Fuels Institute study explores national high-octane standard

By Matt Thompson | April 05, 2019

A report released by the Fuels Institute, a research group that studies issues affecting vehicle and fuel markets, outlines ethanol’s potential in helping the nation achieve a high-octane fuel (HOF) standard. According to the study and its companion white paper, the goal was to “develop a better understanding of the options for and the feasibility of a transition to a national high-octane fuel to enable more fuel-efficient vehicle technologies.”

Steve Vander Griend, technical director at Urban Air Initiative, said the Fuels Institute report is “a very good place to start,” in considering the pathway to a national, high-octane fuel, but that, in some cases that fuel is already available in the U.S. “Ninety-five RON [research octane number] is midgrade on the East Coast, and 95 RON is E15 here in the Midwest,” he said. “I think when people hear of a new fuel spec, they think you have to create a new fuel at the refinery, when in the real world, we could … say it’s already available today.”

The report concludes that a transition to a national high-octane fuel would require federal lawmaking. “After considering the complexity of the task of achieving a transition to a HOF, we concluded that a nationwide … federal mandate would be required to drive a successful introduction of any new HOF,” the study says. It also estimates it could take up to 23 years to fully transition to a new fuel, depending on the blend used.

Vander Griend agreed that a federal regulation would likely be required. “When you look at the planning and certifying, and really trying to optimize the higher octane, I think again you have to figure out how do you raise the floor in order to raise the ceiling,” he said. “But it’s got to be nationwide just because the cars are traveling nationwide.”

The authors considered three different fuels, all with a research octane number (RON) of 98 and varying levels of ethanol (E10, E20 and E30), as the high-octane option for the future, and outlined the challenges each option would face, and the benefits each would bring to consumers. According to the report, of the three fuels studied, a 98 RON E10 would likely be the quickest and cheapest route, due to the blend’s similarity to the premium E10 that’s available today. Much of the cost of using 98 RON E10 as the HOF of the future would be borne by oil refiners, the report says. As the ethanol content increases, the study finds, the cost of converting shifts from refiners to down-stream stakeholders, like blenders and retailers.

“Consumer sensitivity to retail fuel prices should not be underestimated, and if the transition to HOF might increase prices at the pump, then educating consumers regarding the benefits associated with the transition will be critical, especially given their limited knowledge about octane,” the report says. “Fully understanding the efficiency gains that could be achieved by optimizing engines to the target HOF and how this relates to or potentially offsets possible increased prices at the pump will be important messages to convey to consumers.”

But, because a 98 RON E10 may be easier to implement than higher ethanol blends, doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its drawbacks. The added octane wouldn’t be coming from additional ethanol, rather aromatics, Vander Griend said, which increase greenhouse gas emissions, as well as tailpipe emissions.

The Fuels Institute report also says that the ethanol industry is likely able to supply enough product for each fuel blend studied. In addressing concerns some have raised about the industry’s ability to supply enough ethanol to support a HOF, the report says “that it [the ethanol industry] certainly might be capable of satisfying an E20 market and delivering sufficient product to support a sizeable market for E30.”

The issue with implementing those higher-ethanol blends, according to the report, would be the cost of updating the nationwide infrastructure. Vander Griend adds that, “If you’re looking at an E30, … it becomes a little bit more of a challenge with UL [Underwriters Laboratory] certification, but we do have UL up to E25." He also added that transitioning to infrastructure compatible with higher blends could happen more quickly, if the procedure around determining material compatibility is examined.

“I believe there should be a discussion on real world fuels for material compatibility testing,” he said. “There is plenty of science out there that varying aromatics can also cause damage to infrastructure, yet that’s never tested. So, I think you could fast track the infrastructure, but it would take an industry-wide effort to have that discussion with UL.”

The Fuels Institute report and white paper are available at www.fuelsinstitute.org/research.