E85 is a form of fuel that is used in specific vehicles. It is 85% ethanol, so it is not appropriate fuel for every vehicle. Only vehicles that are declared by the manufacturer as being capable of using this fuel should use it. These vehicles are usually designated as being a flexible fuel vehicle, or FFV.
The primary benefit of E85 fuel is that it reduces personal consumption levels of fuels that are based on fossil fuels. Ethanol in the United States is usually produced from corn products, which means the fuel for your vehicle is based on a renewable product instead. That means there can be a personal reduction in one’s carbon footprint when E85 is used on a regular basis.
The key disadvantage of using E85 fuel is that it is not usually as efficient as “regular” fuel that other vehicles use. FFV owners usually see lower miles per gallon with this type of fuel. The total mileage that a vehicle on E85 can achieve may be over 50% lower than the total mileage that a vehicle using traditional fuels can achieve.
Here are some additional E85 pros and cons to think about if you’re in the market for a FFV.
Additional Pros of E85 Fuel
1. It allows for additional horsepower.
If you own a high-performance vehicle, then E85 fuel is an excellent option, assuming it is available in your community. E85 has an increased resistance to detonation compared to other fuels. That means it can achieve the power of high-quality racing fuels for a fraction of the price. In some ways, it even duplicates what a methanol injection can provide do cooldown the air-fuel charge.
2. Older vehicles can convert to E85.
Although E85 can only be run in vehicles that are designated as an FFV, that doesn’t mean you can’t make your vehicle a flexible fuel vehicle. It is possible to convert older vehicles to accept this new fuel. That does mean you may need to go through the expense of a complete fuel system upgrade, however, so it may be more suited to a sports car than a minivan. That is because it has less overall potential energy compared to regular gasoline.
3. It offers a higher level of adaptability.
Current gasoline products usually include up to a 10% ethanol blend. It isn’t always advertised, but there is a notice on the pump that the fuel may contain levels of that much ethanol. Vehicles have been able to accept a blend of up to 10% since 1980, which means most drivers have been using domestic fuels for several decades. For newer engines with high compression ratios, ethanol offers the adaptability that is often required.
4. Corn plants absorb carbon dioxide.
When growing corn for E85, the plants are able to remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This reduces the overall impact that the ethanol fuel has on the atmosphere since the emissions that are created can also be absorbed by the corn.
5. It creates a positive energy balance.
One of the biggest myths about ethanol is that it requires more energy than it yields. Research from the Argonne National Laboratory discovered that corn-based ethanol delivers a positive energy balance of 8.8 megajoules per liter. That means it is about 6 times better than the first generation of biofuels that originally hit the market.
Additional Cons of E85 Fuel
1. The availability of E85 fuel is somewhat limited.
E85 stations are growing in number, but access to them for some communities is limited or non-existent. The latest figures from the Alternative Fuels Data Center shows that there are over 2,800 public stations that offer E85 fuel in 40 states. That provides fuel to about 20 million FFVs that are currently on the road in the United States. The downside of that is there are currently 10 states where the number of E85 stations is exactly zero.
2. The ethanol content in the fuel can be variable.
The ethanol blend of E85 fuel is dependent upon the location where the fuel was refined and what season it happens to be. Fuel stations in the U.S. Midwest typically have higher percentages of ethanol compared to E85 stations in the rest of the country. For the fuel to qualify as E85, it must contain a blend that is at least 51% ethanol. Lower levels of ethanol create higher miles per gallon, but also increases a person’s carbon footprint.
3. It still releases greenhouse gas emissions.
Burning ethanol will still create a release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The levels are lower when compared to traditional fuels when burned, but it is still present. It would be fair to say that E85 is “greener” when compared to gasoline, but it isn’t a perfect fuel. More innovation in this sector is required to create a fuel that can be used by the general public without the same emissions levels.
4. The alcohol in the fuel can break down rubber seals.
Vehicles built in 2001 or before are not approved for the use of 15% ethanol blends for one simple reason. The alcohol in the fuel can breakdown the rubber seals in the vehicle and that can eventually damage the engine. It is approved for modern vehicles in most instances, but unless the vehicle is E85 approved (or E15 approved), regular fuels should be used in the vehicle to maximize its performance.
5. There are agricultural impacts which must be considered.
E85 fuel requires high levels of corn and fossil fuel consumption. Research from Cornell University suggests that it requires 140 gallons of fossil-based fuels to harvest a single acre of corn. That means before the corn can even be converted into the greener ethanol, we’re spending about $347 per acre on the fuel that we need from a plant-based perspective. It also takes more than 7,100 pounds of corn to create 328 gallons of ethanol.
6. Why grow corn for fuel when people are hungry?
In the United States, up to 1 in 5 households experience food insecurity. From a global perspective, about 1 in 7 people live without access to the food they require on a regular basis. When discussing the expansion of E85, there is an ethical question that must be answered. Should we be growing corn for fuel when those croplands could be used to grow more human food resources?
These E85 pros and cons show that there is a lot of potential for this fuel option. There are certain ethical questions which must be answered and we still need to see the technologies in this field evolve, but E85 could be a first step toward a transportation network that is carbon neutral.