Brazilians go for alcohol fuel

RIO DE JANEIRO – Drivers in Brazil are fighting rising gasoline prices by turning to "flexible fuel" cars that use more alcohol. In fact, alcohol made from sugar cane is becoming the fuel of choice, so much so that global sugar prices have hit a seven-year high, reports the Christian Science Monitor.

Flex cars are already outselling traditional gasoline models. In August, 62 percent of new cars sold in Brazil were flex, according to industry numbers. "Demand has been unbelievable," said Barry Engle, the new president of Ford Brazil. "I am hard-pressed to think of any other technology that has been such a success so quickly."

As many countries reexamine their dependence on petroleum for fuel, Brazil offers a model for how to make the switch to cane, beet, wheat or corn fuels. The success of the transition is due to several factors, but the main one is price, experts say. Unlike U.S. hybrids, flex cars sold in Brazil don’t cost any more than traditional models. In fact, some models are only available with flex engines.

Ethanol engines use 25 percent more ethanol per mile than gasoline. But ethanol (the alcohol produced by fermenting sugar) usually sells at somewhere between a third to half of the price of gasoline. Even people who were reluctant say they have been won over by the savings.

Regular car engines will run fine on a 10 percent blend of alcohol and gasoline. But by using computer sensors that adjust to whatever mix is in the tank, flex car engines run on either ethanol, gasoline, or any combination of the two. They have been roaring out of Brazilian dealerships since Volkswagen sold the first Total Flex Golf in March 2003.