Corn—the Fuel of the Future?

Over the past few years, people have been coming up with a variety of options for replacing or reducing the need for gasoline. There have been hybrid gas-electric engines. There has even been a car that runs on used cooking oil! Why all the hubbub? There are several reasons. Some are concerned with emissions, while others are concerned with high fuel prices. Both are understandable, but most people don’t like our dependence on foreign oil—especially when some suppliers are suspected of housing terrorists. So, with an excess of corn fields, somebody in the United States had a bright idea. What if corn could be converted into fuel? That’s where E85 comes in.

Bioethanol fuel is produced commercially from agricultural crops, such as corn and sugar cane. Unlike gasoline, its consumption does not raise atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide (CO2), the main ‘greenhouse’ gas. This is because emissions during driving are balanced by the amount of CO2 that is removed from the atmosphere when crops for conversion are grown. It is currently blended 85% bioethanol/15% gasoline and sold in Sweden, and a growing number of other European markets, as E85 fuel. [1]

Unfortunately, E85 isn’t quite as good as it seems. “Vehicles running on E85 may have a cruising range that is about 25% shorter than the same vehicle operating on regular gasoline” [2]. Pair that with a price equal to gasoline (It takes 1000 corn cobs to replace one barrel of oil) and a lack of suppliers (GM reports only 600 E85 pumps nationwide) and you begin to wonder if it will catch on. Despite these downsides, several motor companies are researching the possibilities.

Ethanol is getting a lot of ink these days, and that will only increase if companies keep making new engines like the BioPower that Saab has rolled out. The Swedish premium vehicle makers have unveiled the 9-5 2.3t BioPower engine which will appear in the new 9-5 Sedan and the SportCombi. Fueled by E85, it kicks out 210 bhp, which is a nice boost from the 185 bhp that can come from the same engine with regular gasoline. That means that it can go from 0-100 km/h in 7.9 seconds and 80-120 km/h in fifth gear in 11.0 seconds. On gas, the same times would be 8.5 and 12.6 seconds. The engine will clearly give the E85 cause a boost, but only in Europe for now. It will appear there in the 2007 model year later this year, but there are no public plans to bring it to the United States. [3]

You notice that E85 gives that particular vehicle a boost of 25 horsepower. The article goes on to explain that the octane rating for E85 is 104 RON compared to gasoline which is rated at 95 RON. I’m not sure if RON is the same rating I see at the pump, but the highest octane rating available around here is Sunoco 94. If you have experimented with higher octane fuels, you know what a difference it makes in mileage and peformance. A rating of 105 would be fun to try, but can any car use E85?

Turbocharging allows the use of a higher boost pressure and more advanced ignition timing—giving more engine power—than is possible on gasoline without risk of harmful ‘knocking’ or pre-detonation. The only hardware modifications necessary are more durable valves and valve seats, and the use of bioethanol-compatible materials in the fuel system, including the tank, pump, lines and connectors [4].

So, before you start filling your tank at one of the rare E85 stations in the United States, make sure your car is able to handle it. But if your car can handle flex fuel, give it a try. It might make the environment a little more friendly and you can be sure it will make a whole lot of farmers happy.

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6 thoughts on “Corn—the Fuel of the Future?

  1. Andy Rupert

    My father-in-law always says, “It is wonderful what God has allowed man to do.” I wonder what will be next—portable nuclear reactors?

  2. KatriniZambini

    They have dealers in Ohio, too! So, when are you going to start heating your house with corn? I wonder if you could add butter and have a nice smell wafting through the house all winter…

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