By Steve Bauer
A recently completed University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University research project on ethanol 20 fuel (E20) has lawmakers, ethanol producers and vehicle manufacturers debating the validity and significance of the results.
The study, which evaluated the performance of 40 pairs of vehicles that were operated on E0 (non-biofuel) and E20 fuels, found no statistical difference in the performance of cars over a 13-month period.
Despite concerns from major automobile and powersports OEMs, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is lobbying the federal government to make E20 the standard gasoline blend nationally in five years.
The move, intended to lessen dependency on fossil fuels and boost the local economies in corn producing states, asks the Environmental Protection Agency to commission its own study to evaluate the effects of E20 gasoline in vehicles, and to approve the passage of the new law if no adverse effects are found.
E20 is a gasoline-ethanol fuel containing 20 percent ethanol. Currently, 10 percent ethanol is the maximum allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency in conventional vehicles and products.
A powerful ally
U.S. ethanol producers are joining Pawlenty’s efforts to seek federal approval this year for greater levels of ethanol blended into gasoline than the current E10 limit, Renewable Fuels Association CEO Bob Dinneen says.
“We’ll be working with Minnesota, other states and other stakeholders to submit a [waiver to allow higher ethanol blends] this year,” Dinneen said. “We have confidence in our fuel.”
The Renewable Fuels Association, which was involved in the University of Minnesota and Minnesota State University research project, says final results from the Minnesota E20 testing could be out by early April, although preliminary results have “yet to find a significant barrier” to using higher ethanol blends in standard vehicles, according to a statement on the group’s Web site.
If an E20 blend isn’t approved, the Renewable Fuels Association says it will still push for a high ethanol blend law, noting that an ethanol blend higher than E10 works just as well on conventional vehicles as it does on cars and SUVs specially designed to operate on higher concentrations.
The Renewable Fuels Association does say there is resistance to a push for higher ethanol blends, specifically from vehicle manufacturers and refiners.
“Feedback will be needed from the auto, powersports and fuel industry,” said Matt Hartwig, the association’s communications director. “Those industries are not huge E20 fans.”
Hartwig says one of the biggest hurdles will be to convince refiners to give up a portion of their profits.
“It’s a greater percentage of their product [being replaced by ethanol] that’s been the objection to ethanol all along from them,” he said. “It’s not about the performance or quality of the fuel. It’s about share of the marketplace.”
Hartwig says despite the concerns manufacturers have about the effects the higher blend will have on engines, there is enough evidence to support a federal study into the issue.
“The preliminary indications are that there is no reason why the federal government can’t move forward with the required testing to certify higher ethanol blends.”
More research needed
Following Pawlenty’s announcement, powersports and automobile manufacturers were quick to dissect the study’s results, stating that more extensive research was necessary to determine the long-term effect a higher ethanol blended gasoline would have on vehicle engines. The biggest concern lies with the gasoline’s effect in older, more conventional model vehicles.
AllSAFE, a group representing powersports, marine and other manufacturers, is one group that has expressed the need for further research.
“This study falls far short of what is needed to answer important technical questions or determine national fuel policy,” said Kris Kiser, an AllSAFE representative. “Vehicles must undergo very comprehensive testing, and small engines such as lawn and garden equipment, motorboats and many other products must also be thoroughly studied. Emissions data, including exhaust, evaporative and permeation effects, are particularly important, as well as safety, product performance and consumer satisfaction.”
Coleman Jones, manager of Biofuels Implementation in General Motors’ powertrain division, agrees the University of Minnesota study was not extensive enough to be accurate when it comes to damage to engine components in the long term.
“It is important that all ethanol blends undergo coordinated testing to see what the effects would be on fuel systems and specifically catalytic converters,” Jones said. “As indicated in the study, the plan is for additional durability testing on these powered components.”
Coleman says extensive durability testing is the one true way to determine the effects added ethanol would have on a vehicle’s engine.
“The 3,000-hour durability test in the studies (done during the course of a year) is far short of what OEMs, whether for cars or powersport vehicles, require in statistically designed experiments.”
Coleman points to a recent study conducted by a major OEM where mid-level blends of ethanol like E20 were tested in Australia. The results were less than encouraging. Of the vehicles tested, 40 percent sustained catalyst damage, which allowed essentially unchecked tailpipe emissions. He adds that dynamic systems, such as fuel pumps and fuel level senders, would be the most sensitive to mid-level ethanol usage.
“That’s why E20 and other mid-level blends need to be tested more before they can be considered viable alternative fuel sources,” he said. “Extensive research and testing will need to be conducted in five areas: driveability, fuel system material compatibility, tailpipe and evaporative emissions, emission control system effectiveness and durability, and health effects. The Minnesota studies address the late-model automobile driveability and the no-dynamic portions of fuel system durability. However, there’s still a lot more that needs to be done."