It’s Easy Being Green: Biofuels Go for a Spin

The American Le Mans racing series is using cellulosic ethanol and searching for cleaner technologies, while Nascar shows interest in alternative fuels.

Chevrolet General Manager Ed Peper announces the Corvette Racing team will use E85 ethanol fuel in the upcoming American Le Mans Series. (Flickr/gm_blogs)
Chevrolet General Manager Ed Peper announces the Corvette Racing team will use E85 ethanol fuel in the upcoming American Le Mans Series. (Flickr/gm_blogs)

Auto racing may not seem like the most environmentally friendly form of recreation—but that could change. Eco-awareness in the motorsport world is growing, led by the American Le Mans series. The series—a particular type of racing based on endurance and sleek, one-seater aerodynamic cars—is pursuing several green initiatives, including the use of advanced biofuels and supporting the introduction of hybrid race cars.

Most notably, ALMS partnered with the KL Process Design Group of Wyoming to provide E-85 (85 percent ethanol, 15 percent gasoline) cellulosic ethanol for competing cars. Corvette Racing used their E85R ethanol for the first time in a series race in St. Petersburg, FL on April 5. While the ALMS is the first series to incorporate cellulosic biofuels, the IndyCar series switched to 100 percent ethanol last season.

The ALMS fuel is a second generation biofuel made from wood waste and non-food crops such as switchgrass. These biofuels produce more energy than is required to grow them, and highly reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sustainable production of these fuels also has the potential to fight poverty and lower energy costs.

"This is a groundbreaking achievement not only in motorsports, but also in the drive to relevant fuel technologies," said Scott Atherton, president and CEO of the American Le Mans Series, in a recent article. “Introducing cellulosic E85 racing ethanol to our series with one of our most noted championship teams does nothing but reinforce our commitment to be the global leader in green racing.”

At this year’s Detroit Auto Show, ALMS announced it is partnering with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Department of Energy, and SAE International to incorporate "green racing" principles into its 2008 racing season. The Series created a “Green Racing Challenge” competition for this season, complete with an award, that will encourage manufacturers to introduce and develop green technologies.

The technical rules of Le Mans already allow and even encourage Le Mans automakers to develop innovations, which influenced the development and use of biofuels in the series. As a result, manufacturers are constantly working on new technologies, such as an electric hybrid race car. These technologies can then hopefully be applied to consumer cars. The idea is that these innovations will enhance performance and fuel efficiency in cars while reducing ecological impact.

All this activity is catching the attention of Nascar, quite possibly the most popular form of auto racing. While still on the fence, Brian France, CEO of Nascar, says the sport is researching a move toward alternative fuels. Apparently it has become a high priority, despite the costs involved in changing the fuel lines for cars. The switch could potentially boost the popularity of alternative fuels among the sport’s giant fan base, and take a step toward creating a low-carbon U.S. economy.

For more information on the Center’s energy policies, including biofuels, please visit our energy and environment resource page.

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