Jim Smart
February 27, 2007

If you're old enough to remember fuel for 34-cents a gallon, Sunoco's Custom Blending pump, and the shock of the Arab Oil Embargo in the mid '70s, you understand the need for alternative fuels. People are unhappy with the price of gasoline these days, but at least it's still available for purchase. Thirty-six years ago, there were gas lines, odd and even license plate days, ten-gallon purchase limits, and other reminders of the limited availability of fossil fuels. In 1979, we went through gas shortages and higher prices to further prove our dependency on foreign oil.

The high cost of gasoline isn't rooted so much in the greed of oil companies as it is centered more on the anticipated availability of crude oil and limited refining capacity. The U.S. has a healthy appetite for fossil fuels, consuming more than any other country. We have always gotten the volume discount in a stable oil marketplace, which is why it has long been cheap and plentiful here. But oil markets are not stable anymore. What's more, we are our own worst enemies: we expect gasoline to be plentiful and cheap, but are unwilling to allow the construction of new refineries. Demand goes up and availability fails to keep pace, resulting in higher prices at the pump.

We've been reading about ethanol for the better part of 35 years. In the '70s, petroleum companies put a percentage of it in gasoline, creating "Gasohol." It smelled strange and didn't yield the same kind of fuel economy as gasoline or solve our energy problems. Once the economy caught up with price and availability, Gasohol went away.

Brazil has been running an ethanol and gasoline blend as a primary motor fuel for many years. Brazilians have learned that a 20 percent blend runs without consequence. More recently, Brazil has pushed it to a 24 percent blend as a means of getting weaned off petroleum.

E85 is a blend of 85-percent ethanol and 15-percent unleaded gasoline. It is considered an alternative fuel as defined by the U.S. Department of Energy. It's a clean-burning, high-octane fuel, reducing hydrocarbon emissions and greenhouse gasses, making the environmentalists, atmosphere, and our lungs happier. E85 enjoys a happy relationship with newer flex-fuel vehicles (FFV), such as Ford's late-model Ranger pickup, Taurus, Crown Victoria, and Lincoln Town Car. Mustang does not yet have this option. FFVs have electronic engine control designed to sense E85 in the tank to adjust fuel and ignition mapping for proper operation.

Ethanol fuel use calls for materials designed for ethanol, such as certain fuel hoses. The same is true for steel fuel lines and die-cast parts. Have you inspected your fuel hoses lately? Today's fuels are more corrosive on fuel system parts. Dry-rotted and cracked hoses can become dangerous if they fail.

Ethanol is not new. Henry Ford produced the first FFV-the Model T-in the '20s. He built it for self-reliant farmers who could produce their own ethanol from corn. Moonshine is actually one form, manufactured in a backyard still. Ethanol for cars was made the same way. Instead of fancy electronics and alternative materials, the only thing to be done was adjust fuel mixture and spark timing.

That isn't the only difference with an FFV, however. It also uses materials designed to withstand the corrosive and conductive nature of ethanol. This means you can't pump E85 into your late-model Mustang just because it has electronic engine control. If you do, the oxygen sensors pick up on the increased amount of oxygen in exhaust gasses and enrich the fuel mixture. This is okay sometimes and in small quantities, but it's bad to do it too often.

E85 has an octane rating of 105, which is a high spark-knock value. It performs well in high-compression engines where the octane level is crucial to reliable performance. More than one percent of water contamination causes problems in ethanol fuels, including serious fuel system corrosion, as well as internal engine problems during cold start. Engine damage may also occur when water turns to steam.

Producing E85 is also good for the farming industry because it could put American farmers back in business, giving them reason to plant plenty of renewable corn for the ethanol industry. How it will all come together and get to pumps nationwide remains to be seen. Availability of E85 is currently sparse, it's expected to improve. You can bet the oil companies will be right at the heart of this effort because there's money to be made.

Minnesota is interested in making ethanol available to the masses, and they'll start by using E20-gasoline with a 20 percent ethanol mix. Other states are gradually getting on the ethanol bandwagon. Portland, Oregon, will mandate the availability of E85 and bio-diesel fuels by 2009, according to Wikipedia. What this may mean for all vehicle owners is careful attention to what they are pumping and what kind of ethanol fuel is right for the application. Most automakers allow the use of a 10 percent ethanol gasoline (E10) without voiding the warranty, and it's available around the country now. E20 is what we can expect in the beginning for vehicles that won't run on E85. When pushing the ethanol mix to 20 percent, there don't appear to be any consequences, as proven in other countries such as Brazil and Sweden.

Although ethanol is a cleaner, renewable motor fuel, there are trade-offs. You will burn more fuel because ethanol yields fewer BTUs (British Thermal Units) than gasoline. You get less power from a given amount of throttle, so you have to lean on it harder for the same amount of power. The more open the throttle, the more ethanol and gasoline will burn. We get less heat energy from fewer BTUs, which is where power comes from.

Whether or not you use ethanol is a personal decision based on economics and your Mustang's fuel system. Regardless of the outcome, this ethanol awareness gets us back to the same thinking and hope experienced in the '70s.