Several fuel stations operated by supermarket chains are slated for the addition of modified tanks and pumps so E-85 fuel can be offered. That's the fuel composed of an 85% ethanol and 15% gasoline blend.
H.E. Butt Grocery Co. is the most recent of several supermarket operators making plans to offer the alternative fuel. Specifically, H-E-B intends to outfit five fuel stations in Texas to offer E-85. Kroger last week opened two of 18 locations slated for Texas and plans more for Ohio and Kentucky. Meijer contemplates 20 locations for Indiana. The most ambitious plan comes from Wal-Mart, which may offer the fuel in 383 stations (Page 42). E-85 is available now in a number of stations in 36 states.
All this flurry of activity concerning E-85 fuel raises several questions, such as: What is ethanol, how is it made, what advantage does it offer, and must it be blended with gasoline or could it replace it entirely? Let's consider these questions and propose some answers. Many of the answers that follow draw on an article in the May issue of Popular Mechanics magazine.
Ethanol is ethyl alcohol, or grain alcohol. It's usually made from corn kernels, which are crushed, fermented in water and enzymes, then heated to 174 degrees. The process, much like that used to make moonshine, yields a fuel suitable to mix with gasoline, stretching that costly commodity. Ethanol can be a filler or the central component of fuel. Some amount of gasoline must be retained because ethanol doesn't fire well in cold weather. That's one reason ethanol won't replace gasoline altogether. Another is that it would require about 71% of the farmland in this nation to grow enough raw material to do so. It's also worth considering that corn growing imposes environmental costs such as erosion, pesticide use and the operation of fuel-powered heavy equipment.
On the user and seller ends, E-85 requires much preparation. Specially adapted cars are required because alcohol is corrosive. Components exposed to the fuel must be fabricated of corrosion-resistant materials, adding to manufacturing costs. No more than a minute proportion of autos on the road now can use the fuel. Anti-corrosion measures must also be applied to distribution and dispensing equipment, which is why not many fuel stations offer E-85 at the moment and why extensive station conversions are required. A further drawback of the fuel is that it contains about half the energy potential as does gasoline, so it trims mileage substantially. Governmental subsidies help enhance E-85's economics.
Luckily, the fatal flaw advanced by some critics - that the ethanol-distilling process itself consumes so much energy that E-85 represents a net energy loss - appears to be mistaken. According to a study by the University of California, Berkeley, that criticism isn't valid and, in fact, ethanol production consumes less energy than does the rendering of gasoline from crude. E-85 also imposes a slightly lighter greenhouse- gas burden than does gasoline. That's why ethanol is used now in a mixture of 10% or less in gasoline sold in many urban areas as a means to reduce ozone air pollution. Any auto can use the light blend.