Back to Ethanol

As engine technology advances, the natural progression continues to trend towards ethanol.

More than a century after the first ethanol-powered automobile – Henry Ford’s 1896 Quadricycle – the biofuel is once again on the cutting edge of technology.

It’s been a long, strange trip for ethanol, which, after 115 years, is once again the “fuel of the future” as technology moves from ethanol-authorized to ethanol-optimized engines.

A dozen years after the Quadricycle, ethanol was considered a premium fuel for Ford’s Model T, the first flex fuel vehicle. Ford himself called ethanol “the fuel of the future.”

Less than a decade later, though, ethanol had fallen out of favor, especially as Prohibition’s laws limited the production of alcohol-based fuels. Increased petroleum production pushed ethanol into the background until the 1970s, when the energy crisis brought blends back into favor. Since then, engine technology has gone from merely accepting an E10 blend, to flex fuel, to the focus of new ethanol-optimized engine designs.

Today, the progression of engine technology toward smaller, higher-compression automobile engines – even those designed for gasoline – is proving that ethanol could once again be a major contender for the fuel supply.

For the companies creating high-compression engines designed specifically for ethanol, the positive results (including better-than expected mileage, higher performance, and less carbon emissions) are no surprise – ethanol has long been considered a premium fuel in the motor sports industry. Since 2007, Indy has run on 100% ethanol, and earlier this year NASCAR announced it would run on Sunoco Green E15, a 15 percent blend of ethanol.

“Of late, the emphasis has been on fuel efficiency and downsizing – smaller engine, higher output,” says Hugh Blaxill, General Manager of the Detroit-based Mahle Powertrain, one of the world’s largest producers of combustion parts and technology. “Those sort of engines really play into the hands of the ethanol fuels because of the fundamental properties of ethanol.”

And it turns out that one of the basic goals engine designers have been working toward since day one – more power in a smaller size – has advanced to the point that it finally caught up with ethanol’s positive properties.

“The irony is that the engine technology that’s being developed now has a thirst for higher blends of ethanol,” says Rod Beazley, Product Group Director of Gasoline for Ricardo, a worldwide leader in engine technologies. “It’s taken a long time, but ethanol is in the spotlight once again.”

Designed for Gasoline, Optimal for Ethanol

In 2010, a new set of Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards mandated that, by the year 2016, new passenger cars sold in the U.S. must average 39 miles per gallon, up from roughly 28 mpg today. All while running cleaner and producing fewer carbon emissions.

Those rules, which the Wall Street Journal called “the largest government-mandated transformation of vehicles on the American road since the late 1970s and early 1980s,” almost instantly shifted technology toward smaller, higher-compression engines.

“Auto companies are trending toward downsized engines for a number of reasons. One of those is the CAFE standards that they need to meet,” says Doug Berven, Senior Director of Corporate Affairs for POET. “That dovetails very well into ethanol because the higher compression engines have a higher appetite for octane, which ethanol provides in the fuel supply.”

Ford’s newest line of engines, the EcoBoost, feature direct fuel injection and advanced technology turbocharging to generate the power of larger engines with better gas mileage and fewer carbon emissions. The technology has basically downsized the V8s to V6s, and V6s to V4s. And the engines just keep getting smaller.

The company recently announced a 1.0 liter 3-cylinder EcoBoost. By 2013, Ford expects that 9 in 10 of its vehicles will sport EcoBoost technology. While the higher compression alone has made the motors more optimized for ethanol, Ford has also introduced technology that directly injects ethanol into the engine. The Ford Bobcat, the next generation of the EcoBoost family, is described as a “radical twin-fuel engine” that blends gasoline and ethanol on demand and features separate gasoline and ethanol injectors for each cylinder.

Over at General Motors, the 2011 Buick Regal CXL Turbo features a four-cylinder turbocharged Ecotec engine with a compression ratio of over 11:1, compared to the standard 8:1 or 9:1 on many engines today. The higher the ratio, generally, the more efficient the engine. Until recently, a ratio of 11:1 was something only seen on street rods or muscle cars. Now it’s available on a flex fuel vehicle that can be purchased off the lot.

And, it turns out, the higher compression ratio also makes ethanol a more efficient fuel.

Although the data is small and the in-the-field testing is very limited, the Buick Regal has shown great promise as one of POET’s newest fleet vehicles (see sidebar).

“So far, the Buick has been outstanding on ethanol,” says Brad Maschino, who, as POET’s Facilities Manager, oversees the company’s vehicle fleet. “Our early tests show great fuel mileage, especially when you compare that mileage with the lower cost of ethanol.”

While the higher compression engines have helped make ethanol more appealing, especially as a blend, a number of companies are using an ethanol-first approach and optimizing engines for a fuel they say “can revolutionize the combustion engine” – ethanol.

Ethanol-optimized engines

“Mahle has a D.O.E.-funded project focusing on alternative fuels that’s turning the normal approach on its head,” says Blaxill. “Most companies optimize an engine on gasoline and then make it work on ethanol. We’re optimizing an engine on ethanol and making it work on gasoline. So we’ll be playing to the advantages of ethanol rather than being held back by gasoline.”

In addition to ethanol’s in-engine advantages, like higher octane and cleaner output, Blaxill also points to ethanol’s big-picture positives.

“I think ethanol has an advantage for fuel-efficiency because it’s a single chemical unlike gasoline, which is a whole bunch of different chemicals mixed together,” he says. “Ethanol has a much higher concentration of the same compound, so you can optimize better for that fuel. Also, if you look into the fuel specs of the future, ethanol is going to be a lot less cost intensive and gasoline’s going to get more cost intensive. Ethanol will be the lowest in time.”

At Ricardo, tests on their Ethanol Blended Direct Injection (EBDI) technology have shown that their ethanol-optimized engines can outperform the energy efficiency of gasoline engines while getting similar fuel mileage.

“With our EBDI project, we’re going to replace a V8 gasoline engine with a 3.2 liter V6 engine that is optimized for higher ethanol blends,” says Beazley. “This small engine, the V6 with E85, will get similar or better performance than a gasoline engine and similar fuel economy to a V8.”

Even companies that consider themselves “fuel neutral,” like Sturman Industries in Colorado, have seen ethanol rise to the top of their fuel list.

“With respect to engines, Sturman Industries has historically been fuel neutral, though we do have a preference for renewable fuels,” says Miguel Raimao, who is responsible for new business development at Sturman, a longtime leader in valve technology. “Many of these alternative fuels are being forced to operate in conventional engines that have been optimized for the last 100 years for petroleum-based fuels. As such, the new fuels really never get a fair shake, and ethanol is pretty much the poster child for that.”

Sturman Industries cofounder Eddie Sturman believes his company’s digital hydraulic system, which operates with microprocessors to open and close engine valves more efficiently, will produce the kinds of smart engines that can take better advantage of alternative fuels.

“Gasoline has advantages. Diesel has advantages. But they also have disadvantages and limitations,” says Sturman. “If we can combine the advantages of both without the disadvantages, the picture completely changes. We think we can get all of those advantages with ethanol. We didn’t start by saying we’re going to have better ethanol engines. That came as part of the total strategy that we have to make all fuels better, but we do have our own favorites and ethanol is one of them.”

Hurdles, in the form of fuel pumps

As engine technology and ethanol production advance, though, the areas that lag behind in bringing ethanol to the forefront become more noticeable, and important.

Even though the Big Three – Chrysler, Ford, and General Motors – have committed to make 50 percent of their fleet as flex fuel vehicles by the year 2012, the lack of ethanol options at service stations nationwide have limited consumer choices.

“Consumers need to know that flex fuel vehicles can offer them greater value with choice at the pump,” says Berven. “But there aren’t enough flex fuel pumps offering the variety of ethanol blends out there. There are somewhere in the neighborhood of 159,000 service stations throughout the country and only about 2,400 pumps that offer consumers higher blends of ethanol. The auto companies are saying they’ll put flex fuel vehicles on the road as soon as the retailers put flex fuel pumps under the canopy and vice versa.”

Ricardo’s Rod Beazley agrees. “The technology is out there, it is just a matter of getting the market,” he says. “There are not enough blender pumps, and there are not enough engines that are developed for alternative fuel. If there are more pumps there will be more engines, and if there are more engines there will be more pumps.”

Last July, Growth Energy proposed the Fueling Freedom Plan, a restructuring of the Volumetric Ethanol Excise Tax Credit (better known as VEETC or the Blender’s Credit). The Fueling Freedom Plan calls for 200,000 blender pumps, federal loan guarantees for ethanol pipelines, and flex fuel requirements for all U.S. vehicles.

“Let’s take that Blender’s Credit and restructure it so the money goes to retailers and to infrastructure so that ethanol is allowed to compete in the marketplace with gasoline,” says Berven. “That gives ethanol a free market competitive situation with gasoline. If the consumer is given a choice, we believe ethanol will be chosen at a much greater rate than the current 10 percent provided today.”

Looking Forward

Whether it’s by chance or by design, the direction of new engine technology points directly at ethanol as the fuel of the future.

“I believe agriculture is the greatest threat to petroleum on the face of the planet,” says Berven. “Ethanol delivers consumer value, delivers economic benefits and jobs in the country, helps national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil, and is a clean fuel that helps the environment. All four of those are things that no one else can really say. We’re spending $400 billion per year right now on foreign oil. If we had $400 billion revolving throughout our economy on an annual basis I think we’d find ourselves in a much better economic state and a much better national security position.”

When it comes to that big-picture view, Berven points to Growth Energy’s recent advertising campaign, which featured sayings like “No wars have been fought over ethanol” and “No beaches have been closed due to ethanol spills.”

“Things of that nature are so common sense that those are the messages we want to get to the American public,” Berven says. “Ethanol is here, it’s less expensive, it offers better value, it’s clean, provides jobs, it’s an emerging industry, it comes from farmers rather than oil sheiks.”

For people like Rod Beazley of Ricardo, who can see the technological advancements of ethanol up close, that future is not so far away.

“We’re so close to making ethanol in the U.S. a primary fuel,” Beazley says. “It’s frustratingly close. We just need everyone to get on the same page, and we can make this happen. It could change the world. The irony is that it has come full circle–the right technology is being developed for the right fuel, ethanol. In some sense, it’s like the technology is finally catching up with ethanol.”

Rallying the Fleet

With an average of more than 25,000 miles driven per vehicle per year, POET’s fleet of flex fuel cars and trucks drive to the moon–and about halfway back–annually. On ethanol blends.

The flex fuel fleet, “just keeps getting better and better,” says Brad Maschino, POET’s Facilities Manager. But it’s the company’s 2011 Buick Regal CXL, with its turbocharged four-cylinder and a compression ratio of a stunning 11.2:1, that “really raises the bar for flex fuel vehicles,” according to Maschino.

“We’re very excited about the new engine developments,” Maschino says. “These are the kinds of cars that will make people realize the benefits of ethanol.”

Maschino says the flex fuel fleet – all American, all available off the lot – has seen an average amount of normal maintenance – tires and alignment mostly. “There are no added costs at all when it comes to repairing flex fuel vehicles,” he says.

And, he says, the flex fuel options just keep coming. “The same motor that is in the Regal comes out in an all-wheel drive version this fall. The Buick Verano (a compact car with the Ecotec engine), will have the same motor but feature higher horsepower and should be out in 2012. That will be a great thing for ethanol.”

Maschino has seen firsthand how the technological advancements of the engines have made ethanol more effective.

“I just wish more people could see it and realize how good these flex fuel vehicles are,” he says. “You can pull up to a pump and use whatever fuel you want–the cars just adjust their mixture accordingly. Really, the only way you would know it’s a flex fuel vehicle is by the yellow cap.”



Vital is a news & media resource published by POET, presenting a variety of stories with the thought leadership one expects from the largest, most forward-thinking ethanol producer.