AS THE price of gasoline hovers near $3 a gallon, alternative fuels like ethanol are getting inquisitive attention from motorists trying to save a few bucks on a fill-up.
All gasoline-powered cars and trucks now sold in the United States run just fine on a fuel mixture that contains up to 10 percent ethanol, which is routinely sold without any fanfare by most filling stations. A few vehicles, but still just a fraction, will work properly on an 85 percent ethanol-15 percent gasoline blend known as E85.
Every time a filling station adds an E85 pump, it's an event, mainly because there are so few of them. In Ohio, the only retail ethanol sellers are the Sterling store on West Alexis Road in Toledo and a Marathon station in St. Marys. In Michigan, only four stations are listed on the web site of the National Ethanol Vehicle Coalition.
Despite the limited number of dealers so far, the use of ethanol is an encouraging trend in a society that must import well over half of its petroleum needs just to keep the machinery of its expansive, transportation-dependent economy well oiled.
Ethanol, which can be made from farm-grown corn or even certain crop waste, is among the category of internal-combustion propellants known as biofuels. Another is the "biodiesel" fuel made from soybeans that smells like french fries when it powers diesel cars.
The importance of biofuels is not only that they reduce the need for gasoline refined from oil but that they produce less air pollution than hydrocarbon fuel.
Ethanol, for example, raises the oxygen level of gasoline, making it burn cleaner. Backers of E85 say it has the highest oxygen content of any transportation fuel today, and cuts greenhouse-gas emissions from tailpipes by 39 percent to 46 percent compared to gasoline.
And it's cheaper, too, by about 40 cents a gallon.
For every upside, there's a downside, however. Some of ethanol's price advantage is offset by the fact that vehicles using it tend to get worse gas mileage.
In addition, environmentalists point out that ethanol made from corn isn't as "green" a fuel as it could be. This is true because it's the product of an agricultural process that expends large amounts of energy and incurs fertilizer pollution and soil erosion.
This issue may become less contentious as scientists develop biofuels made from municipal waste and other types of "biomass."
The upside is that such fuels are renewable and don't depend on exploration abroad or in environmentally sensitive areas, like the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. In the long run, their most important attribute may be that they free the American people from being held hostage to the international oil cartel.