The first three of Ford’s E85 ethanol-powered Escape Hybrids were on Tuesday delivered to the US Department of Energy, the Renewable Fuels Association (RFA) and the Governors’ Ethanol Coalition (GEC).

Twenty of the SUVs will be delivered to fleet customers in six states, with Ford claiming an industry first: these are the world’s first hybrid vehicles capable of operating on blends of fuel containing as much as 85% ethanol, produced mostly in the US from locally-grown corn or sugar beets.

“As a leader in both hybrid vehicles and in vehicles capable of operating on ethanol-based fuels, Ford is the ideal company to bring both technologies together for the first time,” said Sue Cischke, Ford’s senior vice president, sustainability, environment and safety engineering.

“Investing in ethanol is critical for our national security, our environment, and for Michigan’s economy,” said US senator Carl Levin, a Democrat from Michigan.

“We can make huge strides by combining a massive effort on ethanol with other technologies such as hybrid cars and advanced diesel technologies. Ford is leading the way by producing the first hybrid car that can run on E85. I hope the E85 Ford Escape Hybrid is the first of many flex fuel hybrids driving us toward energy independence.”

According to Ford, the E85 hybrid Escape produces about 25% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than the production petrol-powered Escape Hybrid on general sale in the US.

Its completely renewable fuel can help reduce the country’s growing dependence on imported oil although the siphoning off of raw material for ethanol is already causing food prices to rise in the US, according to recent news reports.

The automaker has calculated that, if all of the more than 6m flexible fuel vehicles now on US highways operated on E85, more than 3.6bn gallons of petrol could be displaced a year. Ford has committed to making half of its annual vehicle production capable of running on alternative fuels by 2012.

“The Governors’ Ethanol Coalition has worked cooperatively with Ford for more than two decades,” Nebraska governor and coalition chair Dave Heineman said.

“As Ford has developed new transportation technologies, we have been among the first to volunteer to provide [it] with real world testing of their products. We are pleased to work with a storied American vehicle manufacturer as the nation reduces its need for imported oil.”

“I commend Ford for stepping up to the plate on this issue,” said Bob Dinneen, president of the RFA, the national trade association for the US ethanol industry. “Americans are fed up with the screaming roller coaster ride of gasoline prices. Ethanol isn’t the silver bullet, but having it available will ultimately keep gasoline prices lower than they would otherwise be.”

Ford noted that a major challenge in the promotion of renewable fuel use in the US is availability of infrastructure. Less than 1% of the 170,000 retail petrol stations in the country carry E85 ethanol at the moment.

“Expanding the availability of E85 is a critical element in moving America toward energy independence,” the automaker said.

“For ethanol to be a real player in the transportation sector and lessen America’s dependence on foreign oil, we need a strong, long-term focus on policies that increase US ethanol production and accelerate E85 infrastructure development,” said Cischke.

“We also need key partners like the oil industry to invest in developing and marketing renewable fuels, like E85. Without the whole-hearted involvement of the oil industry, we cannot move forward far enough or fast enough.”

For the automaker, the Escape hybrid E85 research project is a learning lab for FFV programmes for 2010 and beyond. Tailpipe emissions of flexible-fuel vehicles still represent one of the biggest challenges and priorities.

According to Ford, no manufacturer’s FFV has yet been certified as a partial zero-emissions vehicle (PZEV) while a full-hybrid application presents even more evaporative challenges because the vehicle operates on electric power alone without actuating the evaporative vacuum system that operates when the petrol engine is in use.

“Although we currently do not have plans to produce the Escape Hybrid E85, the research from this technology could lead to breakthroughs in even more advanced technologies,” said Cischke.

Ford was the first to introduce a hybrid SUV with the Ford Escape Hybrid in 2004 and will add hybrid versions of the Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan midsize sedans in the coming 2008 model year.

Last year, the company produced 250,000 ethanol-capable vehicles, including the Ford F-150 pickup truck (for years now the top-selling single vehicle line in the US) and the Lincoln Town Car.

In addition to hybrids and flexible fuel vehicles, Ford is also working on other alternative fuel technologies including hybrids, hydrogen fuel cells, clean diesel, advanced powertrains, plug-in hybrids and hydrogen combustion engines.