 availability by approximately one-third in Illinois and Missouri, allowing owners to travel the lengths of those states using E85.
Ford’s efforts to promote flexible fuels extend around the globe. For example, Ford Thailand late last year introduced the country’s first flexible-fuel vehicle, the Focus, capable of running on benzene as well as mixes of ethanol up to 20 percent.
"Ford has every ambition to put more ethanol vehicles onto the congested roads of Bangkok and every other major city across the kingdom," said Tom Brewer, president of Ford Thailand. "Ford has the technology and the products to respond today. We’re ready if the Thai consumer and Thai government are ready to support it."
The company also is building the first flexible-fuel engine plant in the Philippines and pioneered the introduction of flexible-fuel vehicles to the UK.