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Bridging the Gap to Using Renewable Fuels - Converting from Gasoline to Ethanol

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By Tom Torbjornsen

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Tom Torbjornsen is a long time friend and frequent contributor to The Auto Channel. Tom hosts the national weekly radio show "America's Car Show" on Sirius/XM and is the on-air automotive guy for Buffalo TV station WIVB-4.

Prior to the Wall Street meltdown, the number one topic of conversation among the possible presidential candidates was oil … freeing the country from the grip of foreign oil, the rising price of gasoline, and the need for renewable energy sources. There are many companies in the marketplace that are seeking solutions with innovative products that address these concerns, hoping to meet the needs of the American consumer and increase their sales. Many of them approach me to endorse their products. And often, when I ask for proof that the products do what they claim, I never hear from them again (testimonies don’t count). However, I recently tested one particular device that could be counted among many of the innovations added to the mix that would, in the short term, reduce the cost of fuel for our cars and also help to reduce our dependency on foreign oil.

A few months ago I got a call from Rodd, a former colleague in the auto repair business, about a new technology that would (in theory) allow a non-flex fuel vehicle (one that burns gas only) to run on E-85 fuel (like a flex fuel vehicle). If such a device worked, it would save a lot of money at the pump. E-85 is anywhere from 70 cents to a dollar cheaper per gallon than gasoline … a significant savings that would be realized immediately because this device could be installed in the average car with little effort. What a concept! I was skeptical, to say the least. It’s my job to be cautious and scrutinize every ‘technology’ that comes across my desk. I have gotten so skeptical that my response is often ‘ho hum.’

During our conversation, I asked Rodd if he would send me one of these devices so I could test it out personally on my car. Much to my surprise, he not only said he would send me the device, but that he would also provide me with a 55 gallon drum of E-85 that would last me a few weeks. I had expected him to say no, and he would go away and leave me alone. So after our phone call I began to wonder what I had gotten myself into. And what about my car? I love my car… and now I was going to use it as a guinea pig?!

Fast forward one week after the conversation: The device arrives at my doorstep via Fed Ex overnight from Xcel Plus International ( It’s called a Digi Flex ( and it’s a small box that is installed in series with the fuel injectors. In theory, the device alters the injector pattern so that the car can run on E-85, or any mixture of gas and E-85, or pure gasoline. It seamlessly adjusts to whatever mix of fuel is in the tank and, most importantly, within factory drivability parameters so that the vehicle stays within EPA tailpipe emission compliance (and the check engine light stays off).

The installation took only 20 minutes. The appropriate wiring harness for each particular vehicle is installed to fit the injectors, and all connectors fit the factory connectors so that no wires have to be cut. After installation, I insisted that we attach an onboard scan tool to the vehicle data port to check datastream (oxygen sensor readings, etc). All of the readings stayed well within factory specs, ensuring that the vehicle was well within EPA compliance. During the time I ran my car on E-85, I found emissions were actually better than EPA tailpipe regulations dictate for gas burning vehicles in that year make and model.

During the testing period, I researched the parts-lists of fuel delivery systems for both flex and non-flex vehicles and found they were the same for each manufacturer’s list. Below is the link to a complete set of flex fuel and non-flex fuel vehicles for my readers to compare. Note that all critical components to fuel delivery are identical. What this means is that the parts of both flex fuel and non-flex fuel vehicles are capable of supporting E-85 as a fuel to power the vehicles.

Road testing: Right from the start, I noted a significant increase in overall performance ... snappier acceleration off the line, stronger get-up-and-go when changing lanes in traffic, and smoother idle. During my research I also discovered that E-85 is a high-octane fuel, coming in at roughly 105-octane. This is good news. Higher-octane fuel is more stable than lower octane fuel in the combustion chamber environment, which translates into a more controlled and efficient burn when ignition takes place, resulting in more horsepower.

A negative effect of the E-85 conversion is a slower cold start. When using E-85 the fuel pump has to cycle a couple of times before the prime is built back up after the car sits overnight. I am not sure why this is the case. Possibly the E-85 has a less dense formulation than gasoline. Nevertheless, this is a small concern when you consider the significant savings at the pump.

E-85 has a lower BTU (energy) output. Consequently, using E-85 will decrease fuel mileage, often up to 10 percent. However, with this device my car actually realized a 12 percent increase in fuel mileage because I used an engine oil additive call Lubrilon that comes with the installation kit. The company claims that Lubrilon reduces internal engine friction and increases fuel mileage. After additional research, I found that this additive has been tested and certified by the Dept of Energy to do what the company says it will do (

So how do we bridge the gap from oil to renewable fuel technologies? I believe the Digi Flex device is one answer among many innovations that are being introduced to the market. There are roughly 250,000,000 vehicles in the US, and presently 5,000,000 of them are flex fuel vehicles that can run on E-85. We presently burn about 180 billion gallons of gasoline each year. E-85 costs on average from 70 cents to a dollar cheaper per gallon than gasoline. Based on a 70 cents/gallon savings, we could realize an overall savings of 126 billion dollars per year that would go directly into the pockets of consumers. Another benefit of E-85 is that it’s a renewable fuel made from corn, sugar cane, and other carbohydrates. One of the arguments against using E-85 is that he price of corn will rise. But consider these stats from the US Dept of Agriculture regarding corn usage in our country last year:

• 22% of corn was used to make Ethanol • 44% used to feed livestock • 17% was exported • 10% surplus was allowed to rot

If we make Ethanol from the 27% that is either being exported or allowed to rot, combine it with the 22% of corn presently used to make Ethanol, this equals nearly 36 billion gallons a year we could use to power our vehicles. And that translates into a decrease of about 20% less reliance on foreign oil. Even if only half of these stats are realized, it moves us significantly in the right direction for an immediate solution to our oil dependency and the cost of running our cars, using a renewable energy source. This solution would take the pressure off immediate problems while we continue to develop long-term energy solutions.

‘Til next time…Keep Rollin’

Tom's show can be heard Sunday nights at 10PM EST on Sirius 108 and XM 139. His website is America's Car Show.

SEE ALSO: RoadTrip: Driving and Alcohol Do Mix - In-Depth Look at Ethanol - EXCLUSIVE VIDEO.