Got octane?

It’s the Holy Grail for many in the ethanol industry to increase demand for our fuel based on its octane value proposition. This column appears in the September 2016 issue of Ethanol Producer Magazine.
By Brian Jennings | August 18, 2016

It’s the Holy Grail for many in the ethanol industry to increase demand for our fuel based on its octane value proposition. 

The American Coalition for Ethanol has been working on octane for a long time. Nine years ago, in response to anecdotal evidence that E20 and E30 had performed well in legacy cars, we did a research project with the U.S. DOE to investigate the optimal blend of ethanol in gasoline. We found that certain cars traveled farther on higher ethanol blends than straight gas. For the Toyota Camry it was E30. The Ford Fusion performed best on E40. E20 was the optimal blend in the Chevy Impala. By the way, these cars were not flex fuel (FFVs). While preliminary, ACE’s study helped serve as a catalyst for the interest that has been building for higher octane and ethanol blends nowadays.

Also several years ago, ACE began huddling with U.S. automakers and ag groups to better understand how a higher octane fuel with upward of 25 to 30 percent ethanol could help OEMs comply with future fuel economy and carbon reduction regulations. Today this effort is called the Ag-Auto-Ethanol Working Group, an active coalition of interests trying to find common ground on the octane issue.

Just last year, the DOE announced it was embarking on a multimillion dollar research project called Co-Optima. Octane is a major thrust of this public-private partnership, whose goal is to develop an optimal fuel specification for future engine technologies.

Future engine technologies are the reason there’s so much interest in octane. Engines traditionally are made to tolerate fuel. There’s tremendous interest in better harmonizing engines and fuels in the future, finding the near-perfect match in which a new high-octane, low-carbon fuel helps engines run more efficiently and cuts down on greenhouse gas emissions.

Ethanol isn’t the only fuel that threads the high-octane, low-carbon needle, but many engineers and technical experts believe a blend between 25 and 30 percent ethanol is the ideal way to get that 95 minimum RON fuel of the future.

The fact that so many people are fascinated with octane doesn’t mean a future high-octane fuel with upwards of 25 to 30 percent ethanol is going to happen any time soon, or at all. Left to their own devices, oil companies aren’t going to supply the market with a higher-octane fuel. The government will need to force them to do so. Even if that occurs, oil companies won’t accept corn ethanol as the octane of choice. They will point to the premium already on the market, the toxic aromatics they make today, or suggest they can produce their own high-octane ethanol from natural gas.

Likewise, auto company CEOs aren’t going to green light the kind of new engines that need more octane unless the federal government issues more stringent rules to improve fuel economy and reduce greenhouse gas emissions (CAFE-GHG). 

ACE and others are exploring the various regulatory pathways available to secure a high-octane future for ethanol. Part of that involves the dialogue we’ve been having with automakers. It also involves navigating the sometimes rough waters at ASTM and U.S. EPA. The immediate pathway we are pursuing is the EPA and National Highway Traffic Safety Administration midterm evaluation of the 2022-'25 model-years CAFE-GHG program. If the next president determines that future rules need to require even greater efficiency from engines and further carbon reductions, it is highly likely that octane will be one of the best solutions to get there. There may be other pathways we follow to create octane-driven demand for ethanol, but the CAFE-GHG program presents the best near-term opportunity. 

This process will take time but we have confidence in the technical evidence which makes a persuasive case for ethanol to be the key ingredient in the high-octane, low-carbon fuel of the future.

Author: Brian Jennings
Executive Vice President
American Coalition for Ethanol