Special Report

Archer Daniels Meltdown

Ethanol is hot, in more ways than we ever thought.

By 3.2.08

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You may have read about the high energy inputs necessary to squeeze corn and other materials and brew the mash into alcohol for biofuels; that it takes more energy to make the stuff than you end up with; and that the energy it takes to make it is mostly generated by burning petroleum.

And you've probably heard about the way increasing demand for alcohol fuels like E85 is driving up the cost of food. More and more land and crops formerly devoted to production of stuff to fill our gullets is turned over to production of stuff to fill our tanks, all to line the pockets of politically connected agri-business combines like Archer Daniels Midland.

But here's a new one for you: Alcohol fuels may constitute a new type of fire hazard because they are harder to extinguish than gasoline fires and require new types of fire-extinguishing equipment and training.

The problem is especially acute when a railroad tanker carrying pure alcohol is involved. The foam flame suppressants currently in use are reportedly ineffective; the fires just burn through. According to news accounts, many fire departments are either not trained to fight these alcohol fires, or inadequately equipped to do so.

Think about race cars that run on alcohol fuels. The fires are extremely hot, and the flames invisible. Special means are necessary trackside to deal with it.

UNFORTUNATELY, THESE special means are not widely available outside of racing circles, mainly, because no one thought much about it during the frenzy to push "renewable" and "alternative" fuels into widespread circulation.

Naturally, these special means cost more. Foams designed to combat alcohol fires are made using specific polymers that can smother the flames of an ethanol fire but carry a price tag about 30 percent higher than conventional flame suppressing foams. That means your local fire department has a new line item on the budget.

Where will the money come from to provide the new flame-fighting products, equipment and training that will be necessary if we don't want to burn to death in an E85 auto da fe?

Nationwide, the cost we'll soon be facing to deal with all of this could end up being in the millions. These funds will have to come from the usual sources of "revenue" -- real estate assessments, state and local income taxes, etc.

Just what we needed as a recession gathers steam, eh?

THIS IS AN ISSUE not just for first responders like the fire trucks and emergency vehicles that get to accident scenes. Home fire extinguishers -- the kind many of us keep in the garage or in our vehicles for "just in case" -- may not be adequate to deal with alcohol fuel fires.

Meanwhile, ethanol production is ramping up rapidly as both perceived need and federal/state policies stimulate demand for it. The major automakers -- GM, Ford, Chrysler, Toyota and so on -- already sell dozens of "E85 compatible" vehicles and the E85 fuel itself is becoming commonly available all across the country.

Within another year or so, most of us will be burning at least some ethanol on a regular basis. It's possible we'll be using it in amounts and concentrations no one could have foreseen even five years ago. All it will take is $4 per gallon for "straight" gasoline -- which we could easily be facing as soon as this summer.

But we'd better be ready for the consequences, including fires that will be hard and expensive to control.

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About the Author

Eric Peters is an automotive columnist and author of Automotive Atrocities: The Cars You Love to Hate (Motor Books International) and a new book, Road Hogs.