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Pure ethanol engines could pack a big punch

A Canadian farmer and hot rodder recently talked with me about altering engines for pure ethanol. If E85 were widely available, the work racers are doing in this area could be applied to street vehicles with a positive impact on fuel mileage.
By Holly Jessen | November 17, 2014

A while ago, a reader commented on a story posted to Ethanol Producer Magazine, mentioning that he and other hot rodders are starting to build true ethanol engines that cannot burn even a cup of gasoline and that produce a lot of power from small motors. “FFV actually present ethanol economy very poorly as they tolerate ethanol but are built for gasoline,” he wrote, adding that an “ethanol engine needs 14:1 compression, 9:1 fuel air ratio and advanced ignition timing.”

His comments caught my attention and I contacted him to ask more questions. Here’s what I learned.

Keith Jacobs is a grain farmer from Daysland, Alberta, Canada. Jacobs Farms Daysland consists of 5,500 acres of land where wheat, peas and canola is grown. Besides his work on the farm, Jacobs is an oilfield consultant and a former drag racer that sponsors a funny car, a type of drag racing vehicle. It’s in the alcohol class, which is up to 3,000 horsepower, and it burns methanol.

Jacobs feels the future belongs to biofuels. “Grain will get cheaper and oil more expensive,” he told me. While he does own a Cadillac Escalade that could burn E85, there are no gas stations that sell E85 nearby. In fact, in the November issue of EPM, W. Scott Thurlow, then president of the Canadian Renewable Fuels Association, revealed that, “there are over 3.5 million vehicles on Canada’s roads that can take up to E85 but only five pumps that actually offer E85 to consumers.”

That’s why, Jacobs told me, it’s impractical for mechanics such as himself to optimize the engines of the street vehicles they drive. “I would not mess with that engine as sometimes it has to burn gasoline,” he said. “Changing the compression ratio on a modern car that is driven every day would not be practical. As more E85 stations are opened expect the factories to offer it as an option, just as a diesel motor is an option.”

Instead, Jacobs is working on the engine of an 1100 cc four stroke mountain climbing snowmobile, to make it run on E98 from a race fuel supplier. “The snowmobile is just for fun and engineering knowledge,” he said, later adding that, “like all automotive technology the racers develop it.”

Other than on the race track, legally, mountain climbing is one of the few places where unlimited horsepower can be used. “The object is to spin the track, which is 160 inches long, as fast as possible,” he said. “Kind of like trying to ride a chain saw. … We lighten the machines as much as possible. The best are 400 horsepower and 400 pounds.”

He then pointed out that the same motor (1100 cc and 60 cubic in) could easily power an economy car and get great mileage. Once he has access to E85 in his area, he plans to take the original motor out of one of his two Corvettes and put in an alcohol motor. In fact, if he lived in Iowa, he’d do that right now. “If a really small ethanol motor is used, the car can be made much lighter, as all supporting components such as frame etc., can be lighter,” he said. “In a gasoline-powered car the motor almost always weighs more than two passengers.” The process of altering an engine to use biofuels is one he is familiar with. “I am presently making small mods to my diesel equipment to burn B100,” he said.

In order to make ethanol engines practical, Jacobs thinks the ethanol industry should sponsor a blender pump every 200 miles in Canada. “Once there is one blender pump in a city the rest of the fuel stations must follow or lose business,” he said. “I live close to a small city, Camrose Alberta, there are no blenders here, but many people would use E85 if they could as it an ag city.”