– Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Motorcycle News, Editorials, Product Reviews and Bike Reviews

Will the Bike of the Future Run on Ethanol?

In the last few months, it seems that the simple acronym ‘E85’ has been on everyone’s lips. A year ago, few people outside the automobile, farming and fuel industries knew what E85 was – but all that changed when President Bush made ‘Alternative Fuels’ a centerpoint of his State of the Union address.

What is E85? It’s a fuel consisting of 85% ethanol and 15% regular gasoline. Since ethanol can be (and is) produced from domestically grown grain and other domestic products (wood waste, brewery waste, and more), many are touting it as the solution to America’s dependence on foreign oil.

Although America is years away from producing enough ethanol to convert entirely to E85 (according to an article in USA Today, Americans used 140 billion gallons of gasoline last year, while we produced only 4 billion gallons of ethanol), the recent public attention brought to the subject makes it an opportune time to discuss the application of E85 as a motorcycle fuel.

The first question that came to my mind was ‘how much power can it make?’. This doesn’t seem to be that important to most ethanol proponents, judging from the difficulty I had digging up the info, but the news turns out to be good. Most vehicles currently running on E85 are ‘Flexible Fuel Vehicles’ (FFVs), which are tuned specifically for gasoline but capable of running on E85 at a lower power level. BUT, according to a GM engineer (quoted in the same USA Today article I linked previously), an engine designed to run strictly on E85 could make around 2% more power than it’s gasoline-powered equivalent (probably because E85 has an Octane rating of 105, allowing higher compression ratios). Not much, but at least it’s not going to take power away.

E85 also produces remarkably lower emissions, and is produced by a much more energy-efficient process than gasoline.

The bad news? Ethanol contains about a third less energy than an equivalent amount of gasoline, meaning an E85-powered vehicle has to fill up about 1.4 times more frequently than a gasoline-powered vehicle. This isn’t that big of a deal for cars – it would be easy to design a 1.4x larger fuel tank into a vehicle as large as an automobile. Motorcycles, however, are a different story – especially size- and weight-conscious segments like sportbikes. This could be a big sticking point for motorcycle use – do you want to fill up 1.4x more often (most modern bikes already have relatively poor range), or carry around 1.4x more weight when your tank is full? I know I don’t.

The future of E85 use in the U.S. remains to be seen, but at this point it is probably much farther along than any other alternative-fuel solutions (many gas stations in the American Midwest already sell E85, and most major auto manufacturers are already producing FFVs). I think it is entirely possible that in 20 years, we will all be filling up with E85 when we head out for a long ride.

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