Energy futuresU.S. lacks infrastructure to increase use of ethanol fuel

Published 17 January 2011

Scientists at Purdue University say the United States lacks the infrastructure to meet the federal Renewable Fuel Standard with ethanol; researchers say the United States has hit the “blending wall” and lacks the ability to consume more ethanol than what is currently produced; less than 3 percent of vehicles on the road are equipped to handle ethanol fuels and there are only 2,000 pumps; the federal Renewable Fuel Standard requires nearly three times as much renewable fuel to be produced per year by 2022

Ethanol distribution hits the "blending wall" // Source:

According to a recent study by scientists at Purdue University, the United States lacks the infrastructure to meet its federal Renewable Fuel Standard with ethanol.

Reaching the federally required standard will require the use of next generation bio-fuels and cellulosic fuels.

You can’t get there with ethanol,” said Wally Tyner, the James and Lois Ackerman Professor of Agricultural Economics at Purdue University and co-author of the recent study. Under the federal Renewable Fuel Standard, renewable fuel production must increase to thirty-six billion gallons per year by 2022. The mandate required thirteen billion gallons of renewable fuel to be produced in 2010, which is what researchers believe is the threshold for U.S. infrastructure and consumption for ethanol.

The United States has hit the “blending wall,” or saturation point for ethanol use. To increase ethanol consumption beyond what is already being produced, new technology must be introduced or there must be a significant increase in infrastructure.

According to Tyner, there are not enough vehicles that can use E85,a fuel with an 85 percent blend of ethanol, let alone stations to distribute it.

Currently, flex-fuel vehicles account for only 7.3 million of the 240 million vehicles in the United States and there are only 2,000 E85 fuel pumps which took over twenty years to install.

Tyner believes it is unlikely that the United States will see a rapid increase in the number of E85 fuel pumps.

Even if you could produce a whole bunch of E85, there is no way to distribute it,” Tyner said. “We would need to install about 2,000 pumps per year through 2022 to do it. You’re not going to go from 100 per year to 2,000 per year overnight. It’s just not going to happen.”

Another major impediment to increased ethanol consumption is cost. E85 would have to be made significantly cheaper because it produces less miles per gallon than gasoline. Tyner estimates that if gasoline was $3 a gallon, E85 would have to be $2.34.

It is estimated that only about three million owners of flex-fuel vehicles are aware that they can use E85.

Tyner is more optimistic about breakthroughs in the production of thermo-chemical biofuels. These alternative fuels are created by chemically altering biomass using heat.

He believes that these would enable the United States to meet the Renewable Fuel Standard as it avoids the infrastructure problem and allows for unlimited blending.