Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media
Credit Grant Gerlock / Harvest Public Media

E85 (85% ethanol, 15% gasoline) is considered an alternative fuel under the Energy Policy Act of 1992 (EPAct). It is used to fuel E85-capable flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs), which are available in a variety of models from U.S. and foreign automakers.

The 15% gasoline content in E85 enables FFVs to operate normally under cold conditions; fueling a vehicle with pure ethanol (E100) creates problems during cold-weather operation. Ethanol can also be mixed with gasoline in lower-level blends, which provide many benefits but are not considered EPAct alternative fuels.

Other than lower gas mileage, motorists will see little difference when using E85 versus gasoline. E85 has about 27% less energy per gallon than gasoline. However, E85 is typically priced lower than gasoline, so that cost per mile is comparable.

FAQs

How is ethanol produced?
The annual production of ethanol in the United States in 2016 was more than 14.9 billion gallons, and more than 90% was made from corn. Corn ethanol is produced using dry mill technology, which is a process that grinds corn into flour and ferments only the starch into ethanol. The remaining components of corn are made into co-products like corn oil and distillers grains, which are used as livestock feed. To learn more about the production process of ethanol, please click here.
What is a FFV?
A flexible fuel vehicle, as it’s name suggests, has the flexibility of running on more than one type of fuel. FFVs can be fueled with unleaded gasoline, E85, or any combination of gasoline and ethanol. Similar to conventional gasoline vehicles, FFVs have a single tank and fuel system. FFVs are available in a wide range of models, which you can find by using the AFDC Alternative Fuel and Advanced Vehicle Search Engine. If you would like to learn more about FFVs, please click here.
How do ethanol greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions compare to gasoline?
When determining a fuel’s GHG impact, one must take into consideration the entire “lifecycle” (which includes every step in the fuel’s production and use) of the fuel. For ethanol, the cycle includes growing the feedstock (usually corn), delivering it to the ethanol plant, and then producing, distributing, and using the fuel in vehicles. For gasoline, the lifecycle steps include crude oil extraction, transportation to a refinery, the oil’s conversion into gasoline, and finally distributing and using the fuel in vehicles.
An analysis conducted by Argonne National Laboratory found that, when entire lifecycles are considered, corn ethanol reduced GHG emissions by 19%-52% when compared to gasoline. The amount reduced depends on the source of thermal energy used to produce the ethanol; the vast majority of ethanol plants use natural gas, which results in a 28% reduction compared to gasoline.
What is cellulosic ethanol?
Cellulosic ethanol is produced from non-food feedstocks such as crop residues, woody biomass, and dedicated energy crops. Both the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) and industry have invested in the research and production of cellulosic ethanol, and it is being sold commercially in small volumes. To learn more, visit the AFDC ethanol feedstocks page.
What are the benefits of using ethanol?
Besides the fact that ethanol is a renewable, domestically produced transportation fuel that reduces petroleum consumption, ethanol has plenty of additional benefits to consider:

  1. Energy security
    • The U.S. depends heavily upon non-domestic petroleum supplies, which puts the nation at risk of trade deficits and supply disruption. However, using ethanol decreases the U.S. dependence on non-domestic products, which helps secure our nation’s energy.
  2. Job impacts
    • Ethanol production creates jobs in rural areas of the country where employment opportunities are desperately needed. According to the Renewable Fuels Association, ethanol production in 2015 led to the addition of nearly 86,000 direct jobs across the country, $44 billion to the gross domestic product, and $24 billion in household income.
  3. Lower emissions
    • The carbon dioxide released by a vehicle fueled by ethanol is offset by the carbon dioxide captured when the feedstock crops are grown to produce ethanol. Since gasoline and diesel are produced from petroleum, these results are unique to ethanol. On a lifecycle analysis basis, GHG emissions are reduced on average by 40% with corn-based ethanol produced from dry mills, and up to 108% if cellulosic feedstocks are used, compared with gasoline and diesel production and use.
  4. Equipment availability
    • FFVs (which can operate on E85, gasoline, or any blend of the two) are available nationwide as standard equipment with no incremental cost, making them an affordable alternative fuel vehicle option.
What financial incentives are there to use ethanol?
The laws and financial incentives vary by state. If you would like to see what your state offers to get you interested in ethanol use, please click here.
Where can I learn more?
You can find plenty of further information on ethanol from any of the following sources:

  1. Alternative Fuels Data Center
    • The AFDC has plenty of useful information concerning, not just ethanol, but all other alternative fuels.
  2. Renewable Fuels Association
    • The RFA created an intensive Pocket Guide to Ethanol, full of the ethanol basics and the information you need to understand the fuel.
  3. U.S. Energy Information Administration
    • The EIA has incredibly detailed information about ethanol, including production reports, descriptive uses, and extensive FAQs.

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