Are Biofuel Cars a Real Alternative for the Average Driver?

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Alternative fuel vehicles have undergone a somewhat tumultuous youth. Whether it’s a matter of discussing the negative repercussions of rising grain prices, or the positive benefits of moving to a society that is more independent from foreign interests, just about everyone has an opinion as to whether or not biofuel cars could ever really get a foothold in the automotive world.

The real question, though, would biofuel provide a real alternative for petroleum? There are plenty of experts who say yes, but equally as many who say no. Consumers are largely silent on the topic as long as prices are affordable and they can get to work on time.

Arguments In Favor of Biofuels

One of the biggest arguments in favor of biofuels is the fact that most vehicles today can be produced using what is being commonly called “flex fuel” technology. This allows a vehicle to operate not just on gasoline, but on E85, as well. In case you aren’t familiar with it, E85 is a mixture of 85% Ethanol and 15% gasoline.

Refueling stations can generally be easily adapted to the fuel, it appears to cause no problems with vehicle engines aside from getting slightly poorer fuel economy, and would make grain farmers in the United States and around the world very, very rich. The downside is that E85 isn’t carried in every filling station in America. In many cases, there just isn’t enough demand to warrant shipping the fuel to ever gas station out there.

Arguments Against Biofuels

An argument against the use of E85 has traditionally been that putting corn to use in the production of a non-food based product that would have as much demand as motor fuel would would raise the price of every product that is made using corn, from candy with high-fructose corn syrup right down to the ears of sweet corn at a farmer’s market. Also, though E85 is, on average, about .20 cents cheaper than petroleum gasoline, it makes up that difference with the poor fuel economy. Generally speaking, it costs the average commuter about the same amount to fill up on E85 as it does gasoline.

But is biofuel a real alternative for your daily commute? The answer to that question is that yes, biofuel really could be a petroleum alternative, but the technology and consumer desire to make it life-changing simply hasn’t caught up with the E85 ambition yet. The range that vehicles operating on biofuel is approximately 20%-25% less than conventional petroleum, making it similarly priced but slightly less convenient. Right now, the only way to fill up with E85 is to find a filling station that offers it, and then plan to make a stop there during your day.

Perhaps in the future, commuters will be able to distill and produce their own E85 at home, helping to offset the cost and making the alcohol-based fuel a truly viable alternative. Until then, Its a question of how ecologically responsible individual drivers feel. Will saving the environment persuade you to drive across town to fill up your tank? Considering that most Ethanol is produced in the United States, will reducing foreign dependance on fuel oil do the trick?

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4 thoughts on “Are Biofuel Cars a Real Alternative for the Average Driver?”

  1. Miles,

    this is a very informative and interesting article, there is another problem in regards to bio-fuels in addition to the grains going up substantially in price as well as the economics in adapting fueling stations to accommodate the alternative fuel and that is in the production of the bio-fuels themselves. Through numerous articles that I have I read on the topic, many informed experts agree that the amount of energy required to produce the bio-fuels is actually very high and is also not good for the earth’s environment as those processes end up releasing huge amounts of carbon dioxide (i.e. the machines being used to process bio-fuels require energy and are burning it to do so) gases into the earth’s atmosphere. It is often stated that what is inevitably saved in cleaner burning fuel is actually negated in the process so much so that the net benefit may possibly be even negative rather then positive in an environmental and economic sense.

    In essence, what will need to happen is that instead of processing the energy from the grains (such as through heating and refining) the raw material would need to be used in the engines themselves which could efficiently convert it. I don’t know how possible this would be to achieve though–whoever finds the means to do so will ultimately solve the emission ends of the problem but the crop end where stock is being used for fuel will still remain, hence, people have been looking at wood chips etc on that base, but the breakdown of efficient processing without heating and extra machine usage would remain–if both problems can be solved we will be golden.

    Overall for these reasons I would be extremely careful in looking at bio-fuels as an alternative choice and would really look at the overall equation before deciding to implement policies which may not be in the end very beneficial. This is indeed a very tough issue, one which will still need some more time and research to possibly come up with a viable solution.

    • Samir-

      Ethanol production has very little effect on corn prices, less than 4%. The Corn that is used to make ethanol is corn that is made for live stock, not human consumption. Further more, of the corn that is used to make ethanol, 1/3rd of the corn is given back to farmers, after ethanol is made, as a high protein feed for their live stock. The top reasons for corn price increase are: weather, fuel prices, and global demand (mainly china and India) since corn is traded globally.

      Furthermore the production value over the past 5 years has increased substantially. when ethanol production first started picking up, in the late 90s, the value of energy per gallon of ethanol was indeed even to negative. In recent years the technology for developing more ethanol per bushel of corn, growing more corn per acre and the refining the process to make ethanol has increased dramatically in the past few years. so much so that there is a net benefit to ethanol production as of 2011.

      Not a better alternative that fossil fuels, really!? how much energy does it take to produce a barrel of oil or a gallon of gas, talk about a net loss of energy and harm the environment. diesel powered barges and trucks transport oil and gas, and diesel creates the energy to run refineries. Besides the energy and financial cost of making and refining fossil fuels, think the billions the military spends each year to protect interests in unstable countries.

      The model T was a flex fuel vehicle it was created to run on petroleum and ethanol. People used to make their own alcohol in their homes then put it in their vehicles and use it has a homemade bio fuel. it wasn’t until prohibition, that all alcohol production for fuel stopped.

      I am not saying that ethanol is the holy grail of energy, I am convinced we will find other better solutions down the road. For what we have right now it’s a great solution to help subsidies our dependence on foreign oil, and our dependence on an energy source that will eventually be depleted.

      • Mike,

        thank you very much for this very incredible useful bit of information I did not know about. It definitely will make me warm up to corn being used for bio-fuels as what I had read may have skewed the information and has made it sound like the corn that has constantly been used was for human consumption and not for livestock. Nevertheless, hopefully we will not rob the animals of their own food source as well as jeopardizing growing other crops for our own consumption, but I guess if we are careful and balance our surplus trading needs for global exports as well as domestic production that will be very useful and necessary.

        One crop that was said to have suffered during the ethanol production stages and that had gone up in price due to the decrease in its own production was soya bean, but again, perhaps the information that I have been reading may have been skewed and a bit of misinformation but then again perhaps not because when one decides to grow something on limited amounts of land they can not grow something else when that land is being utilized. Nevertheless, this would apply to any crop or land use that we plan for and we have to think what we need more and for what purpose. Without a doubt a clean, renewable source of energy is something that is extremely needed and essential for our overall well being of our earth’s global environment.

        It has been a pleasure to have read your response and I hope others have also had the chance to have done so because it is extremely well written and very informative.

  2. This article is actually just a simple overview of ethanol as a biofuel. It’s much more complex then what the author portrays. The bang per buck in harvesting ethanol depends on the type of crop and how it is grown. As of yet I have not found a biofuel derivative that could replace the vast reserves of oil locked in the earths bowels. Right now there’s plenty of gas and oil for todays usage for over a hundred years but if the population keeps on mushrooming them there will be wars over energy, food and water. And smack in the middle is religious extremes of many denominations. It’s why I became a Diest as the real nature of GOD is not clearly defined in most established religions. I believed it got highjacked.

    Here in the US the mainstay is horse corn that deepens on natural gas and oil derived fertilizers. When you include all the driven equipment then it take more energy then it’s worth. It’s like hydrogen cars get most of their hydrogen from cracked petrol making the energy tradeoff much less efficient then if you where just used the gasoline directly. It’s appears to be an ENRON game to fleece gullible consumers in the name of green energy and climate control. Green is a relative term much abused by bureaucrats.

    The other problem is many pre 2001 vehicles can’t even burn E10 without incurring damage to the engine and many small engines like used in outboard and chain saws can’t burn it without damaging them.

    The better solution would be butanol derived from methanol using 4th gen nuclear as the energy input.

    The author of Alcohol can be a Gas claims that sufficient ethanol can be derived from cattails which are widespread in shallow lakes, streams and swamps. It may be usable as a local fuel but not usefull as a replacement for gasoline or diesel.

    A flex fueled engine is less efficient then an engine geared toward gasoline exclusively and one geared to use ethanol.

    Perhaps the best method would be a vehicle with all electric drive via and ICE driven generator and small battery storage to handle on-demand power needs. The ICE has an optimize RPM range where it gets the best efficiency driving the generator instead of ramping up and down to deliver power directly to the wheels.

    I’m not sure but it may be the costs of doing it and wight considerations but with new technology that seems like the best way to control both economy and emissions, excluding CO2, a plant nutrient. With electric drive each wheel would be a motor and no transmission losses. And you would not need a big battery like on the Volt as the battery is just a power feed reservoir to aide in power demands of acceleration and climbing hills.

    Modern electric train engines use this form of power with great efficiency but size nor weight is not a relative concern as opposed to road vehicles..


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