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GM Reaffirms Commitment to Biofuels, Calls for Ongoing Commercialization and Infrastructure Support

The energy storage density of liquid fuels far exceeds that of batteries and hydrogen. Source: GM. Click to enlarge.

In a keynote presentation at the Renewable Fuel Association’s 15th Annual National Ethanol Conference, GM Vice Chairman Tom Stephens reaffirmed the company’s commitment to biofuels, asserting GM continue to believes that they are the best near-term solution to displace petroleum and to reduce the carbon footprint of driving.

While electricity and hydrogen have the potential to be important transportation fuels, and while their use will grow as advanced lithium-ion battery and fuel cell technology become more capable and affordable than they are today, Stephens said that for the foreseeable future, GM sees liquid fuels as the primary vehicle energy carriers for automobiles, based on the energy storage density of the different options.

While improvements in batteries are expected, they still have a 100x lower energy density than liquid fuels. “So, today, liquid fuels are where consumers currently get the most bang for their buck,” Stephens said.

“We’re really excited about the complementary nature of biofuel and electric propulsion.”
—Tom Stephens

GM continues to work to expand its flex-fuel portfolio, and has committed that more than 50% of its production by 2012 will be flex-fuel capable. The company will begin introducing E-85-capable direct-injected and turbocharged powertrains. GM also plans to make the Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric vehicle flex-fuel-capable about a year or so after it’s introduced.

GM, which has made investments in cellulosic ethanol producers Coskata and Mascoma, is supporting the development of third-generation renewable gasoline and diesel (i.e., drop-in bio-hydrocarbon fuels), but believes that work needs to be done in parallel with ongoing support for first- and second-generation biofuels, Stephens said.

The current misalignment of vehicles and infrastructure. The largest concentrations of flex-fuel vehicles are in the highest-population areas shown in green, while 66% of E85 stations are in the 10 states, shaded in yellow, representing 19% of flex-fuel vehicles. Source: GM. Click to enlarge.

Initiatives to expand the infrastructure for flex-fuel vehicles are extremely important, Stephens said, and that the additional pumps need to be put where the vehicles are located. While the largest concentrations of flex-fuel vehicles are found in the highest-population areas, two thirds of the current E85 stations, are in 10 Midwestern states. Ninety percent of registered flex-fuel vehicles don’t have an E85 station in their zip code, and nearly 50%, don’t have E85 in their county, Stephens said. The US will need about 10,000 more pumps to put ethanol fuel within 2 miles of customers.

Stephens said that GM strongly supports the deployment of blender pumps, which will allow retailers to put both mid- and high-level ethanol blends, into pumps, that can be used for flex-fuel vehicles. (Earlier post.) Stephens also said that GM believes it is critical to complete the planned testing of mid-level blends. Until the results of these comprehensive durability tests are fully understood, he said, GM remains concerned about customers using fuels containing more than 10% ethanol.

We have a real concern that if ethanol gets a bad name, it will be bad for everyone...This is too important to get wrong. We need the decisions on mid-level blends to be based on sound science. And, if the science supports them, so will we.

—Tom Stephens

Stephens also called for Federal, state, and local governments to enable the introduction of fuels from a variety of energy sources, and said that the US needed national goals for renewable and low-carbon fuels as well as excise tax credits and loan guarantees to mitigate early commercialization risk.

The next two-to-three years is a critical time for biofuels. We must see second-generation fuels commercialized through appropriate governmental and commercial support. Partnerships involving industry, government, and academia will also need to flourish. We must all work together. And we need to get it right.

—Tom Stephens



FFV hybrids would be real nice, 40 mpg and run E85/M85 to reduce imported oil a lot in the near future.


Why no metal-air cells in their charts?

Better Wh/kg than some liquid fuels.


Too bad so much of the energy storage density of liquid fuels is turned into waste heat. Why do they continue spending so much money eeking out a few percanteage points of efficiency on ICE rather than just give up on the inefficient Otto cycle engine? Diesel is a little better, but still a vast majority of the energy is still just converted to waste heat. Liquid fuels would be much more impressive if they actually got out of them their full energy potential. In the meantime, electricity (and NOT Hydrogen) is still the mostt efficient method (other thatn just walking or ridig a bike).


"We're really excited about the complementary nature of biofuel and electric propulsion." - Tom Stephens

So this explains the corporate DNA of crushing EV-1s, CARB laws, burying working commercial EV batteries, and - over a dozen wasted years later - a fraction of a percent Volt production goals leading to over twice ICE car prices, if actually sold and promoted.

With biofuel and electric propulsion friends like this, ..


Interesting how they ignore the fact that you can only use about 27% of that energy in the liquid fuels and they ignore the latest improvements in battery tech.

Well, I guess we know where GM is going to put their emphasis and that they're going to continue to slant things against EV technology in general.

Let's look at the NET energy density for the system, not just the battery vs. liguid fuel.

With EVs you can get rid of the entire exhaust system (muffler, catalytic converter, tail pipes, etc, get rid of the large radiator and water pumps and fuel pumps and many other components). Also, the electric motor is quite a bit lighter and 95% efficient with the energy you do feed it from the batteries.

Net all this out from the weight savings on other components and the 95% efficient vs 27% and suddenly that isn't a 100x difference but somewhere between 5x-10x. Still a ways to go, but batteries will continue to get better.

Of course I'm ignoring that GM and all the others make better profits on their service side and the EV's are going to be provide much less for them on that front...so it will never fit their current business model. Obviously they'll fight it for a long time then and continue to present the downside of EV tech.


The reason there is so little movement today in Congress and between political idealists - is clear in kelly's statement:

So this explains the corporate DNA of crushing EV-1s...etc.

The need to live in the past, demonize political systems, whine about perceived conspiracies, and generally be angry that their side isn't driving progress - is typical of the alarmist, fear-loving culture.

Here we have a former demon of the left, a political anathema GM leading the charge to electrification of transport. This company stands no real gain from pioneering cellulosic ethanol - except as a low carbon, domestic, renewable fuel made from trash. Supposedly the very thing "greens" have been gnashing teeth over for years.

Get over it kelly. Someone convinced the "enemy" to change its ways. Is that so hard to swallow?


So, do we think Nissan is the company to do BEV right and soonest? Nissan is attempting to leap frog the HEV and PHEV game because they're late to it, and procede directly to BEV. They're compromising on range (~100 miles)at first for cost reasons. BYD? Who else is trying to make the Toyota Camry of BEVs?


They need to compare the storage advantages of liquid fuels with the cost it takes to produce them, either from biomass (limited) or synthetically (more expensive).

If they did that, they would see it's not all about storage -- it's the combination of storage along with the cost of producing a fuel from non-fossil fuel sources.

If they did this, they would discover that renewable methane (from either biomass or synthetic sources) would fare pretty well. And it enjoys an extant infrastructure as well.


GM can change with the current new management. I think the bias will be toward cellulose bio fuels for several reasons. That could change if the Volt is a great success, they are just hedging their bets based on probability.


The need to live in the past, demonize political systems, whine about perceived conspiracies, and generally be angry that their side isn't driving progress - is typical of the alarmist, fear-loving culture.

Oh the irony.


Indeed. What will happen when alarm bells no longer work?


Its simple folks. Even if battery tech manages to double its metrics its still waaay below liquid fuels. This means even with somewhat low eff of ice systems there is a big gap between what an ice powered device can do and what battery powered ones can do.

That gap is where very very bad things happen to countries.



We look at batteries with the first question; When can we get 300 miles range?

They are expected to be there soon with incremental improvements.

Our second question; When will batteries be so good that the cost of 300 miles range comes down to less than $10K for the batteries?

Dunno. Silicon Nano Wires...EESU...durable Zinc Air...whichever way it ultimately happens, it is fuzzier when that will be.

However, GM is in total red herring land with the storage density argument. Tesla has adequate storage density today...they just don't have adequate cost efficiency. As pointed out above, BEV like Tesla already have far superior well-to-wheels efficiency over every liquid fuel under consideration...by a wide margin. That should remain the long-term goal, with PHEV as the stepping stone to get there. It's dandy if it is Flex Fuel PHEV, because FFV is so cheap, but it is also limited in it's environmental benefit, so FFV should be positioned as incremental, not revolutionary value in the big equation.


Healthybreeze remember gm makes alot of things OTHER then cars.... Things that require gadzooks amounts of energy to go even 50 miles.


@ Wintermane,

You're right that big heavy things will be the last to go BEV. I'd be pretty thrilled if we got 50% of the fleet BEV by 2025.

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