U.S. should follow Brazil's lead in flex-fuel technology
Herald Aug 14, 2006
News last week that a crucial BP
oil pipeline in Alaska had been shut down
due to corrosion sent gasoline prices to more than $3 a gallon -- again. With
tensions in the Middle East, potential terror plots foiled but still a danger,
and the threat that one of this season's hurricanes could slam Gulf
Coast oil refineries, this country has plenty of reasons
to worry about petroleum supplies. Yet Americans are continuing their gas-guzzling
ways. True, there have been efforts to produce hybrid cars, but they're expensive and represent a fraction of overall auto
which has the nation's highest gas prices, is offering tax credits for companies that produce ethanol. And other states have
experimented with biodiesel fuel. But there's no strong, consistent national
program encouraging consumers and auto manufacturers to really embrace alternatives to gasoline power.
This week's cover story, ''In the
Driver's Seat,'' (page 22) by Martha Brannigan, is a portrait of Maureen Kempston Darkes, a Miramar-based executive who just
happens to be the highest ranking woman at General Motors Corp. She's in charge
of a huge territory that stretches from Latin America to the Middle
East and acrosss Africa. Among the operations she oversees is the GM plant in Sao Caetano
do Sul, Brazil, which has
been a leader in flex-fuel technology (see page 23).
The flex-fuel system allows cars
to run on gasoline, ethanol or a mixture of the two in the same tank. Brazil
has long been a leader in producing cars that run on ethanol made from sugar cane. With
encouragement from the Brazilian government, carmakers in South America's
largest country have been producing ethanol-powered vehicles since the late 1970s. At one point in the mid-1980s -- when I
was living in Brazil -- about two-thirds
of the cars produced in the country ran on ethanol. But Brannigan, a former Wall
Street Journal reporter who spends her time between Coral Gables and Brazil, says ethanol shortages and volatile price swings
began turning Brazilian drivers off, spurring auto makers to search for another solution.
Enter the flex-fuel technology. Introduced in 2003, flex-fuel has proved so popular that, by the end of this year,
nearly all new cars produced in Brazil
will be capable of running on a combination of gasoline and ethanol. Another
factor that makes a flex-fuel system feasible is that ethanol is available at most service stations in Brazil.
In contrast, there are only about 700 ethanol pumps in the United States.
Perhaps the United
States as a whole can learn from this Brazilian example. The most powerful nation in the world still remains far too dependent on foreign oil. Let's make searching
for and exploiting alternative fuels a priority.
Mimi Whitefield is the editor of Business Monday. E-mail her at mwhitefield@Miami Herald.com
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
in the United States
North American vehicles from approximately 1980 onward can run on
10% ethanol/90% gasoline (i.e., E10) with no modifications. Prior to 1980, many cars imported into the United States contained rubber, aluminium, and other materials
that were generally non-compatible with any ethanol in their fuel delivery systems, and these cars experienced problems when
E10 was first introduced.Cars made in the US from the late 1970's onward can run on E10 with no modifications. E10 fuel is
widely available. Going beyond 10% ethanol generally requires special engineering.
In the United States, many flexible-fuel vehicles can accept up to 85% ethanol (E85) or up to 85% methanol (M85). The fuel mixture is automatically detected by one or more sensors, and once detected, the ECU tunes the timing of spark plugs and fuel injectors so that the fuel will burn cleanly in the vehicle's internal combustion engine. Originally, sensors in both the fuel-line and in the exhaust system were used for flexible fuel vehicles. In recent years,
manufacturers have instead opted to use only the oxygen (lambda) sensor in the exhaust manifold, before the catalytic converter,
and to eliminate the fuel inline sensor. This fuel inline sensor was removed in model year 1998: DaimlerChrysler; 2001: Ford
and 2006: GM. As E85 and M85 are more corrosive, special fuel system materials are also required. Some manufacturers also
require a special motor oil be used, particularly in vehicles using methanol fuel.
In 1993 through 1995, Ford offered the first production M85 FFV option on the 3.0L engine in the Taurus while Chrysler offered M85 flexible-fuel versions of the Dodge Spirit and Plymouth Acclaim with an MPFI 2.5 L 4-cylinder engine. FFV Chrysler minivans were also offered beginning around the same time, with a version of the corporate
3.3 L V6 engine. With the introduction of the Taurus re-design for 1996, Ford complemented the M85 FFV Taurus, sold mainly
in California, with the first production E85 FFV using the same 3.0L engine in the Taurus and offering these for sale in most
of the rest of the country. In 1998, General Motors Corporation introduced their first light truck (an S10, with 2.2L engine) in a flexible-fuel configuration. In 1999, Ford Motor Company introduced a flexible-fuel option on its 2000 Ford Ranger pickup trucks, and it has also continued to be an option on the company's Taurus model. For 2000, Ford also made their 4.0L SOHC engine
found in the Explorer FFV capable and introduced it in the re-designed United States Postal Service delivery truck, which was based on a Ford Explorer chassis and powertrain in 2000 and 2001. Ford later extended this FFV powertrain to the consumer market with the E85 FFV
Ford Explorer and Explorer Sport Trac, but phased it out with the new Explorer re-design in 2006. In that year, Ford began
offering the 4.6L V8 version of the F-150 with E85 FFV capability for consumers and fleets. During the summer of 2006, Toyota officials stated that their company would consider FFV vehicle production in the future. Other manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz
also offer E85/Flexible fuel vehicles. Flexible fuel vehicles are often identified as such by exterior badging, such as Ford's
"road-and-leaf" badge introduced in 1993 and still used on Ford FFV and HEV (hybrid electric vehicle) models. They can also
be identified by labelling adjacent to the fuel filler and fuel gauge, and by the engine identifier digit in the VIN.
As of 2005, most existing vehicles that are available to the public with flex-fuel engines are sport-utility vehicles or others in the "light truck" class. Sedans, wagons, and others are usually only available in flexible-fuel configurations as part of fleet vehicle purchases by companies. Starting in 2006, though, more widespread availability is planned for standard models intended for non-fleet sales.
A 1988 federal law provides an incentive for creating flexible fuel
vehicles in the form of credits that can be used to relax Corporate Average Fuel Economy fuel efficiency standards. It is alleged that this efficiency relaxation has decreased overall US fleet efficiency, thereby
resulting in increased nationwide fuel consumption.
Over 4 million flexible-fuel vehicles are currently operated on
the road in America, although a 2002 study found that less than 1% of fuel consumed by these vehicles is E85[2
Brazil fights oil prices
Sales of 'Flex' cars that run on alcohol or gasoline surpassed August sales of
| Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor
RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazilians aren't waiting for high-priced
Christian Science Monitor from the October 07, 2005 edition
Drivers are fighting rising gasoline prices by buying "flex" or "flexible fuel" cars that slurp more alcohol. Alcohol made from sugar cane
is becoming the fuel of choice in Brazil,
and other countries - so much so that global sugar prices hit a seven-year high this week. Regular car engines will run fine on a 10 percent blend of alcohol
and gasoline. But by using computer sensors that adjust to whatever mix is in the tank, flex car engines run on either ethanol,
gasoline, or any combination of the two. And they have been roaring out of dealerships here since Volkswagen sold the first
TotalFlex Golf in March 2003.
Today, flex cars are outselling traditional gasoline models. In August, 62 percent of new cars sold were flex, according
to industry numbers. "Demand has been unbelievable," says Barry Engle, the new president of Ford Brasil. "I am hard-pressed
to think of any other technology that has been such a success so quickly." As
many countries reexamine their dependence on petroleum fields for fuel, Brazil offers a model for
how to make the switch to cane, beet, wheat, or corn fields. The successful transition here comes down to many factors, but
price is the primary one, experts say.
Unlike hybrids sold in the US, for example, flex cars sold in Brazil don't cost any more
than traditional models. In fact, some models are only available with flex engines now. Ethanol engines use 25 percent more
ethanol per mile than gasoline. But ethanol (the alcohol produced by fermenting sugar) usually sells at somewhere between
a third to half of the price of gas. Even people who were reluctant to take the plunge and buy a flex say they have been won
over by the savings.
been a revelation because of the economy," says Madalena Lira, a university lecturer who says that she and her husband had
reluctantly purchased a flex car because it was the only available version of the Fiat Palio Weekend they wanted. "I love
this car in spite of it being a flex, not because it is a flex. The savings have been great. I'd certainly buy another one."
In addition to the savings, environmentally conscious drivers appreciate having a car that runs on a cleaner fuel,
and some might even buy a flex car because they know it is good for the country's auto and sugar manufacturers. But today,
two-and-a-half years into the flex experiment, another unforeseen advantage is emerging.
"There is something curious that we are just starting to see," says Alfred Szwarc, an ethanol consultant with Sao Paulo's sugar
cane association. "Gasoline powered cars lose more of their [resale] value than flex cars. People know that oil is finite
and that it is going to get more and more expensive. They think that a gasoline-powered car is going to be more difficult
to sell. They see flex cars as the car of the future."
Ethanol-powered cars are not new in Brazil. In a bid to cut the country's reliance on foreign oil imports and help their own sugar
producers, Brazil's military government pushed alcohol-powered cars in the early 1980s. Gas stations across
the country added ethanol pumps to the existing gasoline and diesel ones. Between 1983 and 1988 more than 88 percent of cars
sold annually were running on a blend of ethanol and gasoline. This didn't last
for long, though. The subsidies were withdrawn at the end of the decade, and cane farmers quickly realized they could get
more from selling sugar than turning it into ethanol. When alcohol fuel shortages ensued it looked like the end of the road
for ethanol engines as sales of the experimental cars plummeted.
experience may have been a bitter one but it gave Brazilians a taste for alternative fuels that lingered. Although most people
abandoned ethanol cars, many taxi drivers kept them because it was so much cheaper than a gas-only car. Then the country's
Congress passed a law forcing oil companies to add small quantities of ethanol to their gasoline. That prompted car companies
to experiment with an engine that would run on both fuels, and when they did, the flex car sales took off. "Why did this take off here?" asks Mr. Engle. "Because this isn't brand-new. Car buyers concerned about
high gas prices or potential ethanol shortages no longer have to make a choice between the two. It used to be an either-or
but now there's both and that gives consumers peace of mind and explains why Brazilians have embraced it."
The next task is convincing other nations to adopt the technology, industry experts said. With oil prices at a record
high, there is a clear advantage to diluting gasoline or even substituting it, with sugar-based ethanol or one of the biofuel
alternatives such as beets or corn. For most countries, the problem is the lack
of ethanol production and a distribution system. Although many countries require oil companies to dilute their gasoline with
ethanol (in Brazil, gas sold at the pumps is 25 percent ethanol; and some of the gas sold in the US, China, Australia and
Canada is 10-15 percent ethanol), few actually make ethanol or manufacture flex vehicles, and even fewer have a network of
gas stations with ethanol pumps. In the US - with
about 4 million flex cars - there are 14 states without even one ethanol pump, says Robert White, project director for the
National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.
With years of experience at every stage of the process, Brazil is in the pole position
to help other nations' farmers grow crops, scientists refine it into fuel, or engineers produce the technology to make flex
cars, says Rogelio Golfarb, president of Brazil's car makers association. "There is an enormous demand from abroad to know more," Mr.
Golfarb says "This is an advantage and an opportunity for Brazil."
Running on Empty
SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN MAGAZINE, DEC. 05, P. 8
It was a remarkable turnabout.
In September, after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita pushed gasoline prices to more than $3 a gallon, President George W. Bush
spoke out for energy conservation. The president, who had previously insisted that new oil wells and refineries were the solution
to the nation's energy woes, called on Americans to save gas by driving less. Listeners with long memories recalled President
Jimmy Carter's television appearances during the oil crisis of the 1970s, when he urged Americans to turn down their
thermostats. The only thing missing was the cozy cardigan that Carter had worn when he made his plea.
were less than thrilled by the Bush administration's new strategy, which focused on public-service advertisements encouraging
conservation. When it comes to transportation, which consumes 70 percent of U.S. oil and generates a third
of the nation's carbon emissions, voluntary measures may be ineffective. Decades of suburban sprawl and neglect of public
transit have made it harder for Americans to cut back on driving; from 1990 to 2001, the average length of a shopping trip
grew from five to seven miles, and the number of shopping trips per household rose from 341 to 496 a year. Driving to schools,
churches, doctors and vacation spots also increased significantly.
A more constructive approach
would be to improve the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. The rise in gas prices has prompted some movement in this
direction: after the hurricanes disrupted the oil industry, car buyers shunned gas-guzzling SUVs and snapped up more
efficient models. This trend, however, may prove short-lived if gas prices subside as oil companies rebuild their facilities.
For this reason, some economists recommend raising the federal gas tax by 50 cents a gallon. The increase could be gradually
imposed as prices at the pump decline, so that the impact on consumers is minimized. To offset the disproportionate
burden on working-class drivers, revenues from the gas tax could be used to reduce payroll taxes.
Unfortunately, Bush and Congress
are adamantly opposed to any new tax, even one that would protect the environment, lessen our dependence on oil from the Middle East and save consumers money
in the long run. Instead the Bush administration has proposed revising the corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards
for light trucks, a category that includes SUVs, pickup trucks and minivans. Whereas passenger cars must average 27.5 miles
per gallon, the required average for light trucks is now 21 mpg and scheduled to rise to 22.2 mpg by the 2007 model year.
The administration's proposal divides light trucks into six subcategories; although small SUVs have to average 28.4 mpg by
2011, the target for big pickups is only 21.3 mpg. The average for all light trucks would rise to 24 mpg, just 8 percent more
than what the current CAFE rules would require by then.
Such feeble measures will do little to ease America's addiction
to foreign oil or slow the global warming caused by vehicle exhaust. Lawmakers should press for more stringent CAFE standards
that would boost fuel economy for both cars and light trucks by at least 40 percent over the next decade. The goal is technologically
feasible—by adopting hybrid engines and strong but lightweight auto bodies, manufacturers can make their vehicles
more efficient without compromising passenger safety or inflating sticker prices. What we need are political leaders genuinely
committed to energy conservation, not just to speeches and public-service ads.