What are Ethanol Hybrid Vehicles

Ethanol Hybrid Cars use a hybridized fuel mixture of gasoline and ethanol in various proportions. We are already using lesser percentages of ethanol in our fuel but the ethanol hybrid cars in the future will use as high as 85% ethanol in their fuel. That will be the emergence of true Ethanol Hybrids having low cost of production and high fuel efficiency. In the recent past, many governments of the world have made it a top priority to develop such hybrids in order to make their country energy independent and to eliminate reliance on other oil producing nations. Also the exhaustion of fossil fuels has lead to a greater demand for cars using alternate fuels like ethanol.

What is Ethanol?

Ethanol is a high-octane fuel produced from crops and other renewable resources.  Ethanol is nothing but grain alcohol extracted from crops such as corn. Best part about it is that it is domestically produced and hence acts as an economic engine for a country by value addition of agricultural products. 100% ethanol is not used as a fuel; rather it is combined with unleaded gasoline in various proportions to maximise efficiency and minimise cost till optimum level. Following are some common blends:

  • E10 – 10% ethanol and 90% unleaded gasoline : E10 can be used in any gasoline driven vehicle and requires no modification in engine. E10 is approved to be used in any vehicle sold in the US. More than 75% gasoline contains some quantity of ethanol in it – either E5 or E10.
  • E85 – 85% ethanol and 15% unleaded gasoline : E85 is an alternate fuel which cannot be used in any vehicle unlike E10. It can be used in a different category of vehicles known as Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs). These FFVs, as the name signifies, are flexible in their fuel requirement, i.e. FFVs can operate on straight gasoline or any ethanol blend up to E85.
  • Between E10 and E85 : Earlier it was believed that lower the ethanol level, higher is the efficiency, but recent researches have shown that there is an “optimal blend level” at which vehicles get maximum mileage. Therefore different blends like E20, E30 and E40 are being tested.

Ethanol Hybrid Cars (or FFVs)

Early users of Hybrids were more concerned about the environment than reducing their fuel bills, but for hybrids to occupy a prominent place in the market, the cost factor must be considered. The ethanol hybrid vehicles are the by-products of such a thought process. To introduce a new variety of hybrid would cost the manufacturer too much, hence they went for the Flexible Fuel Vehicles (FFVs) that can run on any composition of fuel ranging from pure gasoline to E85. Such up gradation hardly costs $200 to conventional gasoline cars.

FFVs and other hybrids : Comparison

While FFVs are priced the same as gasoline vehicles, other hybrids cost much more than conventional cars. Ethanol is easy to produce domestically whereas other hybrid vehicles require more complicated fuels. Maintenance of Ethanol based hybrids is very similar to gasoline ones as there is not much change in technology. But a major disadvantage is that ethanol is not available easily in all areas. Ethanol is far from perfect and we must realise that in order to achieve total independence on fossil fuels we must strive to combine more technologies in order to create a hybrid that can run on various sources like ethanol, electricity, solar, etc. The next step must be to build an E85 plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicles (PHEVs) where gasoline is replaced by ethanol and we will get the ultimate hybrid of the current times.

How Does Ethanol Hybrid work

FFVs have an internal combustion that can operate on gasoline, E85 or a mixture of both (ranging from 0%ethanol to 85% ethanol). Other than employing ethanol-compatible engine, the only difference from conventional gasoline counterparts, lies in powertrain controller calibrated to accommodate higher oxygen content of E85.

How FFV works

Source: afdc.energy.gov/afdc/vehicles/images/ffv_fuel_system.jpg

Benefits of Ethanol Hybrid Cars

  • Energy Security – Due to direct displacement of crude oil, it decreases the dependence on oil producing countries and makes a country Energy Independent.
  • Economic Prosperity – It also propels the economic and agricultural development as it increases demand for ethanol which is produced domestically in farms and leads to a rise in ethanol production plants. Research is going on to convert corn straw, rice hulls and even municipal wastes to ethanol to increase its production to such high levels that it satisfies all the fuel requirement in vehicles and even in the industries.
  • Environment Friendly – Gasoline is a source of CO2 and other toxic emissions whereas Ethanol reduces harmful emissions of Carbon Monoxide, Particulate Matter, Nitrogen Oxides and other ozone-forming pollutants. Ethanol contains 35% oxygen because of which it burns more completely and cleanly than gasoline. Moreover, Ethanol is biodegradable and hence safe for environment.

Limitations of Hybrid Vehicles

Although E85 reduced the carbon dioxide emission to almost zero, but we fail to consider the greenhouse emissions that occur during production of ethanol. For example, diesel powered equipments and ethanol distillation units add sufficient greenhouse gases to the environment. But if we consider valuable by-products of ethanol like corn oil, Distillers Grain, Beverage Ethanol, Aviation Grade Ethanol and Industrial Carbon Dioxide, then ethanol does have a positive energy balance. Some key limitations / disadvantages of Ethanol Hybrid Vehicles include:

  • Ethanol may be more expensive in few areas as compared to gasoline depending on its distance from the place of production
  • Ethanol contains less energy than gasoline, i.e. one gallon of E85 will not take you as far as one gallon of gasoline. For example, Chevrolet Impala (one of the best FFVs) is rated 21mpg  in the city and 31mpg on highway on gasoline whereas 16mpg in the city and 23mpg on highway on E85. Although E85 is cheaper at the pump, but it is not less expensive in the end.
  • E85 is available easily only near its areas of production. For example, in the U.S., DOE (Department of Energy) lists 2000 E85 stations but most of them are in Midwest (especially Minnesota and Illinois) where ethanol is produced widely.

Market Scenario of Ethanol Hybrid Vehicles

In his campaign, Barrack Obama promised that all new vehicles will have flexi-fuel capacity by 2012. Obama has made a little progress on this front. In 2011, car makers are offering 85 models with flexi-fuel options which is double than that in 2007. Many of today’s vehicles are flexi-fuel compatible but few people use flexi-fuels because of the efficiency and availability of gasoline.

Many leading car manufacturers like DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors, Mazda, Mercury, Isuzu, and Mercedes have either entered the market of FFVs or are planning to do so in the near future. Emission of greenhouse gases can be significantly reduced if we make ethanol from cellulosic material such as switch grass. Also to overcome the shortage of E85 stations, wider distribution is needed. The future lies in E85 Electric Hybrid Vehicles which can achieve zero emission motoring and a mileage as high as 100mpg for longer runs. There is no doubt that ethanol provides an alternate energy that is a partial solution to the energy crisis that the world faces today.