Research unveils ethanol's role in future fuel efficiency

By Kris Bevill | January 11, 2012

The latest round of vehicles being introduced by automakers at the 2012 North American International Auto Show, held Jan. 9-22 in Detroit, include several hybrid and electric plug-in models, but many more new vehicles are featuring fuel efficient engines as manufacturers work to meet increasingly stringent fuel economy standards.

Their efforts in this area were applauded by Roland Hwang, transportation program director for the Natural Resources Defense Council, who said in remarks delivered to attendees on Jan. 10 that while the NRDC believes electric drive trains are the future of vehicle technology, more than 80 percent of the vehicles driven in 2025 will still be gasoline-powered. Therefore, in order to meet the 54.5 miles-per-gallon standard currently proposed for 2025, gasoline-fueled vehicles will require technology modifications, such as the addition of turbochargers or direct injection technology.

As Hwang pointed out, these modifications have already been implemented in some vehicle models and are being installed in increasing numbers of vehicles. “Ford’s version of the downsized gasoline direct injection turbo-charged engine, called the EcoBoost, now accounts for four of every 10 F-150s,” Hwang said. “After just being introduced last February, it recently passed the 100,000 sales mark.”

What do these innovations have to do with ethanol? Quite a lot, according to research recently conducted by powertrain systems developer AVL Powertrain Engineering and funded by ICM Inc. Higher-octane fuel will be required if the new fuel-efficient engines are to be used to their full potential and AVL’s year-long testing showed that ethanol offers twice the octane potential of gasoline. The tests concluded that ethanol could be used instead of more expensive high-octane gasoline to boost engine performance and increase fuel efficiency in direct injection engines.

“This new testing data has proven to be a great tool to illustrate how much performance can be achieved by simply adding ethanol to gasoline,” said Steve Vander Griend, head of ICM’s research and development of ethanol engines. “We are seeing a significantly higher value for ethanol and use of intermediate blends to support the changing needs of the automakers and the new fuel efficiency standards that have been issued.”

AVL’s testing was unique in that it evaluated various fuel blends along a range of knock limit operation rather than just evaluating one set point, according to ICM. Previously, research of ethanol has been conducted using federally approved base gasoline, which is known to vary in content and therefore produces inconsistent results. By varying the gasoline base fuels, compression ratios and automotive fuel systems, AVL researchers were able to more accurately demonstrate ethanol’s true potential. The fuel performance portion of the study, for example, showed that E30 yielded higher octane performance than current American Society for Testing and Materials testing standards would show.

“These real-world results show that ethanol blends have the potential to offer much more octane value than previously estimated by methods prescribed by the ASTM,” Vander Griend said. “This is very good news for automotive engineers who are looking to higher-octane fuel as they strive to meet higher fuel efficiency and performance standards. Most importantly, consumers stand to gain the most from saving money at the pump.”

ICM provided funding for the AVL study in order to prove the true performance and value offered by ethanol, the company stated. Tests were conducted from January 2011 through December 2011. ICM indicated it may continue to finance similar fuel test studies in the future and said the entire biofuels industry is prepared to collaborate with various stakeholders to achieve escalating fuel efficiency standards.