Blog: More details on the high octane story

Some stories are more interesting and fun to write than others. For me, the one that just went live on our website, about opportunities for optimized vehicles and midlevel ethanol blends, was one of the good ones.
By Holly Jessen | February 08, 2016

I really enjoyed learning about research into midlevel ethanol blends from Timothy Theiss and Brian West, researchers at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. "E25, E40 for the masses" went live on our website last week and will appear in the March issue of the magazine, which will be reaching readers soon.

I was frustrated, however, by space limits, which meant I only had four pages for the story, instead of the more typical six. Some of the things I wished I had room to include in my feature story just didn’t make the cut. So, today I’m writing about a few of the things that I didn’t have room to fit into the story in the magazine.  

First, there’s the issue of what to call the fuel. If a new midlevel blend does reach consumers, how should it be branded? West said some suggested “renewable super premium,” but says others have expressed concern that the word premium could lead to the fuel being priced too high. One of the key pieces of the puzzle in making optimized vehicles and a new midlevel ethanol blend a reality is that the fuel cannot be more expensive than E10, West said. When oil prices once again go up and ethanol is less expensive than gas, a midlevel ethanol blend could be priced very attractively. “You could make a high octane E25 and sell it in a way that the consumer wins, the retailer wins and everybody wins,” West says.

Another issue I wasn’t able to include in my story was West’s thoughts on a possible performance specification. In this scenario, as long as the performance spec is met, the ethanol content wouldn’t have to be dictated, so E25 could potentially met the spec but another blend could as well.

One possible way to get there is by adding an additive to an ethanol and gasoline blend, West said. So, for example, E10 with an additive, could potentially meet the same performance spec as E25. Identifying an additive that could work for this is something that could possibly come out of the Optima initiative. The study, according to West, is focused on the development of new fuels and engine architectures that are co-optimized—designed in tandem to maximize performance and carbon efficiency. Ethanol is one fuel that will be looked at in the course of that study, but other fuels will as well.

West and Theiss also talked to me about R-factor. Apparently, the U.S. EPA is assessing a possible change from the current R-Factor of 0.6. If the R-Factor was set closer to 1 vehicle manufactures would be favorably inclined to build vehicles optimized for midlevel ethanol blends, the researchers told me. Basically, the R-factor was incorporated into fuel economy calculations in the 1980s and, with the EPA decision to add ethanol to certification fuel, data shows it needs to be updated. “Essentially it converts certification fuel economy to a gasoline equivalent fuel economy for a 1975 cert fuel,” West said. “Bottom line, if the vehicle can attain volumetric fuel economy parity with an E25 certification fuel, the CAFE benefit to the manufacturer is significant if R is close to 1.0.”

R-Factor is an incredibly complicated issue that I don’t pretend to understand fully. If you’d like to read more about it, you can do so in this ORNL publication or this one, published by SAE International.

Learning about the research into vehicles optimized for a midlevel ethanol blend got me excited about the future. Vehicle manufacturers already have the technology to build the vehicles. And the ethanol industry stands, ready and able, to provide the ethanol. Another piece of good news is that work to expand midlevel ethanol compatible refueling infrastructure is already ongoing. Every single blender pump installed is one more pump where consumers could, someday, fill up with a midlevel ethanol blend with their optimized vehicle.

On the other hand, I’m also frustrated to see so many barriers to making this actually happen. Regulatory changes would be needed. Multiple parties, including government, vehicle manufacturers, petroluem industry and the ethanol industry, would need to come to agreement. As we all know, introducing a new fuel is a slow and difficult process, even after it goes through the vetting process with the EPA. (Just look at E15.)

Still, I choose to be hopeful. The reports that came out of the high octane fuel study (and more data will be published over time) make a strong case for adding more ethanol into our fuel mix. It may take time, but I believe there’s a strong chance for success. (Just look at E10.)