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Cars On Alcohol, Part 9: Corn Based Ethanol in the US
After almost universal focus on petroleum-based methanol, manufacturers and supporters of flexible-fuel vehicles began to devote more attention to corn-based ethanol. While this subtle shift was occurring, Green Car staff was spending time behind the wheel of all M85 FFVs on the market to gauge their viability. After more than 25,000 miles of seat time in M85 vehicles, we were sold on their performance, even as fueling challenges remained. The articles here share perspective on these unfolding events and are reprinted just as they ran in Green Car Journal in the early 1990s.
U.S. DOE GIVES GREEN LIGHT TO ETHANOL CAR
The U.S. Dept. of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Golden, Colo.) has awarded a $1 million subcontract to the Southwest Research Institute (San Antonio, Texas) to develop a commercially viable ethanol-powered passenger car. NREL hopes that the project will result in technology that automakers can use in developing a dedicated ethanol-powered vehicle.
In order for dedicated ethanol vehicles to gain acceptance, designers and engineers must first overcome issues such as cold start, compromised power, fuel economy, and engine durability. All these will be addressed in the NREL/Southwest program, which aims to produce results by 1996.
Ford is working with U.S. federal and state government fleets in a program to evaluate the performance of 70 ethanol flexible-fuel Taurus sedans. Missouri is ordering 30 examples for operation in Kansas City, while Illinois is procuring another 25 for evaluation in the Chicago area. The balance is being purchased by the federal government for use in Des Moines, Milwaukee, and Chicago. Iowa began a similar program last year. Ford is also studying the use of natural gas, propane, electricity, and methanol.
The flexible-fuel feature incorporated in the Taurus FFV allows the engine to run on any mixture of gasoline and E85, a mix of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline. Data from an inline fuel sensor measuring ethanol concentration allows continuous adjustment of fuel injection and spark timing for optimum combustion. Special fuel lines, fuel tank, fuel pump, and other components are used to handle the more corrosive fuel, and a special oil blend is used to increase engine durability.
DRIVING 25,000+ MILES ON M85 FUEL METHANOL
Green Car editors have driven a great variety of production, prototype, and concept flexible-fuel methanol vehicles in the U.S. and Europe over the past several years. Their ranks have included the Ford Taurus, Chevrolet Lumina VFV, Chrysler Concorde, Dodge Spirit, Volkswagen Jetta, Saab 9000, Mercedes 190, and many others.
Most recently, Green Car testers have spent significant time behind the wheel of Dodge Intrepid and Eagle Vision flexible-fuel vehicles. Procured from the South Coast Air Quality Management District’s Alternative Fuel Vehicle Fleet Demonstration Program, experience with these vehicles has substantiated Green Car’s long-held position that driving vehicles fueled with M85 (85 percent methanol/15 percent gasoline) is virtually indistinguishable from driving automobiles on gasoline.
Green Car’s year-long experience with Ford’s Taurus FFV has worked well to underscore just how transparent flexible-fuel vehicles can be. First placed in Green Car test service in May 1993, the Taurus has been driven almost exclusively on M85 for over 22,000 miles. Gasoline was used at intervals to update how well the FFV would run on this second fuel, and to ensure that its fuel mixture sensor continued to adjust ignition and fuel injection properly as fuel mixtures changed. The Taurus fared well on both counts.
The car’s daily driving regimen included both open highway and city stop-and-go driving in ambient temperatures averaging 70 degrees with extremes of 35 to 105 degrees. Driving conditions were generally dry with only occasional precipitation.
Acceleration in the 140 horsepower, 3.0-liter V-6 FFV is either indistinguishable from the standard gasoline Taurus, or slightly improved. This isn’t meant to be ambiguous. Due to the specific properties of methanol, a slight increase in power is experienced when running on M85. Green Car editors could tell the difference during testing, either when driving separate methanol and gasoline variants back-to-back or when performing measured acceleration runs with sophisticated timing equipment. However, in the real world most drivers wouldn’t know the difference as a matter of course. All other driving characteristics – cornering, hard transients, steering feel, and overall comfort – cannot be distinguished from the FFV’s gasoline counterpart.
One glitch: Although the Taurus did run virtually trouble-free, it experienced a warranty-covered fuel pump failure at approximately 9,800 miles. This high-volume pump is one of many special fuel system components integrated to handle the more corrosive methanol fuel. Warning signs leading up to pump failure included hard starting and occasional uneven firing, until the car ultimately would not start. A new fuel pump corrected the problem and it has not recurred. Standard maintenance procedures have gone smoothly. Ford picked up the cost of oil and filter changes (as it does for six years or 60,000 miles as part of its FFV program) since the Taurus FFV requires special methanol-compatible SG rated 10W30 oil.
Perhaps the most notable problem faced by Green Car testers involved refueling. Even though California has the most advanced network of M85 fueling stations in the U.S., these stations are still inconveniently, and sometimes impossibly, far apart in many areas of the state. The closest M85 station to Green Car’s office is handily within about four miles. However, this station experienced far more glitches than we would have expected, with the solitary M85 pump or its electronic paypoint system down all-too-often at a time when the Taurus was in need of fuel. Seeking out another methanol station was possible – and we were able to drive fifteen minutes out of our way to find methanol at one of three other stations, Mobil, ARCO, or Chevron – but this was an exercise that wasted time and money.
To compensate for refueling uncertainties, Green Car testers never ran past the ¼ mark on the fuel level gauge, and generally refueled with M85 after driving 150 to 200 miles. Typical fill-ups required 13 to 14 gallons, which means at least six gallons of methanol were always in reserve in the car’s 20.7 gallon fuel tank. Methanol costs ranged from $0.85 to $0.95 per gallon.
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