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Time to take another look at ethanol

Time to take another look at ethanol

IndyCar officials support the use of this fuel in their high-performance cars

By Owen Roberts

Ontario mandates that all fuel refiners and suppliers maintain an average of 5 per cent ethanol in their fuel pool. That figure pales in comparison to the United States, where gas stations like Speedway offer what’s called E85, a blend of almost 85 per cent ethanol and 15 per cent gas.

The ag industry is seeking more places to fit into the circular economy, where the drive towards sustainability is paramount and waste is to be kept to a minimum. Ethanol fits that scenario much better than gasoline. So maybe we should be taking another look at ethanol from a sustainability perspective.

Critics say we should make more of a commitment to other forms of transportation besides automobiles and they’re right about that argument. But the transition towards alternatives to gas-powered engines will take time.

A rap against ethanol is that it can be hard on an engine’s rubber parts, such as seals. Another minus is that corn availability rises and falls with the market, and that the price of corn varies.  A low supply of corn with high prices can make the cost of producing and buying ethanol uncompetitive against petroleum. 

Other critics say ethanol doesn’t perform as well as gasoline.

But that’s not what some racecar drivers think.

Recently, I had a chance to ask some IndyCar officials about ethanol at the Honda Indy Streets of Toronto race.

They know their fuel. The tiniest tweak to an ethanol-burning Indy car, one of auto racing’s most exquisite examples of finely tuned technology, can have a huge effect on performance.

Racing crews spend untold resources seeking an edge in the likes of body design, engine calibration and braking systems. The crews aim to knock as little as a fraction of a second off a lap. Even that fleeting moment in time can make the difference between a coveted checked flag and all the trimmings that go with it, and running behind with the rest of the pack.

All the cars on the IndyCar circuit run an E85 mix, which consists of 83 per cent corn-based ethanol, 15 per cent extra high-octane carbon-based gasoline and 2 per cent denatured alcohol. This fuel is the lifeblood of the cars’ 550- to 700-horsepower engines. At 12,000 rpm, IndyCar fuel needs to deliver. And E85 does it.

The IndyCar organization made a corporate decision in the fall to change the supplier of its fuel, switching from its age-old fuel supplier relationship with racing stalwart Sunoco and taking on Speedway LLC, owned by oil giant Marathon Petroleum Corp.

Marathon had no experience with IndyCar fuel and that fact raised eyebrows among the sector’s entire value chain.

But just past the halfway mark in this year’s 17-race season, it looks like all systems are go.

“It’s performing very well; it burns clean. There’s been no hiccups,” driver Graham Rahal told me in the paddock in the Enercare Centre (where you’d normally find the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in November) before qualifying for the race. “I was always a Sunoco guy but I haven’t noticed any difference in fuel.”

So, if professional drivers trust ethanol under some very tough conditions, and millions of American commuters see no problem with it, perhaps Canada, with our circular economy imperative, should take another look at expanding the use of ethanol.


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