LINCOLN — Nebraska literally put the rubber to the road more than 40 years ago to give ethanol a shot of much-needed street cred.
It was called the “Nebraska 2 Million Mile Gasohol Road Test Program.” It began on Dec. 23, 1974, when a roads department supervisor filled his state-owned Dodge Coronet with 17.1 gallons of gasoline blended with 10 percent corn-derived ethanol.
The program was overseen by William Scheller, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln credited with a number of ethanol-related inventions. Scheller, who coined the term “gasohol,” was determined to disprove the skeptics and critics who said blending alcohol with gasoline was bad for motors.
By the time that Coronet and other state vehicles logged their 2 millionth mile powered by gasohol, Nebraska had proven the fuel was viable. Before Scheller died in 1997, he saw the ethanol industry boom in Nebraska and other farm-belt states along with the proliferation of E-10, even if his catchy name for the fuel was left by the wayside.
Now Nebraska is gearing up to do it again.
Except this time, the state hopes to promote fuels with higher percentages of ethanol. And just like in the 1970s, corn-fuel remains controversial.
Gov. Pete Ricketts announced last week that he’s offering 50 state vehicles for a new pilot project to run on gasoline containing either 30 percent or 15 percent ethanol. But instead of cars and trucks with the flex-fuel technology that accommodates higher concentrations of ethanol, the state vehicles in the project are all equipped with conventional engines.
The Nebraska experiment comes at a time when most major auto manufacturers have recently rated their new models as E-15 compatible. None have given the OK to run E-30 fuel in their standard production engines and fuel systems.
So it looks like the new Nebraska ethanol test could either be a myth-buster or a warranty-buster.
To find out, engineering consultants from UNL will help scientifically measure the effects of the higher ethanol blends. They will measure fuel cost per mile, engine performance, maintenance and other factors.
Drivers, including a few troopers with the Nebraska State Patrol, are to note anything unusual or concerning about vehicle performance while behind the wheel. And special logging devices will be hooked to the on-board computers of some of the vehicles to collect additional data.
The intent is to report objective, scientific evidence, regardless of what it reveals, said Hunter Flodman, an assistant professor of practice in the engineering college at UNL. He also serves as technical adviser to the Nebraska Ethanol Board.
“We don’t know for sure what’s going to come out of this study, but the best-case scenario is E-30 is compatible with legacy vehicles,” he said, using the term that refers to autos without flex-fuel systems.
Yet ethanol remains controversial for a host of reasons. Big oil has never liked having to blend ethanol with gasoline. Free-market advocates dislike federal mandates that require the use of minimum volumes of ethanol. And auto manufacturers have long raised concern about what alcohol can do to their vehicles.
When E-15 hit the market in 2012, the Environmental Protection Agency said it was suitable for cars manufactured after 2000. But manufacturers disagreed, and some said use of the new fuel would void warranties.
AAA told its members to follow the recommendations in their vehicle owners manuals and called upon the EPA to halt the sale of E-15.
“AAA did not want motorists to unwittingly use a fuel not recommended for their vehicles and suffer potentially expensive consequences,” said Rose White, spokeswoman for AAA in Nebraska.
Since 2012, many automakers have said E-15 is suitable for new models.
Todd Sneller, former administrator for the Ethanol Board and an adviser on the new pilot project, said he’s confident the state cars and trucks will run just fine on E-15 and E-30. He pointed to a similar road test not long ago in Watertown, South Dakota, where the fuel was used in non-flex fuel vehicles.
Andy Wicks, a mechanic who monitored the performance of vehicles in the Watertown test, said the fuel worked well in cars and trucks as old as 2001. He said there were no mechanical failure or check-engine lights reported during the test, and fuel economy was comparable.
“We haven’t had one direct ethanol problem with any non-flexible vehicles,” he said.
Nonetheless, if damage linked to higher ethanol fuels occurs in any of the state vehicles in the Nebraska road test, the ethanol sponsors have agreed to cover the cost of repairs, Sneller said.
It’s sort of like a backup warranty.