More Research To Back the Bills

University of Nebraska Researchers have proven E30 is safe for long-term use in non-flex fuel vehicles. The findings could bolster the push for state- and federal-level low-carbon fuel legislation.
By Lisa Gibson | May 11, 2021

Two researchers from the University of Nebraska–Lincoln are eager to continue sharing their results from a study that evaluated the impact of E30 in 50 non-flex fuel state fleet vehicles. The results: Nothing.

Over the course of the one-year study, fueling with E30 instead of E15 showed no change in vehicle adaptability, performance, emissions or fuel efficiency. The research was a partnership between the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services and the university to determine long-term usability of E30 in non-flex fuel vehicles.

It was not a conventional research project, says lead researcher Rajib Saha, assistant professor in UNL’s Department of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering. The volume of data never before collected is the most exciting part, he says, adding that the results weren’t surprising. “We expected this to happen. We expected that, at least with E30, we don’t expect to see a lot of differences in a non-flex fuel vehicles.”

The research is likely to aid and encourage other state- and even federal-level moves toward low-carbon fuel legislation, says Roger Berry, administrator of the Nebraska Ethanol Board. “It specifically points out the decrease in carbon emission from just 10% of the 1.7 million registered non-FFVs in Nebraska. Just think what that number would be if it was every ICE vehicle in the U.S.!”

 Several states worked through bills this year and their supporters are hopeful to reach finish lines in 2022. And this time, they’ll be armed with this U.S. EPA-approved proof that long-term E30 use is not harmful to vehicles.

The Research
Saha and graduate research assistant Adil Alsiyabi began their study in 2019, at the request of the Nebraska Department of Administrative Services. It was the first study of its scale and kind, and its main value is in the sheer amount of data and statistical significance, Alsiyabi says.  

The full report will appear in an academic journal soon, but the findings released thus far are encouraging, Saha and Alsiyabi say. “What we did is scientifically sound,” Saha says. “If it’s published, that means our peers have looked into this. If it’s published, it means we went through this due process, and it should give people higher confidence.”

For the study, 26 vehicles were fueled with E15 and 24 were fueled with E30. Through cold and warm weather, on-board data collection, as well as logs from the state employees regarding maintenance and efficiency, showed clearly that the four parameters studied—adaptability, performance, emissions and fuel efficiency—remained constant between both fuels. All four are tied together, Alsiyabi explains.
The engine should detect extra oxygen in ethanol and optimize its air-to-fuel ratio. “Due to the higher oxygen content, we saw the fuel shrink, which is the car’s way of detecting the air-to-fuel ratio,” Alsiyabi says. “It’s what we expected.”

This adaptability is the main parameter the vehicle will try to control, he says. And it does. That adaptability of course lends to high performance, which is linked to fuel efficiency, Alsiyabi says. “You maintain that optimal performance and make use of that higher octane in ethanol.”

As far as emissions, ethanol shows a 7-pound reduction in carbon emissions per gallon over pure gasoline, Saha and Alsiyabi report. Additionally, with a 2.5% cost difference between E30 and E15, economics come into play, as well, Alsiyabi says. While Alsiyabi and Saha focused only on emissions from the vehicles, they will discuss in their final report the implications of a life cycle analysis.

Meanwhile, Saha is hopeful for a second phase of this work, using vehicles owned by citizens. A wider selection of automobiles with varied owners would present even more confidence, he says. “Even if we have 20 vehicles, if we could include that kind of a group, it could be become more impactful. We are not talking about vehicles from a fleet. That would be great.”

Further research would be contingent upon EPA approval, he says. But it would provide more detailed data on the benefits of E30, he says. “We deeply care about data and what we can do with it.”

On the State Level
The implications of the study and its value to the ethanol industry are vast. Outside of Nebraska, several states in all parts of the country are working on their own low-carbon fuels legislation. California, of course, leads the way with its Low Carbon Fuel Standard, with Oregon having enacted a program in 2016, and Washington following close behind.

In Washington, the State Senate passed the Clean Fuel Standard in early April, following the House’s passage of a similar bill. The House also had passed the legislation in 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, but this is the first time the Senate held a vote on it. Graham Noyes, executive director of the Low Carbon Fuels Coalition, expects more movement in 2022. Gov. Jay Inslee is onboard, Noyes says, so once a compromise bill is settled and approved, it should be a win.

“This is the third legislative session we’ve been in in Washington State,” he says. “This has been a really hard-fought state for the industry.

“The petroleum industry has really opposed this, to the tune of millions of dollars of anti-LCFS spending. We have, the industry has, really put together some very effective coalitions to address the issues, get public involvement and educate legislators. So this is a real breakthrough from a Pacific Coast perspective. It establishes a standard from California to British Columbia.”

Noyes cautions, though, that “one must not count their chickens before they hatch.”

Still, it’s a breakthrough that creates colossal momentum for the industry. “I think that it is a situation now where this conversation and this policy structure is just moving forward and gathering momentum year to year. We now have tremendous attention on GHG reduction from the Biden administration, which is a real shift.

“We’re seeing standards go well beyond Oregon and the West Coast,” he says. “We’re seeing them in the national discussion, we’re seeing them in the western states. This all provides an additional revenue stream for carbon value and the steady demand and steady market we’ve seen out of California.”

The Renewable Fuel Standard beyond 2023 will be crucial, and state policies will help shape that standard, Noyes says. “We are encouraged. RFS will be important. That’s been an extremely valuable program for the industry and we certainly don’t want to disrupt that.”

State policies will help determine the best interaction between federal and state low-carbon programs, he says. “It’s a complicated design question that people are looking at now.”

Model Minnesota
Minnesota’s Future Fuels Act was introduced this year, with key changes from California’s legislation designed to help model a federal policy that’s more ideal for Midwestern states. “We know this conversation is happening at the federal level as well,” says Brian Jennings, CEO of the American Coalition for Ethanol. “We don’t want Congress and President Biden to simply look to California as the way to go.

“Part of the strategy for pushing for a Midwest clean fuel policy is also to influence decisions that are made down the road at the federal level.”

The Future Fuels Act is the first of its kind to be introduced in a Midwest state, is bipartisan and bicameral, Jennings says. Further, he adds, it improves on California’s LCFS in four key ways. First, it allows E15 and higher blends, whereas California’s Air Resources Board prohibits them. “The analysis we’ve done shows that the quickest, lowest-cost way to get to a 20% or a 15% reduction in carbon intensity in a state like Minnesota over 10 or 15 years is to rapidly increase the use of ethanol: E15, E30, E85,” Jennings says.

Second, the Future Fuels Act is genuinely technology neutral. “The government doesn’t pick the winners and losers,” Jennings says. “The market does.

“The California program tips the scales dramatically to favor electric vehicles over other low-carbon technology. We’re not going to embrace that in the Midwest.”

Third, the life cycle analysis in the Future Fuels Act is more accurate and scientific. “California selectively uses the GREET model and widely overcites the carbon intensity of corn ethanol because they use an outdated assumption about landuse change,” Jennings says. “The Future Fuels Act contains language that requires the use of the most recent GREET model. It will make sure ethanol and biodiesel get a much fairer shake under the Midwest approach.”

And fourth, farmers would be able to benefit from the Minnesota program. “Currently, California prohibits any carbon credits to reward farmers for practices that eventually lower the CI of ethanol. The Minnesota legislation contains language that would allow carbon credits to be used by farmers for no-till and more efficient use of nitrogen fertilizer. Those are the two big ones that bring down the carbon footprint of ethanol.”

Noyes says the policy goal is to keep carbon in the ground for good, and the Midwest policy structure is optimal for that. The soil has massive capabilities for carbon sequestration, he says. “We need to send the market signal clearly to the farming community that there is revenue to be made by keeping the carbon in the soil and taking carbon into account as a value. Farmers have access to that carbon sequestration resource, and right now they do not have policy structures to make them pay attention and make the effort and expenses that require them to sequester carbon.”

These key features of the Future Fuels Act are monumental and make it dramatically different from California’s, as well as dramatically better, Jennings says. “Not only do we hope the Minnesota legislation is a better model for other states to consider, we hope that the Minnesota legislation is the model that Congress and the Biden administration look at when they get around to doing this.”

The bill has had two hearings but no votes. “That wasn’t necessarily our goal in 2021,” Jennings says. “We got started a bit late. Our goal was to get a bipartisan bill introduced. To have some hearings, to better inform public about what we’re trying to accomplish, to answer questions that get raised. Pique the interest of other states that they can try to do this too.

“That means we will be working as a coalition to resurrect this legislation in future sessions and make a more concerted effort to get it across the finish line, have it signed into law.”

Noyes says, “I’m optimistic we’ll move forward and get a policy in place in Minnesota at the beginning of 2022, and we’ll see other states looking at the same thing.”

And thanks to Saha and Alsiyabi, the research backs up the bills.

Author: Lisa Gibson
Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
[email protected]