The pump wall

If we all drove these, ethanol blends wouldn't be an issue.

A new study provides further evidence that U.S. ethanol production may be reaching its limit.

Wally Tyner, an agricultural economist at Purdue University, says the country is capable of consuming about 13 billion gallons of ethanol per year — which at this point is also roughly the amount of ethanol we’re producing.

The limiting factor? Infrastructure. Tyner says there simply aren’t enough cars capable of burning higher ethanol blends, nor are there enough ethanol-compatible gas pumps, to meet the country’s renewable fuel mandate of 36 billion gallons a year by 2022.

It’s well known that high blends of ethanol can be damaging to engines that aren’t designed for them – in addition to requiring different air/fuel ratios, ethanol can be corrosive to certain metal and rubber parts.

The same is true for gasoline pumps.

That means, strictly in terms of infrastructure, ethanol faces the same challenges as hydrogen or electricity as a means of propelling our cars. Over the course of a century, we developed an infrastructure for gasoline so complete that you can fill up your tank in Death Valley or Barrow, Alaska if need be. Switching to another fuel isn’t exactly an overnight process – Tyner notes that it’s taken 20 years to install just 2,000 E85 pumps in the U.S. (you can find them on this handy interactive map).

Nathan Schock of Poet, the Sioux Falls-based ethanol producer, says the industry has been pushing for expanded infrastructure for years. Poet supports a plan by Growth Energy that calls for expanded distribution infrastructure and requiring all cars sold in the U.S. to be flex-fuel vehicles (in researching for this post, I learned that the Model T was designed to run on both gasoline and moonshine ethanol. How about that?).

Tyner’s not optimistic that’s possible:

“We would need to install about 2,000 pumps per year through 2022 to do it. You’re not going to go from 100 per year to 2,000 per year overnight. It’s just not going to happen.”

The economist argues instead that the standard might better be met through cellulosic and other biofuels that are more chemically similar to gasoline, which would be able to use existing fuel infrastructure.

Schock disagrees: “It makes more sense to develop infrastructure for ethanol, a proven technology available today, than to bet on fuels that are not yet economically viable and might never be. Research can and should continue, but we can’t afford to ignore ethanol especially while oil races back toward $100 per barrel.”

Schock pointed me to a study by Sandia National Laboratory that says the U.S. could produce 90 billion gallons of biofuels by 2030. The research assumes corn ethanol would comprise 15 billion gallons of that total, a number fairly close to Tyner’s figure.

But even then, that would only replace about a third of the gasoline we consume.

Photo by nettsu via Creative Commons

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