What’s the Ethanol Sweet Spot?

by Jim Seurer, CEO of Glacial Lakes Energy and Urban Air Initiative Supporter

Our good friend and colleague Dave VanderGriend wrote in the Clearing the Air column in April that a little place called Watertown South Dakota could be the beginning of a revolution in how we think about ethanol blends. Well folks, we are past the beginning and getting into the heart of the matter with our E30 Challenge.

The E30 Challenge is a campaign initiated by Glacial Lakes Energy to test the boundaries of conventional thinking—not to mention EPA restrictions—to encourage the voluntary use of premium gasoline made with 30% ethanol blends. With the support of ICM and others, we set out to dispel the myth that    2001 and newer non-flex autos can only operate, at most, on a 15% ethanol blend (E15). Ultimately, the main purpose of this campaign is to DRIVE CHANGE and help consumers recognize the value that higher blends of ethanol have to offer.

But as I said, we are well past the beginning since our launch in the summer of 2015. During that time a lot has happened to validate our thinking. Automaker BMW through its popular Mini-Cooper brand made a public announcement that it was recommending premium and its warranties were good for 25% ethanol. During that same time, the U.S. Department of Energy continued to quite publicly tout its work that identified high octane fuels, including ethanol blends in the 25-40% volume range, as an optimum fuel for meeting future efficiency and greenhouse gas standards. Just last month, Nissan announced the introduction of a variable compression engine which could be a game changer for ethanol as it would adjust to various volume levels and negate any potential mileage loss. A new High Octane Low Carbon Alliance has been established led by former Senator Tom Daschle, a great friend to ethanol and father of the RFS. And a former General Motors engineer recently wrote an article in a Washington newspaper stating ethanol is by far the fuel of choice from an engineer’s perspective. Momentum is on our side as the value of ethanol to make premium fuels is becoming widely recognized.

For our part in Watertown, what have we learned from our demonstration of an E30 premium fuel in conventional vehicles?  For starters, the oil company-led charge that ethanol damages engines is unfounded. After a year of in-use monitoring of our Premium E30, we have not had a single engine related issue or complaint. To obtain real-live information about how Premium E30 was performing in the engines, we developed a list of roughly 50 “test autos” to which we connected performance data logging devices to compare the effects of E10 (10% ethanol) to E30 (30% ethanol). While we are still in the process of collecting and analyzing this data, early indications bode well for Premium E30. We’ve learned there is no significant change in miles per gallon (MPG) and we have documented proof that engines have more torque and more horsepower using Premium E30 fuel. Since ethanol is a cleaner burning fuel, we already knew that it’s much better for our environment.

So is E30 the right number? What about E25 like the Brazilians use, or some other volume? As noted, E25 is currently the volume specified by MiniCooper and likely related to the fact that new hoses and pumps are certified up to 25% volume. However, current testing programs by ethanol supporters in cooperation with pump manufacturers are “test to the point of failure” and we are absolutely convinced a hose or pump that can handle 25% can handle 30% or more. And while we are delighted to see this move towards a 25% volume, going to 30% offers significant benefits.

The auto industry has repeatedly stated it would be able to achieve significant efficiency and emission gains with a 100 RON octane, which translates to a 93-94 AKI at the pump. Using today’s ethanol blendstock, 25% ethanol falls just short. But adding 20% to E10 would reach the 100 RON number and do so without any difficulty, since we would be splash blending.

Sure, 25% volume is a great step forward and we’ll gladly take it. But I encourage us all to not be boxed in by a random UL25 number that was created absent of any science or real world experience. Whereas E30 is proven to have the biggest bang for the buck in modern engines and provides the octane autos are asking for.