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A Student's Guide to Alternative Fuel Vehicles

The Alcohols - Ethanol and Methanol

Alcohols have been popular alternative fuels for many years. In fact, Henry Ford's first car was fueled with alcohol. Both ethanol and methanol are now used as transportation fuels and will likely play an increasingly important role in the future.


Alcohol and Driving Never Mix, Right? Well...

Drivers that consume alcohol can get into a lot of trouble. But what if the car is the one consuming the alcohol? Huh? That's right. Ethanol (sometimes called grain alcohol) is generally made in the United States from corn (a grain). It can also be made from biomass (a fancy name for organic materials), which includes agricultural crops and waste (like rice straw), plant material left from logging, and trash including cellulose (paper). Brazil, which is by far the largest producer in the world, makes ethanol from sugar cane. Projects are now underway in California to convert some of the state's agricultural waste, like rice straw that is now burned in fields, into ethanol.

The alcohol found in alcoholic beverages is ethanol. However, the ethanol used for motor fuel is denatured, which means poison has been added so people can't drink it. Never swallow any type of motor fuel.


Methanol (sometimes called wood alcohol) can be made from various biomass resources like wood), as well as from coal. However, today nearly all methanol is made from natural gas, because it is cheaper.

Methanol is also very poisonous and very harmful if swallowed. Methanol must not be confused with ethanol. As with gasoline, it is also wise to avoid skin contact with methanol, as it can pass through the skin.

Alcohol-fueled vehicles

Race Cars Corvette Pace Race Car
Since the 1960s, methanol has been the required fuel for the Indianapolis 500 and other types of racing. The reason for this is that methanol is made of a single chemical. Gasoline, on the other hand, contains many different chemicals, and can vary greatly from one batch to another.

Methanol is safer in case of accidental fire than gasoline, because it burns cooler. One problem is that the flame from a methanol fire is difficult to see in bright sunlight. Sometimes accidental fires are not detected immediately, because the fire is hard to see. Methanol contains about half the energy of gasoline per gallon. Lower energy per gallon means fewer miles per gallon of fuel, not less power. The decrease in range with methanol is not a problem for racing cars though, since all of the cars are using exactly the same fuel.

Flexible fuel vehicles
Flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) are specially designed vehicles that can operate on alcohol, gasoline or any combination of the two. FFVs have become quite popular with California fleets. Although some vehicles run on pure alcohol, FFVs operate on alcohol blends for two main reasons. Adding a small amount of gasoline improves the engine starting in cold weather and improves flame visibility in daylight. Pure alcohols burn with a nearly invisible flame in daylight. By adding gasoline, the flame is easier to see and therefore safer.

Ford Taurus FFV - E85

The alcohols used in FFVs are E85 (85 percent ethanol with 15 percent gasoline, like in the Ford Taurus pictured on the right) or M85 (85 percent methanol and 15 percent gasoline). FFVs are specially designed to tolerate the corrosive nature of alcohols. Because the number of ethanol and methanol stations in California is very limited now, FFVs can run on gasoline when needed.

The amount of energy in alcohol fuels is different than gasoline. A gallon of gasoline in California contains approximately 111,500 Btu (which stands for British thermal units). By comparison, M85 contains approximately 65,000 Btu/gallon and E85 contains approximately 81,000 Btu/gallon. The lower energy content of these fuels will result in fewer miles per gallon or a shorter driving range. Still, with larger fuel tanks, FFVs often have driving ranges equivalent to conventional gasoline cars. Currently, the Ford Ranger ethanol FFV, beginning with the 1999 model, is the only vehicle available in the U.S. that can run on an alcohol fuel.

Fuel cell cars
Some experts feel that methanol may be a good fuel for fuel cell cars. See the discussion on this in the fuel cell vehicles section below.

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Page updated: April 22, 2002
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