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Wednesday, Oct. 24, 2007 09:43 am

Combining alternative fuels

Why not have hybrids run on E85 or biodiesel?

Ford last year unveiled a prototype of its popular Escape Hybrid SUV that can run on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent standard gasoline. A lack of E85 fueling outlets is holding up mass production.
Untitled Document Wouldn’t having hybrid cars run on E85 or biodiesel solve many problems?
Environmental advocates would love to see carmakers mass-produce a biofuel-electric hybrid. From a technology standpoint, it’s a no-brainer: Major automakers already turn out vehicles that can run on E85, a blend of 85 percent ethanol, derived from corn and other crops, and 15 percent standard gasoline — Ford’s light-duty F-Series pickups are an example of such “flex fuel” vehicles — and gasoline/electric hybrids, like Toyota’s Prius, are all the rage and beginning to be ubiquitous on the roads. Cost, however, is an issue, says Jim Kliesch of the Web site Greenercars.org. Traditional cars and trucks powered by diesel, biodiesel, or ethanol cost more to manufacture than do equivalent gasoline-power vehicles, and gas/electric hybrids also cost more than conventional cars, largely because their market share is still small and economies of scale have not yet kicked in. Therefore combining two costly technologies in a biofuel/electric hybrid would constitute “a double whammy,” says Kliesch, “limiting the vehicles to a very small slice of the market.”
Nonetheless, Ford last year unveiled a prototype of its popular Escape Hybrid SUV that runs on E85. Like the gas/electric hybrids now on the road, the E85/electric hybrid Escape maximizes fuel economy by alternating between its internal-combustion and electric engines, and it never needs to be plugged in because its high-capacity batteries store electricity generated from braking and other in-car processes. Ford estimates that if only 5 percent of U.S. vehicles were powered by ethanol/electric hybrids, oil imports could be reduced by 140 million barrels a year. Such vehicles would also produce about 25 percent less carbon dioxide (CO2) — a chief contributor to global warming — than traditional cars and trucks. What’s holding up mass production, says Ford, is a lack of E85 fueling outlets — only 1,200 exist across the U.S. Not to be outdone, General Motors has its own ethanol-electric hybrid in the works via its Sweden-based Saab subsidiary, which unveiled a prototype in 2006. The company claims that whereas Toyota’s gas/electric Prius emits 104 grams of carbon dioxide per kilometer, Saab’s E85-based hybrid should emit just 15 to 20 grams. Industry insiders don’t expect to see such a vehicle available to the public until 2010 or later. With regard to diesel/electric hybrids, though diesel spews particulates and other nasty ground-level pollutants into the environment, it contributes significantly less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than does gasoline. Biodiesel, a form of the fuel derived from plants, is both carbon-neutral (burning it contributes no additional carbon to the atmospheric balance of the pollutant) and cleaner-burning with regard to particulates. It can be used interchangeably with regular diesel in most diesel engines. The combination of biodiesel with an electric motor in a hybrid car or truck would yield one of the cleanest-burning engines on the road.
GM and Chrysler have already collaborated on the development of a diesel/hybrid platform that combines dual electric motors with a diesel engine to offer unparalleled fuel efficiency, but whether such vehicles ever see the showroom floor — and whether consumers will be able to even afford them — is anybody’s guess.

For more information: GreenerCars.org, www.greenercars.org; E85vehicles.com,

Send questions to Earth Talk, care of E/The Environmental Magazine, P.O. Box 5098, Westport, CT 06881, or e-mail earthtalk@emagazine.com.
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