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Hurdles to blending more ethanol remain

Agriculture.com Staff 08/15/2008 @ 7:51am

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 will require the nation's oil industry to blend 36 billion gallons of ethanol into the fuel supply by 2022. If federal incentives bring the necessary research breakthroughs, more than half of that will come from cellulosic ethanol made from wood, corn cobs, switchgrass and other plant materials. Some 15 billion gallons will be from corn ethanol.

There's just one problem.

If most of the cars on the road can burn only E-10 (gasoline with 10% ethanol), there won't be anyplace to go with all that ethanol. The Department of Energy estimates that by 2013, or even earlier, the market for E-10 in the U.S. will be saturated.

In Omaha, Nebraska, Thursday, members of the American Coalition for Ethanol got an update on how regulators may view the use of higher blends in cars that aren't flexible fuel vehicles modified to burn up to 85% ethanol blends, or E-85.

The state of Minnesota has already asked the Environmental Protection Agency to approve the use of ethanol with up to 20% ethanol blends, or E-20. And the EPA and Department of Energy are already conducting experiments on vehicles to check for how E-20 will affect driveability, engines and catalytic converters, and harmful exhaust emissions.

"To get these fuels approved, the EPA is the number one hurdle," Steve Przesmitzki, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colorado told the group. "Their responsibility is the air quality of the United States."

Those who want to use higher blends than E-10 will have to prove that they won't hurt air quality, Przesmitzki said.

Another way to use more ethanol is through flexible fuel vehicles designed to burn higher blends, but that could take longer than the energy law's mandates, he said. ACE members already know that installing pumps that dispense only E-85 is expensive for retailers.

But Detroit, too, has hurdles. Przesmitzki said that even though auto makers are ramping up to make half of their new cars flexible, that it will take time to make them a significant part of the 220 million vehicles on the road today. Currently there are about 6 million flexible fuel vehicles in the U.S. About 15 million new cars and trucks are sold each year, meaning that the U.S. will be adding only 7 or 8 million FFVs annually when production is increased. And it takes about 17 years for the nation's auto fleet to turn over as the oldest cars go out of service.

So gasoline with higher blends of ethanol may be the way to burn more of the fuel.

Last year, the Department of Energy surveyed the literature on existing research on E-20. It didn't find much, Przesmitzki said. But the few earlier studies that have been done suggest that nitrous oxide emissions increase when unmodified cars burn E-20. Nitrous oxide, or NOX, can contribute to the creation of smog in urban areas.

In preliminary tests done for the DOE by Przesmitzki's research team at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the results seem to match research found in the literature, Przesmitzki said.

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