As most people know, I’m a huge advocate of ethanol based fuels. Nearly every time I talk to someone about their project, I always ask if they have done any research on the subject. All too often I am given weird looks and told of another ethanol myth that is so far from the truth I could puke. In this blog I am going to go over the pros and the cons of using and producing ethanol based fuels, as well as my personal experience with the fuel. I will do my best to stay neutral on the subject to allow you guys to make your own educated decision on whether or not you could reap the benefits of this high octane, renewable, race fuel.
When I first heard about E85 coming to my home town with a new Kwik Trip, I was skeptical to say the least. Before I did my own research, I thought E85 was nothing more than a cheap, dirty fuel that only appealed to tree hugging hippies who had no idea what kind of nasty they were pumping into their vehicles. I literally thought it was 85 octane nastyness that would gum up even the most modern of vehicles, and destroy them from the inside out.
Then one day when I was browsing the ol’ StreetFire.net like every high school auto enthusiast should, because it was never blocked on the schools network. I came across a video of a mild bolt on Evo 8 on the dyno doing a 93oct pull, then a big injector, high flow pump - E85 pull. The car made ridiculous gains in power and absolutely asinine gains in torque, with minimal modifications to accommodate the fuel change. Based on the gains alone, I got right to work researching I everything I could find about E85.
I quickly learned that there were far more benefits to E85 than just some power gains on performance applications. The alcohol in E85 has a HUGE cooling property that rivals that of a water/meth injection system. With cooler intake temperatures comes cooler block and head temps, mixed with the higher octane of ethanol, you almost eliminates the risk of detonation. This lack of detonation risk allows for a much more aggressive tune without sacrificing safety and reliability. Not only that, but the ethanol itself is 100% renewable and made from waste byproducts that may otherwise be disposed of. A study by Argonne National Laboratory found that when the entire fuel life cycle of E85 are considered, using corn-based ethanol instead of 93oct gasoline reduces GHG emissions by 19%-52%, depending on the source of energy used during ethanol production. Long story short, this fuel is mean, it’s green, and it offers an added cushion of safety when dealing with a modified vehicle.
Now, as a gear head, when I see the opportunity to improve something, I do it. So after discovering I could easily convert my non-flex fuel vehicle to run on both 93oct and E85 with some pretty awesome benefits, I jumped at the opportunity. I’ve been playing around with E85 for a couple years now, but my current application is a 2004 PT Cruiser GT. The real auto nerds out there know exactly why, but for those of you wondering why in the sam hell anyone would put premium fuel in a PT Loser, let me tell you why. The PT GT is nothing short of an awkward shaped performance oriented vehicle. As part of the Neon family, the GT shares a large amount of parts with the SRT-4. The entire drivetrain is nearly identical minus a couple small changes. The brakes, suspension, and axles are also borrowed from the SRT-4. This makes for a perfect sleeper, with an aftermarket world that rivals that of the Mustang!
E85 SRT-4’s are a dime a dozen. Because of this, parts are very cheap, and the information is plentiful. I was able to pick up a 3” Turbo back exhaust, 1,025cc Siemens Injectors, a 255lph fuel pump, and a tune for both E85, and a 93oct re-scale for under $1,800. I have not had my car on a dyno yet, But the average stock turbo E85 SRT build consistently puts down slightly over 300hp and just under 400tq...to the wheel. For a car that makes 200whp from the factory, you will never see gains like that for such low amounts of money on a pump fuel. This is my third E85 fed vehicle now, and i'm convinced I will never go back. There is nothing else currently on the market that allows for these kinds of gains for such little money, while also adding a window of safety.
Some of you may be thinking “if the fuel is so green and so great, why isn't this magical fuel everywhere and used by everyone?!”. Well, unfortunately It’s not all bubblegum and candy rainbows. Because of the fact that E85 has a BTU rating around 30% less than that of premium gasoline, it also requires 30% more fuel than Gasoline. Because of this, most should understand that to convert over to E85 takes more than just putting it in your gas tank. You need to be able to flow 30% more fuel than what you are flowing now. If you are converting to E85 so you can make more power, you are most likely going to require even more fuel than just the 30%. To get to the point, you need to double the capacity of your fuel set-up on all accounts. This means upgrading your fuel pump and fuel injectors. In big power applications, the fuel rail, fuel lines, fuel regulators and so on will also need to be upgraded accordingly. With this extra fuel needed to meet energy demands from the lower BTU’s of ethanol, the result is a 30%+ loss of MPG and ultimately result in a similar “cost per mile” of premium gasoline, despite the lower per gallon price.
The other issue that arises regarding its fairly low popularity is the industry's unsuccessful attempt to target the average consumer. This is mostly because the average consumer is driven by value, and e85 compared to regular fuel does not offer much better value when considering the drop in mpg. Furthermore, the average flex fuel vehicle does not change the fuel/air mixture based on the fuel it is given and burns E85 like it is 87 octane gasoline. This means that mpg suffers more than it should and the potential increase in performance is never even realized. This strongly suggests that E85 might not be for the average consumer and its in not a competitor to regular gasoline.
However, there are people who buy premium cars that take premium gas for performance and luxury. Give them the opportunity for more performance at cheaper or comparable prices and E85 makes a case that is very difficult to argue with. Plus, the expense to produce a car that is properly tuned and has a sensor in the gas tank would be more easily absorbed by the premium car market. It also means that we could be getting more power out of smaller and more efficient engines which is certainly the trend in the auto industry right now. More importantly, the features that start in the premium car market often have a way of trickling down to the average car market as consumers want to reach up. This could be the doorway to e85 being massively popular on a much bigger scale. So, if the ethanol industry is serious about expanding it's customer base despite lower gas prices; this is may be road map.
The bottom line is that e85 is a premium fuel and should be treated as such. At approximately 103 octane (summer blend) it offers the best performance for cars that are tuned to use it and a solid value proposition compared to premium 93 octane gasoline. All forced induction and sports cars should be able to use e85 to it's full potential, as should luxury cars that use premium fuel. E85 could be the wave of the future if the ethanol industry can understand it's product and market it for what it is, a premium fuel.
Thank you guys for sticking through this read and let us know what you think in the comments below!