In Defense of Ethanol

ICM's Steve Vander Griend has immersed himself in understanding ethanol’s performance, both as a fuel and in the tests used by regulatory agencies. As one of the biofuel's top technical agents, he's working hard to true up ethanol emissions testing.
By Susanne Retka Schill | January 25, 2014

Getting his start as an airplane mechanic, Steve Vander Griend understands the importance of octane. The antiknock properties of octane enhancers are critical to keeping lightweight airplane engines running smoothly. Yet, given other hurdles, ethanol has some difficulties as the octane booster of choice for aviation fuels. At ICM Inc., Vander Griend, technical manager of fuel and engine technology, has relied on his background in engines and fuel performance to immerse himself in understanding ethanol’s performance, both as a fuel and in the tests used by regulatory agencies and researchers. 

Vander Griend has spent untold hours reading, scrutinizing and responding to detailed reports from groups such as SAE International and the oil and auto industry-backed Coordinating Research Council. He’s made headway, and friends, at times getting his questions answered—and his papers reviewed—by the technical engineers he’s come to know as colleagues while working on octane and engine projects for ICM. 

More recently, he’s broadened that work into ASTM International, giving a presentation in December, for example, on how the design of one quick distillation test used to characterize fuels does not accurately take into account ethanol’s properties, and thus misrepresents the renewable fuel’s performance. 

Curious Test Fuels
Vander Griend makes it his business to dig into details, and that proclivity makes him an important technical agent for the ethanol industry. He has been highly critical of recent reports that have reflected poorly, and perhaps unfairly, on ethanol. Vander Griend has questioned the findings of a recent U.S. EPA report, EPAct E-89, ordered by Congress as part of the 2005 energy bill to ensure air quality doesn’t backslide as a result of ethanol blending. “The first day it was released, it was almost like getting kicked because it said ethanol raised every emission,” Vander Griend recalls. The test appears comprehensive, with 27 fuels and 18 vehicles used in over 1,000 tests. But in examining the study closely, Vander Griend learned that unique—and questionable—fuels were used in the tests. All of the E0 fuels used for comparison with ethanol blends were specially formulated and only three of the 27 fuels used were below 90 octane. They were designed, he points out, to make sure ethanol wouldn’t improve emissions in the tests. And octane, ethanol’s primary contribution to cleaner burning fuels, was not one of the five parameters tested. 

The engine durability study that the CRC released last year, which is touted as demonstrating that E15 harms vehicles, is another example of manipulated tests, according to Vander Griend. “They added ethanol to a regular gasoline for the E15 and E20,” he explains. “But the E0 they used is not the same E0 they use to splash blend E15 and E20. They actually used a premium E0. Then, right in their report, they say they used three times the legal limit of detergents.” 

In other words, Vander Griend says, the specially formulated fuel was designed to optimize the E0 perfomance. 


Fundamental Questions
His work on understanding the technical world of fuels and ethanol began about four years ago when ICM posed two questions, explains CEO Dave Vander Griend. “We needed to understand for the benefit of the ethanol industry as a whole: What does the auto industry want? If they could be king for a day, what kind of fuel do they want? And No. 2: What do the refineries do? How do they formulate, and why?”  He describes his younger brother as a very focused individual, “digging in and doing the hard work behind the scenes to see where ethanol fits, and asking, ‘Why are we getting pushback from EPA for no logical reason?’”

Steve Vander Griend says that discussions with the auto industry have been eye-opening. When asked about ideal fuels, many auto engineers have indicated that they are open to higher ethanol blends. As Vander Griend did his research and talked to engineers, he learned that the sweet spot for maximizing ethanol’s octane in gasoline would be E30. 

Among his collection of papers is an extensive magazine article from 2000 in The Nation that describes how ethanol was the oxygenate of choice back in the 1920s to address engine knocking. The article describes the oil industry’s successful campaign to replace ethanol, the production of which they could not control, with lead. The exposé by Jamie Lincoln Kitman, “The Secret History of Lead,” lays out the people and companies behind the profitable 50-year use of lead, a fuel additive known to be toxic for centuries. Even though questioned from the start, lead wasn’t banned in fuels until the Clean Air Act was passed in the 1970s. Many of the same strategies used to keep lead in fuel are still being used today to keep aromatics in use and ethanol in question.   

The continued use of carcinogenic aromatics and the health hazards from the ultrafine particulate matter content of gasoline used today are every bit as worrisome as lead was decades ago, Vander Griend says. He serves as chairman of the technical committee for the Urban Air Initiative, which seeks to educate the public on the health hazards of noncompliance with the Clean Air Act and pressure the EPA to follow through with the program. “We need to go back to the 1990 amendment to the Clean Air Act where it said you need to reduce aromatics to the greatest extent possible, or go to the MSAT 2007 (Mobile Source Air Toxins) rulemaking where they got the octane wrong and said there was no replacement for aromatics,” he says. The ethanol replacement is there, and the justification for continued use of aromatics that was based on oil prices below $30 a barrel, no longer applies. “We’re trying to bring this out in the open, but this is an area I don’t think some people want discussed,” he explains. 

“What is the value of adding more ethanol to E10 today? In our view, the data is there. We have plenty of SAE papers and fuel journal papers,” he continues. The challenge is to be sure ethanol gets fair treatment in the studies and modeling used to examine fuel emissions and air quality, and to cry foul when it is not. Vander Griend has been able to get his point across to many of the engineers he’s talked to about the questionable ethanol tests, he reports. Now, he’s trying to understand how to address the world of fuel regulations.

He freely admits to not being an engineer, but says that can be an advantage. Many times, the experts in their specialties aren’t asking the questions that he is, as he tries to understand why tests come up with such different answers. “I can show you tests where ethanol’s particulate matter is higher and tests where it is lower.” Some tests are most definitely manipulated, he says. His challenge has been to show and explain just how that happens, quickly leaving the nontechnical person in the dust, and sometimes even engineers.  A recent example, he says, was at the ASTM meeting where he did a presentation on distillation tests. When done correctly, ethanol is put on a level playing field, but when done using the typical set points, ethanol is automatically, and Vander Griend adds unfairly, discounted. After his presentation, he says, an auto industry fuels specialist approached him. “He said, ‘Now I understand what you’re talking about.’”

“That’s the hard part,” Vander Griend says. “I wish more people understood that we haven’t been treated very fairly in certain arenas, in certain testing.”

Author: Susanne Retka Schill
Senior Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]