Ethanol: Powering the Vehicles of the Future
By Patrick Radigan
With the creation of an annual Renewable Fuel Standard in 2005, a yearly set of projections for ethanol production, the question about the ethanol industry changed from if ethanol production would increase to what was the best way to properly grow the industry.
Due to that commitment to ethanol, the task has shifted from how to produce ethanol, to product distribution and how to grow the ethanol industry as a whole, according to Loren Isom, Technical Assistance Coordinator with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Industrial Agricultural Products Center. Isom said the most prominent issue currently faced by the ethanol industry is finding a better way to distribute the fuel and create and develop more products that can efficiently operate on ethanol. According to Isom, the corn industry increased ethanol production to meet the needs of ethanol producers; now the task is finding a way to increase ethanol consumption and distribution.
"We now have enough production built up to where if people are using (ethanol), if consumers are using a 10 percent blend it really isn't enough for the current capabilities of supply," Isom said. "So that becomes an issue of can we increase the content of consumption in some way."
Adapting the Industry
In increasing the production and distribution of ethanol, Isom said the first step is establishing the renewable fuel as a viable choice for consumers. Isom said it's important that consumers realize there is little difference between E10 ethanol fuel blends and traditional gasoline.
"It's just not that much difference," he said. "There are a lot of myths out there, or errors out there, where people are complaining there is a 10 percent drop in fuel economy between gasoline and E10 ethanol blends, and it's absolutely impossible."
On the other side of the distribution issue are auto producers, both domestic and foreign. Flex Fuel vehicles have demonstrated they can run on fuel that is up to 85 percent ethanol, so producers have the ability to evolve, it's just a matter of cost, Isom said.
According to Isom, the question isn't about if producers can make ethanol-friendly vehicles; it's about how costefficient those vehicles could be.
"If the industry, the transportation industry, the motor vehicle industry is willing to adapt," Isom said. "The Flex Fuel vehicles clearly can go up to 85 percent."
Once the industry makes a concerted effort to implement these ethanol-friendly vehicles, Isom said, the next step is fine-tuning the vehicles' engines to work best when operating on the renewable fuel.
"There is new research going on for engines that are designed specifically for ethanol," he said, "which would improve the efficiency of ethanol because it would be an engine designed to use that high octane. That's one of ethanol's unique attributes."
Establishing the Local Economy
One reason that Isom said it is important to increase the distribution of ethanol is the positive effect it could have on the local economy. Isom said it is important to counterbalance exported profits with the sale of a domestically-produced fuel like ethanol.
By doing that, Isom said, local consumers could make a significant impact on the bottom line of local fuel producers. "If we're burning ethanol fuel from corn that is raised and grown here in our state, that's money that is turning over in our local economy," Isom said. "Compared to gasoline, which is a world economy that's going all the way over to the Middle East, primarily to get the fuel and come back." To further study the issue of local money being spent on foreign oil, Isom said he looked at Nebraska's net energy import/export. In comparing Nebraska's energy consumption to the state's energy usage, Isom said people might be surprised at what he found out.
"In general, people would think with all the ethanol we're an exporter of energy and liquid transportation fuels," Isom said, "but really we're still a net importer of energy with all the ethanol we produce and the small population of the state. We still import more transportation fuel that we export in ethanol."
Building Toward the Future
In looking at the future of the ethanol industry, Isom said there are a number of possibilities and questions about ethanol's use as a renewable fuel. What Isom does know, however, is that fuel-powered vehicles are going to be around for years to come, even with the growing popularity and availability of electric cars.
According to Isom, the pre-existing infrastructure makes gasoline-powered vehicles easier to refuel, so currently they are a more viable option than the electric alternatives. However, Isom said he thinks the best option is finding a way to use ethanol to power and operate an energy-efficient electric hybrid.
"A bucket of coal isn't nearly as convenient as a gallon of gasoline to get you down the road," Isom said. "Neither is electricity that can come out of an outlet. There's a convenience issue there." As far as using ethanol in a broader area, Isom would like to see a vehicle with a flexible fuel power generator as a hybrid.
The Renewable Fuel Standard (RFS) calls for the eventual production of 36 billion gallons of renewable fuels a year. Isom said the ethanol industry has been able to meet the supply of corn-based ethanol; however, there have been some setbacks in its attempts to meet the benchmark for cellulosic ethanol. In addition to 15 billion gallons of fuel that is supposed to be produced from corn-based ethanol, the RFS also calls for 21 billion gallons of advanced
biofuels, primarily cellulosic ethanol, to be produced in the near future. Cellulosic ethanol is produced from organic matter other than food products. However, issues with getting cellulosic ethanol production to an industry level have limited its production, Isom said, and created a more prominent marketplace for its corn-based alternative.
"Even by 2015 we're probably not going to have dramatic cellulosic ethanol production out there, but maybe by 2022," Isom said. "But in the meantime, we have an opportunity to supply an even greater amount of corn-based ethanol."
Hands-On Research for UNL Students
To better shape consumers' ability to use ethanol in an efficient manner, Isom said it is going to be critical to keep students interested in working on a practical issue, like ethanol production. With the tools available to students, Isom said there are a number of ways that undergraduate and graduate students are getting hands-on experience in trying to find a viable option for a renewable fuel.
"From a fuel economy standpoint, we've got some equipment that looks at energy content," he said, "so we've got undergraduate students that we've trained to use that equipment, and they can apply that in a lab setting." One area Isom believes research and development can pay off is in understanding the true issue of fuel economy and how it relates to consumer spending. According to Isom, recent research has shown that finding the best option isn't always about maximum output: it's about getting the most use for every penny invested.
"You really have to think that you have fuel efficiency as one parameter, energy density as another parameter, but those two combined make fuel economy," Isom said. "So often, people look at lower energy content in ethanol and automatically assume it's a less efficient fuel. That's doesn't always mean it's a less economic fuel, though.
"In the end, you want to get down to cents per mile, cents per hundred miles, and a lot of times E85 is the more economic fuel in those cases."
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