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Government The Almighty Buck Transportation Politics

Is E85 Dead Now? 556

twdorris writes "With a stoichiometric ratio far lower than that of gasoline (much lower than the price difference), buying the E85 ethanol fuel blend instead of gasoline was already hard to justify. Unless you raced your car on a track where E85 provided a great alternative to race fuel, it really didn't make financial sense. And there are other reasons not to buy E85, too. Like the impact corn-based ethanol is having on food prices or the questionable emissions results (PDF). So, now that the ethanol subsidies provided by the U.S. federal government are scheduled to end this summer, it's going to be even harder to justify E85 (at least in the U.S.). This change will basically make a gallon of E85 cost the same or slightly more than gasoline. With so many things working against it, are the days numbered for readily available E85 at your local gas station? And should it have ever even been made available to begin with? How much did all that government-backed R&D and tax credits cost us for something that was pretty clearly questionable to begin with?"
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Is E85 Dead Now?

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  • 10% Ethanol (Score:5, Interesting)

    by XanC ( 644172 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:12PM (#38716976)

    Does that mean that we'll go back to having gasoline actually be real, 100% honest-to-God gasoline too?

  • by eldavojohn ( 898314 ) * <eldavojohn&gmail,com> on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:12PM (#38716982) Journal
    I come from a family of farmers, some of which have taken advantage of the high price of corn. Well, around Christmas they were talking about two things. One is the serious disregard for pollution standards [] from most (they said more than just those caught and fined) ethanol refineries. And also the negative effect it has had on farmland in their area. The second was that many refineries were shutting down as these subsidies came to a close (my dad pointed out two abandoned as we drove along) and as a result some farmers had bought up land at high prices expecting the recent price of corn to continue. They had figured they would be getting $6 or $7 a bushel and there was a lot of talk that since the refineries were going down and production was already juiced that this was going to lead to a lot of farmers losing money in these purchases. From what I gathered from folks who have been doing this for many decades: this will be a very painful learning experience for everyone involved and this seems to be the sentiment whether the wind blows right or left.
  • Re:Kinda sucks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by hedwards ( 940851 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:19PM (#38717108)

    The problem is that e85 has less energy than standard gas does and typically you don't see a corresponding drop in price per gallon. Ethanol itself has less energy than gasoline does so you end up with less gas mileage than you would with regular gas. Claiming otherwise is just plain ignorant and requires one to ignore the laws of thermodynamics.

  • Solar Energy Storage (Score:3, Interesting)

    by torklugnutz ( 212328 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:22PM (#38717138) Homepage

    E85 will make perfect sense once petroleum is removed from the distilling process. Ethanol will be one of many methods to "store" solar energy. It's still going to continue to be important in the internal combustion field. Current marketplace E85 doesn't make much sense, but it is a stepping stone. It's not a dead end technology, it's just one that requires a good amount of energy to to expended on its manufacture. Eventually, the price of this energy will decrease.

  • Lets keep E85, but.. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by bhcompy ( 1877290 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:27PM (#38717210)
    lets switch to switchgrass please. You don't need to waste food or farmland for switchgrass, it grows in many difficult conditions and is cheaper to manage by far. It also has better energy energy content by far.
  • Re:Kinda sucks (Score:5, Interesting)

    by LWATCDR ( 28044 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:28PM (#38717224) Homepage Journal

    But it has a higher octane rating.
    If you didn't have to have the "flex fuel" option then you could get better milage out of E85. Cars could run higher compression ratios and more spark advance. You could get very close or higher mileage out of E85 than Gasoline then... Oh and no breaking or bending of the laws of thermodynamics required. With the current compromise flex fuel set up you are correct.

  • Re:Kinda sucks (Score:4, Interesting)

    by thebigmacd ( 545973 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:36PM (#38717342)

    Actually, the flex fuel setup is not a compromise in terms of timing and E85 vehicle has a ratio sensor in the fuel line that tells the ECU how much ethanol there is in the fuel. The ECU in turn advances timing and leans mixture when practical.

    The issue is that thermodynamics still win out. If a car isn't turbocharged or stupidly high compression, being able to advance timing and run leaner isn't much of an advantage at all.

    Even in a turbocharged car, during cruise you can already lean and advance the engine like crazy with regular gasoline as there is very little load on it.

    The ONLY advantage to E85 is at WOT in a turbocharged or high compression engine, and most people don't spend much time at WOT.

  • by dak664 ( 1992350 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:37PM (#38717354) Journal

    As I understand it, along with the subsidy expiration is the elimination of the tariff for Brazilian sugarcane ethanol, which was being imported anyway to the US because of the higher tax credit for sustainable EtOH when used for making E90 (US production being exported to Brazil to pay for it). So ethanol will actually become cheaper! A few gas stations near boating facilities have been selling unblended gas [] but most wanted the 5 cent per gallon credit for E90. Many small airports will let you buy leaded aviation gas for two cycle engines.

    My chainsaw seized after overheating last month, after which I measured the ethanol content of my fuel mix to be 17.7% (add 100 ml of gas to 50 ml of water in a baby bottle, cap and shake well, read the water + ethanol level after it separates again). I am using $5/gallon aviation fuel in my new chainsaw. Using E85 voids the Husqvarna warranty!

  • Re:10% Ethanol (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Hellasboy ( 120979 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @04:46PM (#38717492)

    My car is relatively newer and I *hate* when gas stations are forced to use E10 (10% ethanol, ie. Winter fuel). My mpg drops by 10% - 15%. I wish I was exaggerating but I'm pretty meticulous in checking this when I fill up every couple weeks. This has occurred each year since I've owned my car and I've made nearly the same drive when comparing my winter and summer driving habits. They say E10 is cleaner but how much cleaner when you add the extra 15% in fuel I'm burning up to do the same work?

  • by yog ( 19073 ) * on Monday January 16, 2012 @05:10PM (#38717814) Homepage Journal

    Most estimates are 5x the Saudi reserves (1.5 trillion bbls vs 300 billion bbls).

    The modern water injection (fracking) process has made the exploitation of shale oil/gas much more economical, more or less on a par with foreign oil, so production is ramping up.

    I don't know about 100 years from now--who does?--but in about 10-15 years, the U.S. is expected to be an energy exporting giant. Already, this past year, the U.S. became a net exporter of "energy products".

    The other major energy reserve in the U.S., coal, remains to be fully exploited. There are estimated to be centuries (plural) of energy in U.S. coal, at current use rates.

    All this doesn't mean we should be burning this stuff. The U.S. still wastes massive amounts of energy. Just painting all the government office building rooftops white in California would have prevented the rolling blackouts a few summers ago. Then there's the 18 mpg vehicles most people drive, when we could be driving 40-50 mpg vehicles.

    Ethanol is cheaper than gasoline in Brasil, which is the world's top producer. They use sugar cane rather than corn sugar, and sugar cane is a much cheaper and higher yield source of ethanol. Recent discoveries of alternative sources such as switch grass may save ethanol yet. Switch grass is almost maintenance free, doesn't distort food prices, and in a few years is expected to be competitive or cheaper than oil.

    In my opinion, car makers should make their E85 vehicle gas tanks a couple of gallons larger, to make up for the less dense energy content of ethanol. Of course, I'd like a few more gallons anyway; why is my Corolla only 11 gallons to begin with?

    Regarding the whole energy subsidy controversy, keep in mind that there is a hidden cost to oil--the trillions of dollars we have spent and continue to spend securing foreign oil supplies. There's also a few thousand lives of soldiers sacrificed. No way would we have gone into Iraq in '91 or again in 2003, if it were not a huge oil producer threatening other huge oil producers. Frankly, if we were an energy exporter, we should be delighted to see Iran and Iraq duking it out, or Iraq invading Saudi or Kuwait and jacking up the cost of petroleum. Instead, we have to worry about every little political change in the Persian Gulf as a potential catastrophe for our economy.

  • Re:10% Ethanol (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 16, 2012 @05:21PM (#38717964)

    This. I have a friend at the local state university who studies various alternatives to gasoline that come from plant sources. According to him, corn ethanol is practically the worst choice they could have made. The other choices, including using various native grasses, end up with net positives, without using cooked numbers, and are much much higher than ethanol's figures when using realistic numbers. The problem, there is no "grass" industry in the same way there is a "corn" industry.

  • Re:10% Ethanol (Score:4, Interesting)

    by OrigamiMarie ( 1501451 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @05:28PM (#38718058)
    Sure. But look at it from this point of view:

    1. Get some fossil fuel, somehow.
    2. Use that fossil fuel as the exclusive energy source to go drill for more fossil fuel, and refine it.
    3. Repeat.
    4. Profit! You now have lots and lots of fossil fuel (at least until we run of out pockets of it in convenient locations in the Earth's crust).

    1. Get some ethanol fuel, somehow.
    2. Use that ethanol fuel as the exclusive energy source to farm and process more ethanol fuel.
    3. Repeat.
    4. Fail! You are now out of fuel, because the process to get more ethanol takes more energy than you get out. Every time you plant and harvest, your crop is smaller. This is despite the fact that the corn is taking on energy in the form of sunlight -- even more energy is poured into the process of tending, harvesting, and processing it. Researchers have been trying to find a plant where the equation works out the other way, and sugar cane in equatorial latitudes might even work out okay (only okay though, not incredible).

    So yes, over the very long timescale, counting the energy put into making the crude oil, it all balances out. But the original source of energy (solar or solar + whatever-it-is-that-makes-crude-oil) is not really controlled by humans in the first place, we're just harvesting it in a physical form, and we have to weigh the energy cost of harvesting the various options.
  • by ducomputergeek ( 595742 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @05:30PM (#38718100)

    We still have our family farms (my dad has a little more than half I have the rest), but we rent them out to other farmers these days. It totals about 600 acres, 450 roughly farmable the rest is woods, in southeast missouri. About 12 years ago we basically spent the cash we inherited when my grandmother died on leveling the land, putting in irrigation, etc. as well as grain bins on the farm. We expected about an 18 year return on the cash investment (on paper the value of the land we made an instant profit of about $300 an acre. Dry land it was worth about $1200 an acre, cost about $850 an acre to level and could be sold as irrigated/leveled land at about $2300 at the time. These days you can easily get $3500 an acre and maybe $4k if you are willing to wait for the right buyer). What we didn't foresee was $10 a bushel soybeans starting to be the "average". The increase in production we've seen from being able to water and switch to rise basically went from $20k a year to $60k a year. Now that's been closer to $80 and even close to $100k a couple years and we recouped the cash investment about 2009.

    About 2007, the farmers decided basically go to a three crop rotation of 50% rice, 25% soybean, and 25% corn. That lasted about one season because we put a stop to it. There are a couple 20 acre fields that are still "dry land" and those do get corn placed on them every other year and that's fine, but we saw the bubble that was corn. We decided a few years ago to come up with a rotation and stick to it. Don't try and play roulette with the market. That rotation is rice, then the following year double crop spring wheat and come back with late beans. If for some reason that combination stops yielding the returns we desire, then we'll reevaluate. But there is no sense in getting suckered in with hype (like our farmers were). "Oh Corn is high this year, we better plant more next year". Problem is too many other farmers think that way and guess what: next year there is more supply and the price goes down. As my grand father said: The time to get into the hog market is when the price is low. The time to get out is when it's high."

    My father remembered the whole Ethanol debacle from the 70's and 80's. One of our close family friends is a retired sales/marketing head for GM trucks. We were talking with him about it and back in 2002 or 2003 he said, "Yeah, these guys are going to get suckered in again. Once they've spent all these billions on these ethanol plants the Saudis will drop the price of oil and quickly put them out of business just like they did in the 1980's". Well I'm not sure if it was the Saudis pumping more oil, but the same thing happened. The price of oil dropped like a rock and just long enough to put most of these producers out of business.

    We talk about the farms quite a bit and something we did about 2006 was sit down and look at the statistics on prices. Figured out where our high and lows should be. If the price got basically 1 standard deviation above the "average" price over the past 10 years we sold half the stock. If it went up more we sold the rest. If it went back down we'd sell again once it closed just below the price mark (which was $7.03 a bushel). Well now the price seems to averaging about $9 - $10 and we've locked in prices the past couple years around $12 on the futures market.

    The only thing is we can see there is a bubble, especially in the land prices, maybe in the commodity markets as well. Now it's no where near what it is in say Iowa or Nebraska where some are getting $6k an acre, but there's a bubble there. That's why 6 years ago when all my friends were out buying houses and I didn't. I know my Dad is holding onto well over a $1M in cash with nothing he's willing to invest it in at the moment. He's basically divested from the stock market at this point. He holds a few bond funds and is buying into some energy funds and natural resource funds (mining, etc..) as well pipe lines (master limited partnerships). He doesn't feel particu

  • by AK Marc ( 707885 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @05:41PM (#38718224)
    I own a farm and I'm happy about the corn bubble. My $200,000 farm is on sale for $700,000, and I'm told I'll likely get it. Die low, sell high (and yes, that's a deliberate "error" as the farm was inherited).
  • Re:10% Ethanol (Score:4, Interesting)

    by ciggieposeur ( 715798 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @05:43PM (#38718238)

    Researchers have been trying to find a plant where the equation works out the other way, and sugar cane in equatorial latitudes might even work out okay (only okay though, not incredible).

    Sorghum in the US and energy cane in the tropics, using the MixAlco process by Terrabon, could deliver energy at a gasoline pump price equivalent of $1-2/gal.

  • Re:10% Ethanol (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Just Brew It! ( 636086 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @05:43PM (#38718240)

    Right. But with oil, it has already been produced for us by natural processes, over the eons. So on human timescales it is a huge net win from a thermodynamic standpoint... until it runs out.

    Problem with corn-based ethanol is, once you factor in all the chemical fertilizers and the energy required to grow the corn, harvest it, and refine it into ethanol, you've consumed about as much fossil fuel as you're saving by burning the ethanol. So in reality t's just a convoluted way of burning the same oil you would've burned if you'd used normal gasoline to begin with.

    If we could produce it from sugarcane instead (the way Brazil does), the story would be different. Unfortunately, unlike Brazil we don't have a lot of land that is suitable for cultivation of sugarcane. (And in Brazil's case, converting large amounts of land to sugarcane production isn't entirely benign either, but that's another story.)

  • by cnaumann ( 466328 ) on Monday January 16, 2012 @07:54PM (#38719608)

    n-octane has an octane rating of about -10. However, 2, 2, 4 - trimethyl pentane (an isomer of n-Octane, sometimes called isooctane) has an octane rating of 100. Generally, the more branches and methyl groups a molecule has, they higher the octane rating. Small molecules of fuel also tend ot have higher octane ratings. Molecules with alcohol groups on them don't usually have octane ratings much different from a similar non-alcohol bearing group, but they tend to be liquids are useful temperatures and pressures. Both Ethane and Ethanol has an octane rating of about 100 (depends on the method used to measure it).

    None of this has anything to do with they amount of energy you get out of a gallon or a kilogram of such a fuel. Diesle fuel has a higher energy content that gasoline per gallon (and per kilogram) and has a much lower octane rating (15-25).

  • by Kamiza Ikioi ( 893310 ) on Tuesday January 17, 2012 @09:12AM (#38723428)

    Most farmers don't like ethanol subsidies. Ethanol subsidies drove up the price of corn, which in turn drove up the price of land to record highs per acre, which in turn drives up the cost to farmers growing anything except corn. And if all you can grow is corn, that really screws up your crop rotation, increasing every other cost.

    If you're a farmer not growing corn, you hate ethanol subsidies. At least, that's what I've heard here in the midwest.

10.0 times 0.1 is hardly ever 1.0.