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Some ethanol blends can improve fuel efficiency

Agriculture.com Staff 12/05/2007 @ 3:19pm

After months of being bashed for everything from higher food prices to water depletion, the ethanol industry finally had something to crow about Wednesday.

At a press conference in Washington, the American Coalition for Ethanol (ACE) released results of a test with four automobiles that shows blends of ethanol above the standard 10% actually increase mileage slightly over unleaded gasoline that has no ethanol at all.

An increase in mileage is not what ACE expected, the group's market development director, Ron Lamberty, told Agriculture Online.

"We were hoping to find that it performs better than the BTU content would indicate," Lamberty said.

A gallon of ethanol has fewer BTUs (British Thermal Units) than a gallon of gasoline, so as more ethanol is added to a blend, you'd expect a car's fuel efficiency in miles per gallon to drop.

But ethanol also has more oxygen, so at low levels it reduces engine knock and improves performance. No one really knows, however, exactly what that optimum level blend is. Lamberty says ACE has heard lots of reports from folks who've tried mixing higher blends of ethanol and gasoline for conventional cars not designed to burn E-85 (85% ethanol, 15% gas). Some contend that blends above 10% work better.

So ACE and the US Department of Energy sponsored a test of several blend levels to measure fuel efficiency and tailpipe emissions. The University of North Dakota Energy & Environmental Research Center (EERC) and the Minnesota Center for Automotive Research (MnCAR) tried differend levels of ethanol, in 10% increments, in four 2007 model cars -- a Toyota Camry, Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Impala and Flex-fuel Chevy Impala capable of burning E-85.

Repeated tests using EPA methods showed that E-30 (30% ethanol) works better than unleaded gas in the Camry and Fusion, with one percent better mileage. With an E-20 blend, the flex fuel Impala got 15% better mileage than with straight gasoline. The non-flex fuel Chevy didn't get better mileage with ethanol blends, but its optimum blend was E-40 in the test.

"This is very promising and it could save a lot of people a lot of money," Lamberty said.

All of the vehicles, even those not flex fuel, were able to run on much higher levels of ethanol than E-10, as well.

Lamberty stressed that this is only one test, and it needs to be repeated by other researchers. But ACE hopes that this new information will create more urgency for the EPA and auto makers to approve higher levels of ethanol blends for conventional cars.

After months of being bashed for everything from higher food prices to water depletion, the ethanol industry finally had something to crow about Wednesday.

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