Are you ready for the E30 challenge?

A South Dakota ethanol plant is spearheading a challenge for drivers to use E30, to show vehicles are capable of handling higher ethanol blends even when they aren't FFVs, writes Dave VanderGriend. This column appears in the April issue of EPM.
By Dave VanderGriend | March 04, 2016

Who would have ever thought that a place like Watertown, South Dakota, might be a trend setter for the rest of the nation? No, not for the latest fashion or a new dance craze, but for a fundamental change in the way we fuel our automobiles. Watertown is challenging conventional wisdom in order for biofuels like ethanol to finally realize their true potential.

Conventional wisdom says our nonflex autos can only operate on 10 percent ethanol blends and, at most, 15 percent. But those of us in the ethanol industry are well aware that the original Model T built by Henry Ford was designed to run on high blends of ethanol. Its high octane would allow for higher compression and increased efficiency, an elusive brass ring we continue to reach for today, more than 100 years later.

It took the Iranian oil embargoes of the late 1970s to spark a renewed interest in ethanol and “gasohol” was born as a mix of 10 percent ethanol and 90 percent gasoline. But 10 percent volume blends should never have been the baseline—cars then and now are capable of using much higher blends and the auto industry knows it. In fact the optimum blend to maximize octane and energy content is in the 25 to 40 percent volume range, according to the U.S. DOE.

So what does this have to do with Watertown? Well, a revolution has to start somewhere and ethanol producer Glacial Lakes Energy is spearheading an "E30 Challenge," encouraging everyone to use blends up to E30 regardless of whether they have a flex-fuel vehicle. The goals are to increase the amount of ethanol chosen at the local blending pump and to show the U.S. EPA that midlevel blends work in nonflex vehicles. Glacial Lakes Energy is collecting data on how E30 responds in 50 makes and models.

Education and promotion of the E30 Challenge on the community level will be done with print and radio ads, as well as seminars and clinics with dealerships, technical colleges, automotive technicians and Farmers Union members. Retailers will also be educated on the value of octane, clean air and local jobs. At the Urban Air Initiative, we are actively engaged in this project as it completely supports our push for higher ethanol blends to improve fuel quality, reduce emissions and protect public health.

First and foremost, we want to demonstrate that the so-called blend wall is a myth. Auto makers are helping us prove that point. For instance, in its 2016 Mini-Hardtop owners’ manual, BMW endorsed the use of E25 higher octane blends in its standard (nonflex fuel) vehicles. Mercedes-Benz engineers have urged the EPA to approve the use of high octane E30 blends because they have “ridiculous power and good fuel economy.” All gasoline-powered vehicles in Brazil efficiently operate on blends of at least 27 percent ethanol. And, a recent study by Ford, GM, and Chrysler found that E30’s higher octane could improve vehicle performance and mileage and that even noncalibrated standard vehicles could benefit from ethanol’s superior octane properties.

So, why don't American motorists have access to these higher blends? Because the EPA refuses to certify E30 test fuels for commercial use and prohibits the use of E30 blends in standard vehicles, even though many experts confirm that such vehicles are identical to so-called flex-fuel vehicles.

Local legend Andy Wicks, who owns the high-performance shop, DynoTune, in Watertown, has led the effort to educate his fellow mechanics about the value of E30. Wicks makes a great point when he says, "If you've ever dealt with an engineer, they are very quick to tell you something is not possible simply because they do not have sufficient test data. It has been instilled in them to never apply a stamp of approval to a limited knowledge basis. The testing we have done leads us to believe blends up to E30 will not only be tolerated, but embraced by our vehicles we drive every day."

With a focused message, the E30 Challenge will provide positive and accurate information. Once this education method is refined, Urban Air Initiative intends to take the package to the next town, and the next. Today, all vehicles are approved for E10 blends, nearly 80 percent are approved for 15 percent, and we may be on our way to 30 percent, thanks to a little place called Watertown.

Are you ready for the E30 Challenge in your town?

Author: David VanderGriend
CEO, ICM Inc., President, Urban Air Initiative