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Alternative motor fuel being marketed

By Joel Hall

jhall@news-daily.com

This month, the Georgia Environmental Facilities Authority has started offering grants to retail gasoline stations all over the state of Georgia with the aim of increasing the number of stations that offer E85, a cleaner-burning, ethanol fuel with the potential to boost Georgia's economy and decrease the state's dependence on foreign fuel sources.

Through Jan. 4, gas retailers can apply to receive up to $20,000 or 33.3 percent of the total project cost (whichever is less) to install E85 fuel-storage facilities, or convert existing structures to accommodate sales of the gas.

Applications can be downloaded from GEFA's web site, www.gefa.org.

According to Shane Hix, GEFA communications and marketing director, there are currently only five filling stations in the state that sell E85 gas to the public. The Texaco Food Mart at 4495 South Cobb Drive in Smyrna, which began offering E85 gasoline on Nov. 2, is the only station in metro Atlanta that offers the gas.

E85 is more readily available in corn-producing states in the Midwest, as the starch from corn is easily converted into the sugar from which ethanol is derived. However, E85 can also be made using cellulose from wood, such as pine, found readily throughout the state of Georgia.

With Georgia possessing more privately owned pine forests than any other state in the country, environmental experts believe the state is sitting on a potential gold mine, if it can make E85 gas more accessible.

"There's an abundance of pine in the state of Georgia, so it makes it attractive to Georgia for ethanol companies to locate here," said Hix. "We want to grow the fuel in the state, convert the fuel in the state, and use the fuel in the state."

Hix said that because corn is also a primary food source, using corn to make ethanol has driven up the price. He said that converting ethanol from pine would benefit Georgians by keeping the prices low and the profits in their pockets.

"People don't eat pine trees, so that is what makes pine the next generation of feed stock for ethanol fuel," said Hix. "As of right now, with gas prices being so high, E85 is cheaper.

If Georgia starts producing more E85 in the state, it will bring down the price, because you won't have all of the transportation costs that are passed on to the consumer."

While pine and other forms of cellulose are more difficult to break down into simple sugars than corn, Georgia is on the cutting edge of having the technology to do so on an economically viable scale, according to Tom Adams, director of the faculty of engineering outreach service at the University of Georgia, and an expert on alternative fuels.

Earlier this month in Soperton, Ga., just between Macon and Savannah, Range Fuels opened its first alternative fuel facility in the state of Georgia. Adams said that while the plant is a demonstration model, it is capable of converting 20 million gallons of ethanol per year from cellulose.

"We should learn a lot from this plant in knowing how ready this technology is," said Adams. "We have a huge potential in this state to produce ethanol. It's in the economic interest of the state of Georgia to produce it. Right now, we are on the verge."

Adams said that ethanol isn't the perfect fuel, in that it has about 65 percent of the power capacity of regular gasoline, due to a lower number of carbon atoms. It is also water soluble, so it cannot be transported in pipelines, which often retain moisture. E85 fuel also can only be used in flex-fuel vehicles, which, at this time, account for fewer than 5 percent of the cars driving on American roads.

However, Adams said that for a few hundred dollars, regular vehicles can be easily modified to use E85. He added that the gas would stimulate the Georgia economy, improve air quality, and reduce the state's dependence on "hostile countries controlling the fuel that we need."

"Some of the NASCAR racing cars use ethanol," said Adams. "You're not going to get as much mileage, but the advantage is that it is going to burn more efficiently. You are going to get more bang for your buck.

"[E85 is] less expensive at the moment, and it's made right here at home," said Adams. "We are paying our own people to make this fuel. Why should you be paying people that are holding a gun to your head."

Mike Thornbrugh, manager of public and government affairs for QuikTrip Convenience Stores, said that currently, the company does not have any gas stations that offer E85, but was waiting for the market demand to increase before making the changes.

"It's something that's under constant discussion, because we know alternative fuels are coming and we feel that is a good thing," said Thornbrugh. "Right now, the demand isn't there ... there's not enough [flex-fuel] vehicles on the market."

However, "technology is a wonderful thing," Thornbrugh continued. He believes increasing the availability of E85 and the number of flex-fuel vehicles on Georgia roads is "a step in the right direction."

For more information about E85 grants, go to www.gefa.org.