Coast Guard, ORNL test butanol in small marine engines

By Kris Bevill | February 21, 2012

The U.S. Coast Guard is working on a three-year project with researchers at the U.S. DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory to test the potential for butanol to be used in the Coast Guard’s smaller marine craft. The research project will test the effects of a gasoline/butanol blend containing 16.1 percent biobutanol on 225HP and 300HP outboard engines. Operational testing will conclude in mid-2014, with results expected to be released shortly thereafter, according to Rich Hansen, branch chief - surface branch at the USCG’s Research and Development Center. Findings from the USCG/ORNL testing may also be applied to civilian watercraft, he said.

The USCG currently uses commercially available gasoline, which often contains 10 percent ethanol, in its small marine craft. Hansen said biobutanol was selected for marine engine testing because it offers favorable properties and has the potential to become available in the marketplace in coming years. Biobutanol also offers the opportunity for the USCG to lower its carbon footprint, which is a priority of the U.S. military. “The USCG would like to position itself to be ready for alternative fuels that may become commercially available and help meet carbon footprint reduction goals and comply with the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007,” Hansen said.

EISA requires any alternative or synthetic transportation fuel purchased by federal agencies to emit the same or fewer life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions than its petroleum counterpart. Corn-based ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, biodiesel and biobutanol derived from corn starch all meet the emissions threshold reduction requirements. However, while ethanol is not currently recommended to be used at percentages greater than 10 percent in marine engines, testing conducted last year by the National Marine Manufacturers Association and the American Boat and Yacht Council showed promising results for butanol. Butanol is not yet widely available in the fuels market, but butanol technology developers have begun acquiring corn ethanol facilities with the intent to convert them for biobutanol production. The first of these facilities, a former corn ethanol plant in Luverne, Minn., was purchased by Gevo Inc. and is expected to begin producing biobutanol later this year. Gevo plans to sell some of its product for marine applications as an alternative to ethanol-blended fuels.