Ethanol: our once and future fuel

Source: By Dean Drake, The Hill • Posted: Friday, September 9, 2016

The recent opinion piece by Doug Durante of the Clean Fuels Development Coalition highlighting the need for high octane fuels was spot on. I agree we should not have mandated prescriptive fuels and formulations. As a former General Motors engineer with 34 years of experience in powertrain design and environmental policy, I also know how important common sense fuel standards are for the automotive industry. Most importantly, to meet the challenges the industry faces to comply with fuel economy and emissions in the future, we need to raise the minimum octane rating for gasoline in the U.S., Canada and Mexico to something closer to that of today’s premium grade gasoline. Unfortunately, today’s premium is too expensive to be a viable alternative. We need a new high octane gasoline at an affordable price.  Toward this end, there one immediate option we can pursue.

Of all the various ways to boost octane in gasoline, ethanol (with an effective octane rating of over 110) has been blended in gasoline for decades. In fact, interest in ethanol as a vehicle fuel goes back to the beginning of the automotive age. As one paper on this history of ethanol fuels put it: “When Henry Ford told a New York Times reporter that ethyl alcohol was ‘the fuel of the future’ in 1925, he was expressing an option that was widely shared in the automotive community.” 

So what makes ethanol so attractive over the years? It is a no-surprise molecule. It is prevalent in nature and has been manufactured for thousands of years. As a result, there are no unforeseen consequences in using it as a gasoline additive, unlike tetraethyl lead or its ill-fated successors. Used as a motor fuel for a century in the US, it is now blended with gasoline in countries around the world. It makes gasoline better by safely boosting octane and enhancing combustion in high technology engines. It reduces emissions of toxic compounds and greenhouse gases from your car’s exhaust. Ethanol can be produced by a variety of feedstocks in biorefineries that are much less polluting than gasoline refineries. And we have demonstrated it can be produced in large volumes: production of fuel ethanol increased 300% in less than a decade.

Today, the blend of 10 percent ethanol – 90 percent gasoline, or E10, accounts for nearly all the gasoline sold. Even though this is perhaps the biggest change in vehicle fuel since lead was removed from gasoline in the 1970’s, it is an unheralded success story. For instance, since May, 2014, E10 has powered vehicles an astounding 6.5 trillion miles with no significant vehicle related problems. During the same period, E10 saved consumers $15 billion (even accounting for the energy differences between E10 and pure gasoline).

If, however, more ethanol could be blended into today’s E10 (raising the concentration of ethanol from 10% to 25% – 30%), a new gasoline-ethanol blend fuel could be produced that would:

  • Have an octane rating of today’s premium grade fuel;
  • Result in lower toxic emissions than is the case with today’s premium fuel;
  • Cost the consumer about the same as today’s regular grade fuel; and
  • Allow vehicles designed for this fuel to achieve higher efficiency with the same or better fuel economy as today’s vehicles while substantially reducing their greenhouse gas emissions.

Neither ethanol nor gasoline is a perfect transportation fuel. But together, they make a superior fuel that is less expensive to the consumer and better for the environment. Today, we have an opportunity to produce a new high octane low carbon fuel at little or no additional cost or inconvenience to the public. This great opportunity should not be ignored.

The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

Dean Drake is President Defour Group LLC.