Of course we can. There is enough excess ethanol capacity to get started now and the technology to make E100 engines is readily available. As of September, 2020 (Renewable Fuels Association):
~209 operating EtOH Plants - 17.6 billion gals capacity
Estimated domestic usage 2019 14.5 billion gals (EIA MER,
7/28/20, Table 10.3)
Estimated Excess capacity: 3.1 billion gallons (Note:
~1.5 billion gallons of
this is exported and
some is currently idle
due to COVID-19.)
Just the current idle/new capacity is enough to fuel >1,000,000 vehicles (15,000 miles/yr @25mpg, 600 gallons/vehicle).
Is there enough waste cellulose to do this? Yes. The DOE published an update of their billion ton annual cellulose availability paper in August 2011. Using the DOE's very conservative yield of 100 gallons of ethanol per ton of cellulose, we could make 100 billion gallons of ethanol without hurting food production or exports.
Ethanol is a carbon neutral liquid motor fuel. That is, the CO2 produced by burning it goes right back in to growing more cellulose the next year. No new carbon needs to be brought up from underground. The waste cellulose the DOE talks about in the above paper all biodegrades to CO2 eventually. We might as well pick it up and make ethanol out of it.
There are also dozens of processes already developed to make ethanol from waste cellulose, but none of these will come into large commercial production since no market exists for it absent E100 engines.
Dr. Bruce Dale and his associates at Michigan State University confirmed this study in Environmental Science and Technology, October 2010, with their article Biofuels Done Right: Land Efficient Animal Feeds Enable Large Environment and Energy Benefits. They show beyond any doubt that the U.S. can make over 100 billion gallons/yr of ethanol without "decreasing domestic food production or agricultural exports."
It should be noted that ethanol is already ubiquitous at the wholesale level. Where ever there is a gasoline terminal, there is ethanol either in barges, tankcars, or tanktrucks.
An ethanol blender pump is a filling station fuel pump that allows consumers to select the desired blend of gasoline and ethanol from E0 (straight gasoline) up to E100 (i.e., Dresser Wayne's Ovation or Gilbarco Veeder-Root's Encore 700S).
The ethanol producer could sell E100 direct to the retail franchisee bypassing the price setting mechanisms of the oil companies. The cost to a retail franchisee to modify an existing storage tank to accept ethanol is quite site specific, but would be between $25,000 and $30,000 including a new blender pump with card reader.
For the 12,000 pump infrastructure -- every 2 miles in the 100 largest cities, 25 miles apart on highways-- the total cost would be less than $500 million, a pittance compared to other technologies.
Actually, we already have over 5,000 E100 capable stations since the existing E85 stations can just switch to E100 with no further investment.
Going with higher level intermediate blends such as E20 and E30 is going to cost as much as going to E100 so why not go all the way to E100?
Is there precedent for such a change in automotive fuel? Yes, there is -- the change from leaded to unleaded fuel in the 1970's as catalytic converters came on the scene. There was a lot of dispute about whether this could be done. Yet when the mandate stayed in place, we switched in just over 20 years.
To mandate that all new light duty vehicles be E100 capable by the end of 2024 is a much easier and lower cost venture than the switch to unleaded fuel.
Brazilians made themselves independent of imported oil by using flex/fuel engines capable of burning E100. In fact, all retail motor fuel stations in Brazil must offer E100. If Brazil can do this, so can we.
A Shell station in Sao Paulo. Brazil showing 2 grades of gasoline and one of E100.
This is a political decision to make, not a technical one.
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Last Updated October 5, 2020