Carmakers interest in building vehicles that run on alcohol got an important boost last week when a new study published in the magazine Science indicated that making motor fuel from corn actually can save energy.
For years, supporters of the ethanol-based fuel have been ensnared in a running debate over whether turning corn into alcohol really saves fuel. The essential argument against the wider use of ethanol as a motor fuel was that the process of corn into alcohol ultimately consumed more energy than it saved.
Academics, farmers, the farm lobby, energy companies, environmentalists, and carmakers were all ultimately dragged into the debate, which has grown in consequence as the price of oil has jumped to recent highs.
The findings of Alexander Farrell of the University of California-Berkeley basically dismantles the arguments of ethanol critics, who had claimed that making ethanol was "negative" net energy -- producing it took more energy than it created.
Farrell's basic results are already being hailed by an ecumenical alliance that ranges from the Kansas Corn Commission to the Web site Salon.com.
"One of the possible outcomes of this research is a much better economy for farmers. We think if we really pay attention to what we care about -- lowering imported petroleum, reducing greenhouse gases -- we establish markets for green fuels and end up with a system where the current method of supporting ethanol production through incentives and subsidies can be eliminated," Farrell said in an interview published by Salon.com, the Web site that carries liberal commentary.
Farrell's study also found that ethanol made from plants such as willow trees led to even larger reductions in the amount of greenhouses gas discharged into the atmosphere.
More interest in Detroit
Meanwhile, the debate over ethanol has become increasingly critical for Detroit's automakers, which are growing more and more interested in ethanol's capacity to cut dependence on imported oil and to clean up the environment. Their escalating interest is in direct proportion to the rise in sales of the Toyota Prius and other hybrid vehicles that are expensive means to stretch America's gasoline supplies.
The demands for both a more secure source of motor fuel and for curbs on greenhouse gases have put more and more pressure on automakers, particularly on financially strapped General Motors and Ford Motor Co., which are heavily dependent on truck and SUV sales.
Both GM and Ford have built vehicles that run on alcohol-based fuel; both now have rather sizeable fleets of flex-fuel vehicles available. For years, though, the flex-fuel vehicles were little more than a gimmick that GM and Ford used to circumvent the corporate average fuel economy regulations.
Nevertheless, both GM and Ford executives insist they have now become major proponents of ethanol-fueled vehicles.
At the Washington Auto Show last week, Ford unveiled the Ford Escape Hybrid E85, which married hybrid electric power and flexible-fuel capability.
The Escape Hybrid E85 is the first vehicle ready to operate on blends of fuel containing as much as 85 percent ethanol, which releases no fossil-based carbon dioxide into the atmosphere from its alcohol fuel (some is released in the 15 percent of the blend that consists of gasoline). "As a leader in both hybrid vehicles and in vehicles capable of operating on ethanol-based fuels, Ford is the ideal company to bring both technologies together for the first time," says Anne Stevens, Ford Motor Company executive vice president.
"This innovative research program could lead to breakthroughs to significantly reduce our nation's dependence on imported oil while also helping to address global climate change," she added.
General Motors also has been promoting its alcohol-fueled vehicles and even the Chrysler Group is getting in on the act.
Still, not everyone is convinced ethanol is a panacea. GM and Ford rushed to alcohol-based fuel in the early 1980s in Brazil, where a boom in alcohol-based fuel went bust when oil prices plunged during the late 1980s. Brazil had built up huge surpluses of agricultural products that were eventually dumped on the world market, forcing down prices everywhere. In addition, large parts of the Amazon rain forest were plowed under for commercial crops.
"Promoting biofuels could very easily have negative outcomes," Farrell acknowledged in his interview with Salon.com.