Blog: Who killed the only EPA certified E85 conversion kit?

Have you ever watched, “Who Killed the Electric Car?” Although I haven’t, my understanding is that there are some similarities between this 2006 documentary and what I’m telling you today.
By Holly Jessen | March 07, 2016

For my last blog as managing editor of EPM, I'm going to tell you a fascinating but also frustrating story about the birth and death of Flex Fuel U.S., a company dedicated to developing and marketing an E85 conversion kit. To write this, I talked to Chris Disher and Max Kinast. 

As Disher said, it’s a story full of controversy, intrigue and lies. And, even though that conversion kit was ultimately certified by the U.S. EPA, the company is no longer producing or selling the product. So who killed Flex Fuel U.S.? Spoiler alert, the answer is very similar to the conclusion of “Who Killed the Electric Car.” The U.S. Government is one big part of that answer. “We had nothing but challenges, spent millions more than we needed to and at the end of the day it’s pretty clear that the Department of Energy doesn’t want a flex fuel car alternative to be successful,” Disher told me.

It starts back in 2006, the year Disher retired from his job as lead partner at Booz Allen and Hamilton, a management consulting company to the federal government and businesses. He worked with R. James Woolsey Jr., a former director of the CIA and national security and energy specialist. Disher recalled a fishing trip with Woolsey, when Woolsey talked to him about a future in which cellulosic ethanol production could help the U.S. move away from foreign oil dependence.

At around the same time, a friend, who is an automotive after-market entrepreneur, came to Disher with an idea on how to make an E85 conversion kit legal and commercially viable. Disher’s initial thought was that it would be a fun project for his retirement.

So they gathered a team, including father and son Jack and Troy Trepanier of Rad Rides by Troy, a crack hotrod building company, and others with backgrounds in ethanol and natural gas production. They also developed a relationship with Rouch Research Laboratory. “I literally had a world class set of experts,” he said. “These are not guys tinkering in the garage.”

The goal, Disher said, was to create a technology that would help reduce the nation’s dependence on foreign oil and reduce CO2 emissions. Ethanol, Disher believes, is the “single best silver bullet” to accomplish those goals. “We thought that the government would be supportive, but they were not,” he said. “And, as you probably know, the EPA and DOE are heavily influenced by the car companies and the oil companies.”

The team put in a lot of hard work, time and money into designing the equipment and getting the EPA certification. In the end, it fit into the required parameters, not tampering with the original equipment in the car, and also managed emissions and allowed the vehicle’s fuel system to detect exactly what blend of ethanol was in the tank. That was accomplished with only a 15 to 20 percent mileage loss and increased performance. “Our technology makes that engine run happy,” Disher said. “And run at the cleanest level it can.”

But it was far from easy. Kinast worked on the project through Rad Rides By Troy, helping out while the technology was designed and tested and, later, on kit sales and instillation. He described how the company kept hitting roadblocks. “It always seemed like someone had a thumb over us, holding us down,” he said. The feeling he had was that there was a bias toward the auto manufacturers, that if a flex fuel technology were developed, it should come from that industry, and there were those in government agencies that didn’t want Flex Fuel U.S. to succeed.

Then, finally, the certification process was successful. “After we got that certification, the phone started ringing,” Kinast said. Just to name a few successes, kits were installed on City of Chicago police cars and on limos in operation in Los Vegas. Jeep expressed interest. The list was long and impressive.

Getting the kits on 25 police cars in Chicago created an ideal testing ground, Disher says. Those vehicles were, A., filled up exclusively with E85 after the conversion was complete, and, B., driven 24 hours a day, seven days a week, adding up to millions of miles in just a few years. But, although the City of Chicago estimated it was losing only 18 percent fuel economy, Flex Fuel U.S. experienced pushback from the DOE when the company used those numbers. In fact, to this day, the DOE claims using E85 in a Ford Focus causes a 29 percent fuel economy loss. Disher pointed me to this DOE website.

But it wasn’t just fuel economy numbers that were wonky. The DOE website offers fleet managers information about ethanol that also shows an increase in price. “The default of 29 percent is the extreme based on a BTU calculation,” Disher told me. “They assume E0 (Not E10) and summer E85 (81 percent ethanol). It shows not only a loss of 29 percent fuel economy but also shows that E85 costs 30 percent more! $3.07 per gallon for E85?  That is compared to gasoline at $2.35. That is a 31 percent difference.  Now the DOE calls this a ‘GGE’ Gasoline gallon equivalent, meaning since you lose 31 percent fuel economy (yes 31 percent!). You need to account for that loss in your budget. Yet they ignore real market prices and assume E85 and E0 cost the same per gallon. That is simply bad math but government staff use this calculation almost religiously as they compare ethanol to CNG applications.”

So here’s a government agency, saying that E85 increases emissions, costs a lot more and offers such bad fuel economy that no sane person would ever want to drive a FFV or use E85. “Those things are flat out lies, and they know it,” Disher says.

The government agencies also relied on auto manufacturer information that FFVs have many different components than nonFFVs. In fact, an old episode of “Goss’ Garage, E85 Compatibility” about the dangers of E85 conversion kits is still posted to a DOE website. (Read the transcript here, which claims “all kinds of things that have to be changed to make this [FFV] system work.”) 

But, wait a minute, according to a part by part analysis by Flex Fuel U.S., nope, that’s not the case. The materials used in a nonFFV are already all E85 complaint, Disher says, except for an alcohol senor that used to cost car companies $165. But, with time, they came up with a cheaper solution that is much less accurate and uses ethanol much less efficiency. The upshot is that fuel economy was impacted negatively, something that is blamed solely on ethanol when in fact the inferior technology used in FFV is a contributor.  “From the get go, the introduction of the FFV technology was hurt,” Disher said.

Eventually, the government agencies came to understand that that the car companies were, as Disher said, lying to them about the parts being different in a FFV. As a result, the EPA changed some of the rules for the E85 conversion kit certification.

Still, even with the certification in hand, Flex Fuel U.S. was struggling. It all took a toll. The year and a half and millions of dollars it took to get there, plus the unexpected roadblocks the company faced from government agencies.

Kinast, who now works as a machinist for the City of Chicago, described how, even after the money ran out, Rad Rides By Troy continued to pay his salary and he continued to push hard to help the company make it, because he was passionate about it. He used his connections in the auto world to install and test the kits on several vehicles borrowed from local dealerships. A Ford Fusion and Mustang showed excellent results.

Today, the company is on hold, Disher said. Although Flex Fuel U.S. was successful in developing a conversion kit that made it through the EPA certification process Ford, Lincoln, Dodge and Chrysler passenger car and light truck models equipped with 5.7L Hemi motors, including Charger, Magnum, Chrysler 300, Dodge Ram and Durango. (For model years and more details, see this webpage.) The hope is that they will be able to find someone interested in their patent. “We produced a product that is a high performance technology that takes advantage of the benefits of ethanol in ways that the existing cars don’t,” he said.

And now, even though there’s much more I could write and I still have more questions, I’m going to have to wrap up. After gathering information for a blog or a feature story for our magazine, I’m prone to saying, I could write a book about this. This story falls into that category. Hopefully what I have written gives readers a little background on what happened to Flex Fuel U.S. And, perhaps, a small understanding of what the ethanol industry is facing in getting its fuel to market.