In search of a new fuel

  • 17-Jun-2008 04:48 EDT
E85 gas station.jpg
Brentwood, CA's first fuel station offering E85 ethanol (shown) opened in February 2008.

If only vehicles could run off the steam being created by the fevered reaction of consumers to high fuel prices. Perhaps steam-powered motor vehicles will rule the roadways someday. For now, though, the spotlight is on ethanol and other altern­ative fuel choices.

In the case of ethanol, marketplace usage concerns are part of the blend. "The ethanol markets as we know them can't absorb the renewable fuel requirements of 36 billion gallons in 2022 as required by the Energy Independence & Security Act of 2007. Last year, the transportation sector used about seven billion gallons of ethanol,­" said Brian West, development engineer in the Fuels, Engines and Emissions Research Center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, at a future fuels session during May's 2008 SAE Government/Industry conference in Washington, D.C.

Blended gasoline for non-flex-fuel vehicles presently is limited to 10% ethanol (E10). Today, about 99% of the ethanol produced is used in E10 blends. "But E10 markets are likely to saturate by about 2013 as production capacity approaches 15 billion gallons—or about 10% of all gasoline sold," West said.

Two potential paths could increase ethanol markets beyond 15 billion gal (57 billion L). Path A assumes E10 market saturation as well as the rapid expansion of the E85 market. Path B involves certification of intermediate gasoline blends of up to 15-20% ethanol (E15-E20). "The DOE is investigating the impact of path B on the existing legacy fleet of vehicles and non-road equipment," West said.

A flex-fuel vehicle likely can use any ethanol blend, but non flex-fuel vehicles may not be ethanol-compatible. "We're being very careful not to pass judgment before we have data. We wish to access the facts and then determine a policy direction," said Reginald Modlin, Director of Environmental Affairs for Chrysler LLC.

Beyond doing investigative work to determine if higher blends of ethanol would have any ill effects on the existing fleet of vehicles, specific testing would have to occur. "Two Clean Air Act requirements would have to be satisfied in order to register and make available for commercial use ethanol blends with greater than 10% ethanol," said James Caldwell, an engineer with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Those requirements are the Clean Air Act 211 (f) addressing fuel waiver testing and Clean Air Act 211 (b) addressing health effects testing.

Biofuels are another option on the road to energy sustainability. "Advanced biofuels, especially cellulosic biofuel, will make up some portion of future volumes," said Zia Haq, Senior Analyst in the Office of the Biomass Program with the U.S. Department of Energy. If projections prove true, advanced biofuels will account for 21 billion gal (79 billion L) a year by 2022. "The law will require that all renewable fuels meet a 20 to 60% lifecycle greenhouse gases threshold relative to the gasoline or diesel fuel being displaced," said Haq.

Of course, before any alternative fuel is pumped into a vehicle's tank, there has to be an appropriate infrastructure. "A dedicated ethanol pipeline would offer a cost-effective, reliable, and safe way to transport a large volume—300,000 barrels a day-of ethanol from where it is produced to where it is consumed," said Bruce Heine, Director of Government and Media Affairs for Magellan Midstream Partners, L.P. Magellan along with Buckeye Partners, L.P. are exploring the feasibility of constructing a 1700-mi (2700-km) pipeline from the Midwest to reach distribution terminals in Northeastern states. If the proposal became a reality, a federal loan guarantee likely would be sought for the project's $3 billion estimated cost.

About 80% of all gasoline pumped into vehicles in the U.S. today is sold at convenience stores. John Eichberger, Vice President of Government Relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said small business owners typically spend $11,000 to as much as $200,000 on equipment upgrades to accommodate the dispensing of E85. "But if only a small number of vehicles can use it, retailers aren't likely to make the investment. From a retail perspective, it's all about the economics," said Eichberger.

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