some people say that when the prohibition against alcohol came along that the sellers of oil and gas supported it in an effort to make gasoline the primary fuel for cars and trucks V and thus thats why the main fuel for cars today in America is gasoline not alcohol.

Pitch for alcohol fuel comes with drawbacks

James R. Healey USA Today Feb. 3, 2006 12:00 AM

The pitch to run our cars and trucks on alcohol fuel sounds irresistible: It would eliminate most U.S. gasoline consumption; avoid the costs, delays and environmental impacts of new oil refineries; and keep control of our fuel in America and out of often-hostile foreign hands.

President Bush cited alcohol fuel, such as ethanol, in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night as one of the technologies that should get government investment. He sees it as part of the solution to the problem that "America is addicted to oil, which is often imported from unstable parts of the world."

Bush also highlighted research to develop better batteries for gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles and accelerated development of electric cars powered by pollution-free hydrogen fuel cells.

But ethanol fuel - in the form of E85, a mix of 85 percent grain alcohol and 15 percent gasoline - is the only one of those that is immediately available. E85, using ethanol made in the United States from corn, isn't a science experiment or pipe dream. It's real fuel, sold now, and 5 million vehicles already are on the road with the systems needed to burn it.

Yet, like so many magic bullets aimed at America's energy dragon, E85 is in danger of merely inflicting a flesh wound on the beast it's meant to kill. The drawbacks: It is almost impossible to find outside the Midwest. It contains less energy than gasoline, so you'd have to fill your tank more often. And you'd almost certainly have to buy a new car or truck to use it.

"The technology and the economics aren't there yet" to produce enough ethanol for a massive switch to E85, says Bob Dinneen, president of the Renewable Fuels Association, a trade group that represents ethanol producers.

Still, the potential of alcohol-based fuel is tantalizing.

Ethanol yields roughly 26 percent more energy than it takes to produce it, according to a just-published study by the University of California-Berkeley. That's because corn grows using free sunlight and because farming has gotten efficient. Gasoline provides only about 83 percent of the energy required to produce it, the study says.

In fact, a wholesale switch to E85 and other fuels made largely from plants instead of oil is a key early step in a program that could eliminate U.S. gasoline consumption by 2050, according to Nathanael Greene, senior policy analyst at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Bush promised to "fund additional research in cutting-edge methods of producing ethanol" in his State of the Union address. He said advanced ethanol production and other new technologies will help the United States "replace more than 75 percent of our oil imports from the Middle East by 2025."

Administration officials clarified the president's comments Wednesday, saying the president meant to say that alternative fuels could displace an amount of oil equivalent to imports from the Middle East. America still would import oil from there because that's where the greatest oil supplies are.

As a replacement for much of the oil we use, E85 is being hoisted like a battle flag, discussed as if it were an exotic potion, even supported by your tax dollars in the energy bill signed into law last summer.

That law requires an increase of about 80 percent in the use of so-called renewable fuels, mainly ethanol, by 2012. Refiners are required to blend 7.5 billion gallons of it with gasoline. And the government provides a tax credit up to $30,000 for gas stations that convert pumps to E85 and similar alternative fuels.

But reaching the potential is limited by the amount of production available. After doubling in size, then doubling again the past few years, the ethanol industry consists of 95 U.S. plants that produced 4 billion gallons last year. That's only enough to replace 3 percent of the 140 billion gallons of gasoline that America burned last year. And it's almost ridiculously far from the 119 billion gallons of ethanol necessary for a nationwide switch to E85.

An additional 32 ethanol plants are under construction, and nine others are being expanded. That will add about 1.8 billion more gallons annually but still leaves ethanol a bit player in the fuel game.

"We need to get serious about making ethanol available," says Bill Ford, chief executive of Ford Motor Co. He pledges to boost production of E85-compatible vehicles 25 percent this year, to 250,000.

Ford showed an ethanol-electric hybrid SUV at the Washington, D.C., auto show in January that would burn E85 instead of gasoline to power the internal combustion engine. Ford Executive Vice President Anne Stevens says the E85-burning hybrid Escape is "a development program, not a research program."

All modern vehicles can burn a widely sold fuel, often called gasohol, that is 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. But only specially outfitted cars and trucks can use E85. They are called flexible-fuel vehicles, or FFVs, and are designed to burn straight gasoline, E85 or any gas/ethanol blend in between.

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