|Ethanol fuels a heated debate Australia could be left far behind in a bio-fuel revolution.|
31 March 2006
Australia could be left far behind in a bio-fuel revolution.
A surge in the use of clean-burning ethanol in the United States and Brazil has led the ethanol push.
Ethanol can be made from wheat, sugar cane and corn.
Carmakers in the US and Brazil have built vehicles that safely run on ethanol or petrol, the car's engine automatically adapting to the fuel mix.
General Motors will build 400,000 vehicles in the US this year that can run on E85, a fuel that is 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent petrol. Several brands in Brazil sell models that can run on 100 per cent ethanol.
At present, petrol retailers in Australia are allowed to sell fuel with a maximum content of 10 per cent ethanol which is generally cheaper than petrol.
Ten per cent is the maximum ethanol content that most new cars sold here can run on with no risk of mechanical problems.
Most older models can't run on fuel containing ethanol because it can damage some of the non-metal engine components.
Cars with Flex engines in the US and Brazil have upgraded fuel lines and injectors, special sensors and a new engine control unit to monitor and adapt to the mix of petrol and ethanol being used.
The US government is pushing ethanol use because it is renewable, reduces the country's reliance on the Middle East for oil and creates a viable industry for its corn farmers.
Australia is in no place to take advantage of the green fuels, for several reasons.
Only three ethanol factories operate in Australia. Several more would be needed to meet increased demand.
Ethanol suppliers claim big oil retailers are reluctant to include 10 per cent of ethanol in their petrol, despite strong encouragement from the Federal Government, let alone offer fuel mixes of 85 per cent ethanol in the future.
The lobby group representing the car companies in Australia, the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries, dismisses the push for ethanol as hysteria and says hybrid engines are a better option.
"We need to be clear about the hysteria going on in the US and other places — ethanol is not the solution," FCAI chief executive Peter Sturrock says.
There is also debate about the advantages of ethanol fuel. Ethanol is a cleaner-burning fuel than petrol, releasing fewer greenhouse gasses, but critics claim the ethanol production process creates emissions and other environmental problems, such as sugar cane run-off damaging the Great Barrier Reef.
Ethanol backers say far worse pollution is emitted in the production process of petrol.
Whatever the environmental benefit, ethanol is good news for Australian wheat farmers and cane farmers, giving them extra work. Queensland premier Peter Beattie is going in to bat for farmers in his state by pushing ethanol as an affordable green fuel which, unlike petrol, is renewable.
"It's about people being able to get reasonably priced fuel. It's a fact the car industry has to accept," Beattie says.
"The truth is that the world cannot rely on oil indefinitely."
GreenFleet Australia chief executive Henry O'Cleary is a supporter of green fuels as an additive, but doesn't believe ethanol will be used in large volumes here.
"I think the way we will go is to use 10 per cent bio-fuels used as an (fuel) extender," O'Cleary says.
He says making a large proportion of our fuel from sugar and wheat could have follow-on effects, such as raising the prices of both.
"It raises a lot of questions like whether or not we should use our arable land to feed people or to fuel our cars."
The executive director of Renewable Fuels Australia, Bob Gordon, says the ethanol benefits are clear.
"The scientific evidence from government laboratories in the US and elsewhere shows ethanol and biodiesel offer a substantial reduction in greenhouse emissions and exhaust emissions, both of which represent a significant health risk," Gordon says.
"Ethanol is cheaper to produce and it's renewable. You use oil and it's gone."
GM Holden president Denny Mooney is optimistic ethanol could be a fuel of the future. His company builds Commodores for export to Brazil that can use up to 25 per cent ethanol, and he says producing a Flex-engined car would not cost too much.
He says the Government and investors would need to ensure there was a good supply of ethanol and that the demand was there.
"If they say they want bio-fuel, we can do it. We know how to do it," Mooney says.
"I think ethanol is a great alternative. It all depends on how it is made, but it can have the big advantage of being commercially viable. Then there are the environmental benefits."
He says ethanol could gain further momentum in Australia if petrol prices were to rise.
"If oil goes above $US70 a barrel you will find a lot of entrepreneurs will be prepared to invest in its production."
He says the ethanol industry in the US gained a lot of momentum because the government rewarded car companies with tax credits for producing the green cars. There is no such break for ethanol Flex vehicles in Australia.
WHAT IS ETHANOL?
Ethanol is a flammable alcohol that can be made from crops such as sugar cane, wheat and corn.
About 90 per cent of Australia's ethanol is produced from wheat. The rest is from sugar cane.
It works in a similar way to petrol in regular combustion engines, but is cleaner burning.
Carmakers in the US and South America build cars that can run on 100 per cent ethanol, or a mix of petrol and ethanol. These are known as flex, or flexible-fuel, vehicles.
The engines have special fuel lines and fuel injectors to protect against corrosion of non-metallic parts and a special engine control unit.
Some Australian fuel companies now sell petrol containing 10 per cent ethanol.
Almost all new cars can safely run on a 10 per cent ethanol blended fuel, but many older cars are unsuitable. Check with your carmaker before using blended fuel.
Petrol retailers must label petrol that contains ethanol.
Ethanol is most popular in Brazil and is gaining momentum in the US.
An ethanol-powered GM pickup is used as a pace car in the Craftsman Truck oval racing series.
THE PROS AND CONS
Produces fewer greenhouse gases than petrol
Improves the power and torque of the engine
Reduces the reliance on unstable countries for imported oil
Supports crop farmers
Generally cheaper to produce
Reduced fuel economy by about 25 per cent
Added cost for car companies to alter the engines
Impact on environment during ethanol production
Not suitable for older vehicles. New cars currently can use only 10 per cent blend