[Editor’s Note: We hereby welcome our latest writer, Angry Diesel Engineer. I hope you enjoy his perspective on flex-fuel vehicles – ANM]

The Big Three have announced that by 2012, half of their production will be flex-fuel vehicles.  I’ll leave it to the other Angry Men to debate whether it makes sense to run your car on food at all (I’m sure Angry Biologist would have something to say about it), but ramping up on our current production FFVs is not the way to go about it.

If you’ve ever seen a FlexFuel sticker on a car in America, it means that that car contains an engine and fuel system which was designed and optimized to run on gasoline, but made to tolerate E85, a blend of 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline.  Ethanol is not a bad fuel, per say.  Compared to gasoline, it has 61% the energy content (Lower Heating Value),  and, conveniently enough, 61% of the Air/Fuel ratio for Stoichiometric combustion.  For this reason, it blends well with gasoline as a fuel – a higher volumetric consumption releases the same energy.  Relative to gasoline, it actually has a much higher knock resistance (Octane rating), comparable almost to racing fuel. Coupled with the it can be made from a variety of sources, most of them renewable, and it becomes downright attractive.  

But gasoline it ain’t. Gasoline has about a 90 year head start on ethanol in engine optimization, infrastructure deployment, and the like. It bears the aforementioned higher energy content, so for the same weight and/or volume (both large considerations for vehicle designers), it can be converted to produce more work.  And, as Americans, this is the measure our car’s efficiency – units of work done per volume of fuel consumed, or miles per gallon.

Which brings me to the topic of this rant: chemical  energy to rotational force conversion systems, or as they are commonly called, engines.  The modern internal combustion engine is a marvelous piece of engineering.  It has been highly refined over more than a century resulting in ridiculous increases in specific output and efficiency.  Despite its advances, a modern example is rarely found operating at even 33% efficiency. That’s right, over 2/3 of the energy (gasoline) you are putting into your car is wasted.

Long ago it was discovered that raising the compression ratio (the maximum cylinder volume : minimum cylinder volume) increased the efficiency of the engine, but also uncovered the tendency of liquid fuel/air mixtures to explode spontaneously, as opposed to the desired flame-front propagation.  Spark ignition engines are by design “knock limited,” meaning were it not for this spontaneous combustion, the engine output or efficiency (or both) could be improved.  Historical solutions to this knock limit have been found, but in the end were deemed environmentally irresponsible.

“But wait,” you ask, “didn’t you just say that E85 has a higher octane rating, which means it should tolerate a higher compression ratio and thereby actually run more efficiently?”  And you’d be right to ask that.  Yes, an engine designed to run on E85 could theoretically achieve higher thermal efficiencies, achieving miles-per-gallon similar to (but probably still lacking compared to) its gasoline counterpart.  

Which brings us to Detroit’s folly.  In an age when fuel economy is the ultimate quest, and green house gasses are on the brink of being regulated, Detroit is saying “up yours” to mother earth.  FlexFuel engines are designed to tolerate E85, not actually achieve anything from it.  Actually burning the stuff results in about 2/3 the fuel economy compared to straight gasoline.  All that potential for any increase in mileage is scoffed at.  Detroit does with it what it does best: throws it out the tailpipe.

Midwest flooding

Ethanol as the keystone of energy policy takes a body blow!

My family has its share of farmers and I remember family discussions not so long ago where the farmers of the group were dreaming about selling their corn for $2.90 a bushel. Corn was selling somewhere south of $2.40 and cost of production was around $2.35 with rising seed corn prices, fuel, fertilizer, and insecticides. Market conditions such as these led to the aggregation of small family farms into agribusiness conglomerates which had economies of scale, purchasing and pricing clout. Also they had political clout.

The food production and distribution supply chain in the United States is a complex system, so it’s hard to fault the farmers who just want to break even; and making ethanol from corn seemed like a good idea. Washington agreed — after all, working with the agribusiness people is a lot more pleasant than fighting with the whacko environmentalist lobbies who opposed offshore and ANWR drilling. The Energy Independence and Security Act (EISA) of 2007 mandated a 500% increase in Ethanol usage in gasoline by 2022. Farmers were ecstatic and planted more acres of corn and trucked more of that which they grew to ethanol plants sprouting like morels after a spring rain. The same act subsidized ethanol to the tune of 51 cents per gallon.

Now others looked at this act and compared the efficiency of ethanol production (e.g. energy required to plant, cultivate, harvest and convert corn into ethanol) to that of gasoline production. Even with the subsidies, the overall production energy balance was unfavorable. Given that the energy output per unit weight was much higher in gasoline than ethanol, the absolute energy balance was even worse. Then others (not me), concerned about the carbon footprint, noted that ethanol generated massive amounts of carbon during the fuel cycle. The journal Science concluded that corn-based ethanol would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions over 30 years. Finally, as more and more corn was diverted to alcohol, the impact on the food supply began to be felt. Corn based products began to rise and countries dependent on US exported grains felt the pain. Beef prices rose as corn feeds rose in price. HFCS (high fructose corn syrup) costs rose and since it’s used in about everything, the price of everything rose.

Basically, Congress created an Energy Policy by taking advice from one group of people without consideration of the unintended consequences, even though many could predict them. And will they change this policy? No — not politically feasible.

Nature however is not beholden to lobbyists and does not need campaign contributions. With the Midwest flooding of Iowa and other corn production states, corn is now around $7.45 a bushel. July corn futures traded Wednesday on the Chicago Board of Trade at $7.46 a bushel, up about 25% from early this month before the flooding. The recent wave of flooding prompted the U.S. Department of Agriculture this week to lower the nation’s corn production estimate to about 11.7 billion bushels — or 10 percent less than last fall’s crop.

July ethanol futures traded recently at $2.91 a gallon, up about 20% from around $2.40 a barrel before the flooding. Even with the subsidies, ethanol is becoming more expensive than gasoline. More to the point, plant owners have no chance in hell of recouping their investment in plant and equipment when the raw material costs exceed the price they can charge in the marketplace. Consequently, investor groups are shutting down ethanol plants in droves. Heartland Ethanol dropped plans to build seven ethanol plants in Illinois. Analysts lowered their year-end capacity forecast to 9.5 billion gallons from 10 billion of ethanol produced.

So the Midwest flooding is using the hammer of raw economics to do what Congress is unwilling to do for fear of alienating the agribusiness lobbies. Sometime there is a silver lining even to the horrible circumstances of a flood.