Three years ago, when Congress boosted the level of ethanol required in gasoline, there were concerns that the ethanol industry wouldn't grow quickly enough. In reality, the opposite has proved true. Ethanol production, despite a spate of turbulent economic problems this year, has boomed to the point where ethanol producers are now worried about finding enough buyers.
Their proposed answer: doubling the amount of ethanol that's blended into fuel. It's a controversial idea that's galvanizing the national debate over both biofuels and the future of the automotive industry. Some Bush administration officials, eager to reduce imports of foreign oil, are enthusiastic. But America's carmakers, who might have to adapt their engineering and future designs, are skeptical, as are many politicians and scientists, who blame corn-based ethanol (the only type of ethanol that's commercially available) for rising food prices and environmental destruction. Preliminary findings from new government research into the implications of higher ethanol levels for fuel economy, emissions standards, and car performance are inconclusive, but they are fueling debate.
Under current federal guidelines, conventional fuel cannot contain more than 10 percent ethanol, a recipe known as E-10. Ethanol proponents want to see that percentage increased to 15 percent or even 20 percent. Among other selling points, they say that in 2007, ethanol helped displace 228 million barrels of oil. But as automakers point out, the impact of higher ethanol blends on car performance is, to a certain degree, still unknown. They have serious concerns about potential structural damage to engine parts and emissions control systems. Today's ethanol blends are already accused of damaging the kinds of motors used in boats and lawn mowers.
Before federal regulators can modify the limits, they will first need "a body of evidence" addressing automakers' concerns, says Brian West, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. With that in mind, the Department of Energy last year asked West and several colleagues to undertake a multiyear study of the impact of various ethanol blends, including E-15 and E-20, on vehicles and other types of engines. The preliminary findings, released this October, "were not discouraging," says West, "but we need to stress that there is more testing to be done."
On the positive side, overall emissions levels didn't change dramatically with ethanol content. Nor did researchers detect any serious operability problems, such as fuel leaks or the appearance of malfunction indicator lights.
Long term. But the first tests were carried out in a relatively short time frame. Most test vehicles logged only a few hundred miles. Over the next year, West's lab will be running 80 test vehicles for at least 50,000 miles. These longer-term trials will be more likely to reveal any problems that exist.
Carmakers will be watching the results closely. In Australia, high-mileage tests using E-20 revealed serious issues, including catalyst damage from rising internal temperatures. "The way this process works is that a small change in temperature produces a very large change in behavior," says Coleman Jones, General Motors' manager for biofuels implementation. "We need to test it thoroughly, because these guys are proposing to change gasoline for all of us, forever."
GM and other automakers say they would prefer to see ethanol used in flex-fuel vehicles, which can run on E-85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline or other hydrocarbons. "We've said we're not a 'No' to E-20," says Jones, adding that a production mandate adopted by Congress last year—36 billion gallons of renewable fuel by 2022—is not going to be met without the use of flex-fuel vehicles.
Ethanol production, meanwhile, is projected to top 10 billion gallons this year and, within two years, could reach 14 billion gallons. But companies say that they're running out of buyers and don't see the flex-fuel vehicle market growing fast enough to absorb it. "The ethanol market is limited today," says Jeff Broin, CEO of Poet, the country's largest ethanol producer. "By the first quarter of 2009, we are projected to fill up as much of the market as we believe we can."
Because research is still ongoing, a definitive federal ruling is at least a year off. But some drivers aren't waiting. In South Dakota this summer, gas stations were caught dispensing illegal E-30, prompting the Environmental Protection Agency to issue a terse warning letter to distributors. No doubt customers were attracted by ethanol's price tag—it was about 30 cents cheaper per gallon at several stations.
But there's a big trade-off. E-20, the October report found, gets about 7.7 percent lower fuel economy than straight gasoline.