June 24, 2008
By Allen Madding
With crude oil prices being pushed through the ceiling due to the sinking dollar value on foreign markets, many have questioned why the United States continues to rely on foreign oil. The United States does not produce enough crude oil through its domestic drilling operations to support the current demand. One alternative is ethanol.
Ethanol, which can be manufactured from a variety of homegrown grains, is biodegradable, renewable, and ecologically friendly making it a strong conversation point as an alternative fuel. General Motors and Ford have taken a big step forward producing “flex fuel” vehicles, which can operate on E85 (85% ethanol and 15% gasoline). According to the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition, E85 reduces greenhouse gas emissions such as carbon monoxide by as much as 39 to 46 percent, compared to gasoline.
Unfortunately, there are only 1,200 gas stations in the United States currently offering E85.
Some have claimed that if the United States were to move to E85, that there would be food shortages because crops such as corn would be used to produce ethanol. The fact of the matter is that for years farmers have been forced out of farming, have been strangled with crop limits, and paid not to farm portions of their land in the United States.
If the demand for corn increased to produce ethanol, there is plenty of farmland lying idle that could be put to use. The U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Energy conducted a study on the impact of ethanol production on food and fuel markets. Their examination showed that in 2007, ethanol and biodiesel consumption contributed only 3-4% of the increase in food prices. Their report also indicated that without the United States blending ethanol into gasoline, gas prices would have been 20 to 35 cents per gallon higher.
The Indy Car Series recognized the value of ethanol as an alternative fuel and began a switch to it as the fuel for their racecars. In 2006, the Indy Car Series moved to a 10 percent ethanol, 90 percent blended fuel. In 2007, the Indy Car Series moved to 100 percent ethanol. The Indy Car Series uses pace cars operating on ethanol as well. The series consumes approximately 160,000 gallons of fuel in a 14-event racing season.
General Motors has strongly lobbied NASCAR to join the move to reducing the dependence on the 4.6 billion gallon annual production of gasoline but to no avail. The question is why would NASCAR not want to make the move?
Gasoline marketed for street use in passenger vehicles ranges from 89 to 95 octane. Higher compression engines require higher octane fuel to prevent detonation or “pinging”. Turbocharged or Supercharged automobiles typically require 92 or higher octane fuel. Racecars typically utilize engines with reduced piston to deck clearance and smaller combustion chambers in the cylinder heads to produce higher compression and higher horsepower. These high compression engines typically require 104 to 110 octane fuels. Pure ethanol produced from plant sources like corn, wheat and sugarcane has an octane rating of 113, which would seem to be a great fit for use in racing.
But, bear in mind that your passenger car has been required to run on unleaded gasoline for over 25 years, and NASCAR did not make the move to unleaded racing fuel until the 2008 season. It is time for NASCAR to commit to being a leader in moving away from a dependency on foreign crude oil and make the move they should have considered in 2006.
Gary Nelson and his team at the NASCAR testing facility in Mooresville, North Carolina need to be testing current engine configurations with 100% ethanol and begin working with General Motors to move to domestic produced fuels. All of NASCAR’s support vehicles should be operating on E85 fuel as well. Will the change come soon or will NASCAR wait for 25 years on this one too?
The thoughts and ideas expressed by this writer or any other writer on Insider Racing News, are not necessarily the views of the staff and/or management of IRN.