If you're looking for relief from high gas prices -- and who isn't? -- Bart Wells wants to sell you on his invention.
Wells, owner of Hitech Motorsport in Elk River, so far this year has sold 64 of his new devices -- with that many more on order -- that convert regular gasoline-burning cars to flex-fuel vehicles, capable of running on the less-expensive alternative of ethanol.
More important though, Wells said, is that his system corrects the drop in fuel mileage that can cancel out the cash savings that lead people to switch to the biofuel found at pumps marked "E85" -- the 85 percent ethanol blend -- at many Minnesota gas stations.
Wells calls his patent-pending system "ETOM" -- pronounced "e-Tom," -- for the acronym of the company he formed for its production and sale, Ethanol Technology of Minnesota. It's a do-it-yourself kit that he has priced at $299 to $399, depending on the size of the engine. He swears it's easy to install.
"We designed it so my wife could do it," Wells said.
This is his description of how it works: Cars use oxygen sensors to feed the right amount of fuel -- not too rich and not too lean -- into the engine to make it run smoothly. But ethanol in gasoline engines confuses those sensors, usually causing them to pour through about 25 percent too much fuel. That's why a tank of ethanol gets consumed faster than a tank of gasoline. His device corrects for that, which raises the ethanol mileage to within 3 to 6 percent of gasoline mileage. ETOM has another feature: If there's no ethanol around, and the tank gets above 50 percent gasoline, you can use a switch that comes with the kit to turn off ETOM.
The savings come from the price difference between E85 and regular gasoline, which the industry generally estimates at 40 to 75 cents a gallon. Wells said that ethanol runs particularly well in race cars and other high-performance cars, his longtime specialty. And the price difference is even greater for them, because they burn premium.
As for car manufacturers' concerns that E85 will damage parts of gasoline engines, Wells said he's been running it in the high-performance cars since 2003 with no problems.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) seems to agree that's possible, because it has certified a gasoline-to-ethanol conversion system for use in cars. Unfortunately for Wells, it's not his.
Chicago-area Flex Fuel US has received provisional or final EPA certification on six Ford, Dodge and Chrysler cars since November, said CEO and inventor Mitch Sremac. He will continue to apply for certification in batches like that, until he is covered for about 80 percent of the car and truck models, he said. Exactly what the certifications will do for him may need some legal resolution. Sremac said the certification requires car manufacturers to honor their warranties on the converted engines. An EPA spokeswoman said that's up to the manufacturers, and a Ford spokeswoman said conversions still can void the warranty. Sremac said he's ready to challenge any manufacturers concerning this.
That still leaves plenty of customers for Wells, including every car owner whose warranty has expired. Wells said he'll eventually seek EPA approval, and for now he is selling his conversion system on the firm's website, ethanoltechnologyofminnesota.com, or at his shop in Elk River. Wells expects to hire six to eight employees and build production to 300 units a week by this fall.
Sremac's system costs much more -- $1,495 installed -- but he said that rebates or tax credits for energy conservation purchases will cover some of that.
Sremac also claims to have overcome the low-mileage problem of ethanol. He is ramping up to sell his converters, called the Flex-Box Smart Kit, at Aamco, the nationwide transmission-repair chain.
H.J. Cummins • 612-673-4671