How Flex Fuel Cars Were Invented

Roberta J. Nichols was an extraordinary and distinguished engineer, specializing in internal combustion engines. Born in 1931, by the 1970s she was the leading researcher at Ford for "alternative fuel vehicles."

The timing couldn't possibly have been better. With the oil embargo in 1973 and the Iranian revolution, American leaders were perfectly clear that we needed an alternative fuel — ideally something we had more control over than oil. And at the time, air pollution was a hot topic too, so people were looking at methanol as an alternative fuel. It burns cleaner with fewer emissions than gasoline.

Nichols had grown up in Los Angeles and knew some of the right people, so she was able to convince California to launch a program to test the practicality of methanol as a fuel. Then she convinced Ford to invest in it.

In 1980, Ford bequeathed to the Californian government twelve Pintos that had been altered to run on methanol. Within three years, California had a fleet of over six hundred methanol cars.

The cars were a great success in many ways. The drivers loved them. Methanol is 105 octane, which significantly increased the effective horsepower of the state cars. After driving these methanol cars a total of about 35 million miles, they had lots of data. The emissions were low, the fuel-efficiency was good, everything seemed wonderful.  But there was a problem. California didn't have enough fueling stations for these cars. Because they were retrofitted regular cars, the gas tank wasn't big enough (methanol has a lower energy density, so needs more liquid per mile). They had a 230 mile range, but with so few methanol stations, that was sometimes not good enough.

In all of California, there were only 22 methanol fueling stations. And because there were only about 600 of these cars on the road, gas stations didn't really have much incentive to add a methanol pump. So the drivers had to really fret about running out of fuel.

And because of this, nobody else really wanted to buy one of these methanol cars. So California was in the same Catch-22 we are in today. The fueling stations want to wait until there are enough cars on the road that can burn an alternative fuel before they add a pump for it, and car buyers aren't interested in buying a car that can burn a fuel that hardly anybody sells.

At the time, Nichols and her team were not overly bothered by this. They wanted to test the cars with that fuel, and all the tests came out great, so their experiment was a success.

The car was a failure, however, but only because of the lack of infrastructure to support it.

But Nichols didn't give up on the idea. She realized that if her methanol car was ever going to be widely accepted, the car itself would have to solve the Catch-22 instead of relying on preexisting infrastructure (fuel stations) to bridge the gap. And to do that, the car would have to burn gasoline and methanol, so when drivers couldn't find a methanol station, they could get by with gasoline.

Creating a methanol-only car was not that difficult from an engineering standpoint. But a mixed-fuel car was something else. It would be easy if the car always had the same mixture, but to create an engine that could effectively deal with a mixture of changing proportions was a challenge. But they realized that's what they needed to do if a methanol car was ever going to enter the mainstream.

The car would somehow have to be designed to respond to whatever arbitrary mixture of fuels it was burning at the moment, and to change in response to changing mixtures. At the time, this was unheard of, and they didn't know how to go about it.

Their solution was to adapt an invention by G.A. Schwippert — a sensor that could determine the alcohol content of a liquid (using light refraction), and then connecting that changing information to the fuel injector. Then the fuel-to-air ratio could be changed on the spot, depending on the fuel mixture of the moment. It was brilliant and simple. And it worked. Nichols and her team invented the first modern flex fuel vehicle. Read the story in her own words here.

Ford made quite a few of these cars, and the other automakers experimented a little with them too, but it didn't catch on as quickly as Nichols had hoped.

The farm lobby, which was looking for a market for ethanol, helped keep the idea alive. They helped promote flex fuel cars, and that's why today most FFVs are designed to burn gasoline and ethanol, but not methanol.

Roberta J. Nichols died in 2005. But she left behind a legacy that could change the world.

Fuel competition cannot happen until a single car can allow the competition. Right now we have CNG cars (compressed natural gas) and electric cars, and gas-only cars. So it could be said we have competition. But drivers cannot choose between these different fuels every time we fill up. And since most of us cannot afford to have three different kinds of cars, and to drive the one with the cheapest fuel that day, there is no real competition.

What happens, then, is that people will buy the car that is least expensive and/or has the most available fuel. And that's what we have now. No competition.

But Nichols' invention will finally allow different fuels to compete in the marketplace, head-to-head every day.

Adam Khan is the co-author with Klassy Evans of Fill Your Tank With Freedom and the author of Slotralogy and Self-Reliance, Translated. Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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