I found your very recent article on alternative fuels, especially its emphasis on ethanol-based E-85 to be quite informative. While I don't personally believe that E-85 or ethanol, in general, is some sort of be-all end-all as alternatives go, the fact of the issue is quite simple that the potential for ethanol-based alterative fuels, such as E-85, have much more potential. There needs to be much more research here, both privately industry funded and federally funded to really expand the scope of ethanol production and to radically diversify the sources from which we derive and otherwise obtain ethanol.
We need to expand E-85 availability to many more filling stations, and we also should be doing a very close study of the ethanol production system they're using in Brazil, which is becoming a worldwide model for such a system. Here's a little known fact: Brazil is the world's largest producer of sugar cane, and they can closely match sugar varieties to soil conditions to optimize ethanol yield.
All of this research has paid off handsomely for Brazilians. When they started their ethanol fuel program in the 1970s, they were extracting about 2,000 liters of fuel-grade ethanol per hectare. Today, they have tripled that yield to 6,000 liters per hectare.
The Saab bio-power system is also very, very impressive, and its advanced next generation system of fuel sensors allows a turbocharger system to go through the engine's CPU to self-calibrate what fuel is actually in the fuel line. This means the engine loses no efficiency and can actually effectively use the 105 octane of the E-85 fuel, successfully.
But, there is one reason why something like a bio-power-inspired system couldn't be used here. For one, GM has tremendous production experience building mechanically supercharged engines, specifically the GM 3800 series II and III V-6 engine. One scenario would have a flex-fuel engine, such as the GM 5300 V-8 engine used in a number of light trucks, equipped with a small computer-controlled belt-driven supercharger like the system on the 3800-series engines. The idea would be very simple; the supercharger wouldn't operate all the time. It would have a clutch system, and the supercharger would cut in only when E-85 fuel is available. The system would only produce 3 to 5 pounds of boost. This would permit the engine to have fully optimized operation for E-85 and keep the fuel mileage as high as possible. The effect would be the same as the Saab bio-power engine.
There's no doubt that with a concentrated effort this country can do much more as far as ethanol production and utilization goes. The Big Three are very well familiar with flexible fuel systems technology, so this isn't a big issue. It wouldn't be a total answer to the energy issue, but it would help a whole lot and that's what really counts.
B.P., you bring up some good points. Our story on E-85 has prompted many other folks to ask the same questions as well. Every other news piece on this fuel seems to say the same thing: E-85 isn't the answer to our oil-consumption woes and that our trucks will actually get worse fuel economy than on regular unleaded gas. It makes us wonder why our test truck worked so well on the stuff. Could it be that all these other news outlets are merely regurgitating old information and not running any tests themselves? Nah, couldn't be.