The Spark
Previous ArticleSpark IndexNext Article

MGCCWDCC Logo By Bob Vitrikas

What Does "Flex Fuel" Mean

E15 Flex FuelYou’ve probably noticed the “Flex Fuel” emblem on the back of many cars and light trucks. These Flex Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) have been around since the 1990s and there are about 20 million of them on the road today.  So what does “Flex Fuel” mean, why do we have it and why should we care?

What does “Flex Fuel” mean?

A Flexible Fuel Vehicle has an internal combustion engine that is designed to run on a variety of fuels, commonly gasoline blended with ethanol or methanol.  Believe it or not, the Ford Model T produced from 1908-1927, was a flexible fuel vehicle! Its carburetor had adjustable jetting which allowed the use of gasoline, ethanol or a combination of the two. Most gas stations today blend their gasoline with 10% ethanol. FFVs can burn up to 85% ethanol, labeled E85 at the pump. The percent of ethanol in E85 varies between 51%-81% depending on where the fuel is marketed and the season. Less ethanol is used in the winter due to cold (lower than 52 F) starting problems.

Why do we have flexible fuel vehicles?

The 1973 oil crisis sparked renewed interest in alternative fuels. The initial focus was on methanol but the corrosive effects of methanol alcohol on the fuel system and lack of infrastructure posed a major problem.   I recall an alcohol burning Indy car having to drain the methanol from its fuel system every time the car was put in storage. In 1996 Ford introduced an FFV Taurus model that ran on either methanol or ethanol blended with gasoline. This marked the first commercial production of an E85 vehicle in the U.S.. Starting in the late ‘90s, production of E85 burning FFVs started to gain momentum.

The Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007 requires us to use more renewable fuel sources to meet our transportation needs.  The act stipulates that by 2022 we must use 36 billion gallons of renewable fuel per year.  The push for renewable fuel sources (RFS) was driven by a set of flawed EPA predictions regarding U.S. crude oil production and gasoline consumption.  Indeed U.S. crude oil production between 1970 and 2008 did fall by nearly half as conventional wells were depleted.  However, those assumptions were negated by the expansion of U. S. shale oil production combined with improved vehicle gas mileage. Since the Energy Independence and Security Act was passed in 2007 up to 2015, U.S. gasoline consumption dropped 12.7% and crude oil production increased an incredible 84%! Crude oil imports dropped 27% in the same period. Bottom line is we are still a net importer of crude oil but as of March 2017 that dependence on foreign oil has dropped 63% since 2007. What countries are we dependent on for crude oil imports? The answer may surprise you.  The top four are Canada, Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, Mexico and Iraq.  Imports from Canada are far and away the largest, triple the imports of Saudi crude oil and greater than Saudi, Venezuela, Mexico and Iraq combined! As of February 2017, the U.S. is the third largest producer of crude oil in the world at 8.9 billion barrels per day, exceeded only by Saudi Arabia and Russia at 10.5 million barrels per day.

In practice, we have not met any of the Federal goals for renewable fuel consumption and the gap between the goal and actual consumption continues to grow. Since 2010 the U.S. has been a net exporter of ethanol due to decreasing demand in the U.S..  These fixed amount goals, rather than a percentage of gasoline sold, do not account for increased fuel mileage in newer vehicles, driving legislators to force feed consumers E10 gas as well as offering E85 for those who have FFVs.  Few of the 20 million FFV owners are opting for E85. According to a March 2015 Department of Energy report, consumption of E85 fuel accounts for less than 1% of ethanol consumption. Corn, which is used to produced ethanol, is the renewable energy source of choice.  In an attempt to increase the amount of renewable fuel consumed, in 2010 and 2011 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) upped the ante, approving the sale of E15 gasoline  for use in 2001 and newer light-duty vehicles. This has not exactly been met with a lot of enthusiasm. As of may 2014, fewer than 100 gas stations were selling E15 fuel. Several bills have been introduced in Congress to limit ethanol blending to 10%, citing potential damage to engines and fuel systems not designed for the higher ethanol blend. Several major car manufacturers have warned that using E15 fuel will void the warrantee on their vehicles.  Since 2011, ethanol’s share of U.S. gasoline consumption has remained steady at just under 10%.

Why should we care?

Generally speaking there is no loss in horsepower or torque, indeed the octane rating is actually higher so engines may actually perform better on E10.  Since 2007, Indy cars run a fuel blend that is 98% ethanol with a small amount of racing fuel added, giving it an octane rating of 113. One thing is certain, gas mileage takes a hit with any kind of gasoline cut with ethanol due to the lower energy content. The EPA estimates a 3% drop in fuel mileage with E10 fuel but it is not uncommon to hear of drops in the 6-10% range.  A 2011 EPA study of FFVs showed a decrease in fuel mileage between 33% and 22% when using E85 fuel.  Ouch!


Previous ArticleSpark IndexNext Article