GM advertises ethanol-fueled cars

At the Chicago Auto Show two weeks ago, General Motors showered a Chevrolet with an avalanche of popcorn to kick off their new “Live Green, Go Yellow” campaign. They’ve since been blanketing the major media with advertisements designed to let you know that they’re serious about alternative fuels.

Specifically, they’re promoting E85, a mixture of 85 percent ethanol to 15 percent gasoline. Typical gasoline already has about 10 percent ethanol mixed in, but more widespread use of E85 could ease the United States’ dependence on foreign oil. Not to mention that it’s a renewable resource, distilled from good old American corn — hence the popcorn.

GM is proud that 1.5 million vehicles they’ve sold in the last five years can already run on E85. DaimlerChrysler is doing much the same, and Ford might even be further ahead on the E85 bandwagon, as they’ve been putting E85-capable engines in their cars since 1995. These flexible-fuel vehicles, or FFVs, can run on any mixture of ethanol and gasoline, from no ethanol at all up to 85 percent, and there are millions of these cars already on the road.

But there are several barriers in this otherwise positive scenario: It’s virtually impossible to fill up a car with E85 in this country. Of the roughly 170,000 gas stations in the U.S., some 600 have E85, and the vast majority of those are in the heart of the Corn Belt. For example, there isn’t a single publicly-accessible E85 pump in the entire state of Pennsylvania.

Even though E85’s 105 octane rating means increased horsepower and torque, it contains 28 percent less energy per unit volume than gasoline, which decreases gas mileage. Therefore, the price of E85 must be 28 percent less than gasoline to be economically viable, since it takes more fuel to go the same distance. The price briefly reached this crucial level late last year, but recent legislation and less inflated gasoline prices have made E85 less competitive.

Great debates are currently raging over whether or not corn-based ethanol production is economically viable, but they fail to take one important factor into account. Due to federally-mandated agriculture subsidies, many corn farms in the U.S. are actually being paid to throw away large portions of their crop. If all of this corn is simply going to waste, having it go to fuel instead would not only be cost-effective, but could potentially increase the natural price of corn enough to obviate the need for the aforementioned subsidies.

With any luck, as awareness grows, demand will increase. Prices jumped earlier this year when the federal government mandated that all of its own FFVs must be run on E85 whenever possible. New legislation gives huge bonuses to gas station owners who add E85 pumps to their stations, and states like Minnesota are gradually increasing the minimum amount of ethanol that must be added to gasoline.

The United States should follow the example of Brazil, where vast open farms dominate the countryside just as they do here. But there, more than a quarter of the vehicles on the road run on pure ethanol distilled from that nation’s huge crop of sugar cane. Brazil’s government forced a switch to ethanol in order to lessen foreign dependence and strengthen the local economy. It has done wonders in both sectors. Pure ethanol wouldn’t work in cars in the United States because of differences in weather conditions, but Brazil’s example shows that renewable fuels can be extremely successful on a national scale.

Automotive technology has finally advanced to the point where it’s viable to use a fuel source that makes much more sense to our national economy and our environment. General Motors should be commended for pushing us in the right direction.