Flex Fuel Vehicles For Cleaner Environment

Flex Fuel vehicles constitute one of the options that can reduce our dependence on gasoline, and help the world in dealing more firmly with the OPEC controlled price of crude and gas, which have been spiralling upwards almost without any breaks during the last couple of years.
Flex Fuel Vehicles for Cleaner Environment
Source - Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AHyundai_ix35_flex_11_2015_871.JPG)

Flex Fuel Vehicles

Flex fuels or flexible fuel vehicles (FFVs) are automobiles with a multi-fuel engine that can use different fuels. The term 'flex fuel' vehicle is commonly used for those vehicles that are adapted for use of varying mixtures of ethanol and gasoline, in addition to gasoline.

Another category of vehicles using multiple fuels are those that are adapted to use gasoline or compressed natural gas as fuel, in addition to gasoline. Because such vehicles use different storage tanks for the different fuels that they use, they are also referred sometimes as 'Dual fuel vehicles.'

The adaptation for converting a usual gasoline

vehicle in to a flex fuel vehicle does not cost too much. The approximate cost is $ 100 for a newer vehicle and about three times that for an older one.

History of Flex Fuels

Even though the flex fuel vehicle is said to have been used as early as in 1908, the concept of flex fuel vehicles first gained currency after the oil shocks of the seventies that rocked the global economy. It led to the realization of depleting oil stocks, and research was accelerated to find alternative fuels as well as vehicles capable of using them.

Brazil is one country which continued with vigorous policies to promote flex fuels even in the 1980s, in spite of the receding oil prices at a time when most efforts to develop alternate fuels were put on a back burner. During the eighties, Brazil's bio fuel economy took a major leap in the form of introduction of vehicles run on ethanol. In late nineties, when the gasoline prices hit a rock bottom, there was demand for vehicles that could be run either on gasoline or on ethanol based fuel like E85 (85% ethanol with rest gasoline). Soon, the flex-fuel vehicles were introduced.

In the United States too, ethanol produced from corn had made it the world's largest producer of fuel ethanol. Simultaneously, the demand for flex vehicles has also risen, but ethanol based fuels like E85 are still not universally available in the whole country.

Vehicles involving option of using compressed natural gas (CNG) have become popular in the whole world, and they provide a cleaner and less polluting fuel option compared to gasoline. However, CNG is a petroleum product, and though it is more widely produced than oil, it does not make us free from the monopoly that the oil cartel of OPEC has imposed on the world, nor is it free from the basic problems common to all fossil fuels.

Role of OPEC in Rising Oil Prices

In free market, price of a commodity is governed by demand and supply. So, when the price of a commodity rises relative to its cost, more suppliers produce it, and the higher supplies bring down the price. However, if the major suppliers of a product (like oil) make a cartel and are able to ensure that supplies are static while the world demand is increasing every day, then the demand - supply mismatch leads to skyrocketing of prices.

This is exactly what is happening in case of oil.

OPEC sits over most of global oil reserves, and refuses to increase supply even while the global demand continues to rise, thanks to booming global economy during the last few years, and the rising consumption in emerging countries like China and India.

Flex Fuel as a Counter to OPEC Monopoly on Oil


fuel vehicles that allow using ethanol based fuels like E85 allow the consumers a readily available option of shifting to alternative fuels, if the gas prices rise too high. In the current scenario, wherein gas prices are predicted to move towards the $ 7 mark, it is likely that more and more consumers may find it cheaper to shift to ethanol as fuel. If that happens, the demand for gas will fall, and that can bring the oil prices down, thereby saving the global economy from another oil shock.

The million dollar question is, "whether sufficient ethanol can be produced at an economically competitive cost to replace oil ?"

While Brazil produces ethanol from sugarcane, United States used corn for the same purpose, and this diversion of corn to ethanol production, which is only half as efficient as sugarcane based production, has been blamed as responsible for global food grain price hike.

More importantly, the total global ethanol production today is miniscule compared to the total gasoline consumption. To be able to significantly bring down the demand for oil, it will need to be raised multi fold. Neither sugarcane nor food grains are available in sufficient quantities for production of ethanol in adequate quantities that could make a dent in gasoline market.

Yet, the mere presence of an option can sometimes be a deterrent to monopolistic price escalation. It is yet to be seen whether flex fuels will be able to be effective in that role.

Promise of Future : Cellulosic Ethanol Production

Recent research has raised promise of developing economical and technologically feasible methods of producing ethanol from cellulose, the main component of wood and plant tissue, which is naturally available in abundance. If that is achieved, it may become possible to produce ethanol or another alternative fuel in adequate quantities to serve as a replacement of gas.

In that case, flex-fuel will serve as the answer of the gas consuming world to the cartel of OPEC, and its monopolistic manipulation of oil prices.

Till that happens, flex fuel vehicles and ethanol-gasoline mixtures will make an important contribution, by raising consciousness that a substitute of gasoline is possible. In case other countries of the world are able to find new and commercially more efficient ways of producing ethanol, like making it from molasses - a by product of sugar industry, the ethanol production may rise further, and help in making flex fuel vehicles more popular.

Other alternative fuels like bio-diesels are also being experimented with across the globe in a big way, as is methanol production from waste and garbage.

All these alternative fuels, with multiple-option flex fuel vehicles can pave the way for creating alternatives to gas, something that is essential for breaking the monopoly of oil producers’ cartel. However, till a major break-through like cellulosic ethanol is achieved, the net impact may not be enough to break the monopoly of OPEC on fuel prices.

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