Overcoming E20's Obstacles

As E10 has gained acceptance as a standard fuel in the United States, efforts are moving ahead to increase the amount of ethanol to 20 percent. Several studies have tested the effects of midlevel ethanol blends on vehicles, but more work remains to convince naysayers that midlevel blends are efficient, environmentally friendly and safe to use.
By Kris Bevill | August 04, 2008
In 2005, Minnesota passed unprecedented legislation requiring that the state's fuel consist of at least 20 percent ethanol by 2013. The state already enforces an E10 mandate and is home to more than 300 E85 fueling stations. To raise total fuel consumption to a level of 20 percent, the state has two choices—consume enough E85 to total 20 percent of all fuel consumed or convince the U.S. EPA to grant a waiver to the Clean Air Act and allow E20 to be used in all gasoline.

Expanding E85 availability is a feasible option, but has maximum capabilities for ethanol usage. An E20 waiver, on the other hand, would affect not only Minnesota but the entire nation. If the EPA agrees to consider E20 as a new additive, the agency will certify it and the waiver will apply on a national level.

The process toward gaining an E20 waiver, however, is a long one. Many studies need to be conducted before the EPA can determine whether a 20 percent blend of ethanol is safe for all engines. While midlevel blends are available in some parts of the Midwest via blender pumps, any blend of ethanol/gasoline greater than 10 percent has been deemed illegal by the EPA unless it is used in flexible-fuel vehicles. The agency needs to make sure that any proposed fuel operates sufficiently and meets its standards by gaining input from engine manufacturers and researchers.

A study to explore the effects of mid-level ethanol blends was recently concluded by the state of Minnesota and the Renewable Fuels Association. The University of Minnesota, the Minnesota Corn Growers Association, the Council of Great Lakes Governors and others also participated in the year-long study.

According to Ralph Groschen, marketing specialist for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture, the study was intended to focus on five areas of concern related to E20—materials compatibility, drivability, emissions, toxicology and durability. A $100,000 budget from the state allowed researchers to conduct materials compatibility and drivability tests. The RFA supplied funding for emissions testing. However, the money ran out before toxicology and durability tests could be conducted and further emissions testing is also needed. "It takes millions of dollars to do many of these things and we understand that the [U.S.] DOE is doing a lot of different kinds of testing that will answer some of the questions about durability and the rest of the emissions testing," Groschen says. He believes the EPA has covered the toxicology aspects in its health effects study that tested the effects of E10. Groschen says the results of the EPA study were supposed to be released in 1995, but have yet to be made available. He hopes once that data is finally released, those numbers can be modified to show the effects of E20 without having to complete a new study.

As for the portions of the Minnesota study that were completed, the results look promising. For the drivability testing, researchers used 40 matched pairs of fuel-injected and hybrid-model vehicles from Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler, General Motors Corp. and Toyota—model years ranging from 2000 to 2006. One vehicle from each pair was fueled with nonoxygenated gasoline, while the other was fueled with E20. Unlabeled refueling cards were provided for each vehicle to maintain drivers' unbiased opinions. Vehicles were driven by both ordinary individuals and experts in drivability performance. Research at the end of one year concluded that E20 was effective at powering vehicles and that the fuel was undistinguishable in performance compared with nonoxygenated gasoline.

The materials compatibility portion of the Minnesota study concluded that the use of E20 does not present problems for current automotive or fuel dispensing equipment. Researchers compared gasoline, E10 and E20 on metals, elastomers, plastics, fuel pumps and sending units. Of the 19 metals tested, only two showed measurable corrosion rates. All eight elastomer samples showed some degree of swell in all three test fuels. Of the plastics tested, only those that are currently not recommended for use with ethanol showed significant deterioration.

Groschen, who has been involved in testing and marketing midlevel ethanol blends since Minnesota's E20 legislation was passed in 1995, says no conclusions can be reached until more testing is completed. He believes it was vital to conduct the vehicle testing before moving on because if the results had come back negative, there would be no point in moving ahead. "We don't have the lion's share of it done, but we have made progress, and there's a lot of interest in the concept of certifying 20 percent blends across the nation," he says. He believes that the RFA and the Minnesota governor will officially request a waiver from the EPA as soon as more significant testing has been completed. "In order to make that come about we are participating with the RFA and the DOE and others to bring about data that would indicate to the EPA that there is no reason why they shouldn't approve 20 percent ethanol gasoline," he says. Groschen says in order to trigger Minnesota's E20 mandate, the EPA needs to pass a waiver by 2010.

Some of the federal testing is being conducted at the DOE's Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee. Ron Graves, director of ORNL's Fuels, Engines and Emissions Research Center, has been involved with intermediate ethanol blend studies since June 2007. While testing has yet to be completed, some key preliminary findings have been reached. First, Graves says his research team has yet to confirm the so-called "sweet spot" that other testers of ethanol blends claim exists. Previous researchers have said that certain blends of ethanol, E30 for example, provide better mileage than nonoxygenated fuel. ORNL research contradicts those claims and instead has shown that as the percentage of ethanol is increased the mileage rate decreases, consistent with the change in energy density.

Another key finding of ORNL research echoes the results of the Minnesota study. When it comes to drivability, the average driver cannot tell the difference between vehicles fueled with E20 or non oxygenated gasoline. "That doesn't mean there aren't subtle differences," Graves says. "But that's what our research is all about."

Some of the initial ORNL findings have surprised to researchers. Of the 13 vehicles tested with intermediate ethanol blends for an interim progress report, none have shown evidence of clogged fuel filters or of malfunction warnings from the vehicle's computer. That's a positive. On the flip side, testing of catalytic converter temperatures at full-throttle conditions has shown that most of the vehicles do not apply the learned fuel calibration for ethanol content at all operating conditions, which can result in catalysts that run between 25 and 35 degrees Celsius (77 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit) hotter than normal. Those results have caused some concern among researchers, but the question remains of how much of a problem that might be over the course of a vehicle's life. To answer that question, catalytic converter aging will be the subject of a much larger test. Researchers will test the effects of nonoxygenated gasoline, E10, E15 and E20 on 10 different types of vehicles to better determine the long-term effects of higher temperatures under certain operating conditions. A total of 80 vehicles will be tested. In mid-July, Graves expected a contract for the test to be awarded by the end of the month.

Fuel: Not Just for Cars
While support for E20 may be growing among standard vehicle operators, another sector of the motoring public is harder to convince. Small-engine manufacturers are concerned about ethanol blends and they're not afraid to voice their opinions. Shortly after the Minnesota study was released, a coalition of alternative engine associations, manufacturers and consumer awareness groups issued a response saying that the study was far from complete because it neglected to include small engines. Motorcycles, snowmobiles, boats, lawnmowers, generators and all other types of small-engine devices can't be forgotten when considering a nationwide change in fuel, they say, and the EPA needs to take those engines into consideration before making a decision.

"We don't have a problem with ethanol as far as E10 goes, but we do know that, at some point, when you increase the ethanol content in gasoline you're going to increase the heat in the combustion chamber," says John McKnight, director of environmental safety and compliance for the National Marine Manufacturers Association. "Our engines run at very high speeds." His organization won't be satisfied until extensive scientific testing on those types of engines is conducted by a third party.

Bob Adrience, technical director at the Boat Owners Association of the United States, agrees that more testing is needed by independent parties before any kind of waiver can be granted. "There's already a lot of talk that ethanol eats up this and ethanol eats up that," he says. "Let's find out before it's introduced. A lot of people feel like they got blindsided by E10."

It's common knowledge now, but Adrience points to the detrimental effects E10 had on fiberglass fuel tanks in boats when the fuel was first introduced a few years ago. He conducted his own testing on a "couple of tanks" and found that E10 not only destroyed the tanks, but also caused major damage to the boat motors. Fiberglass tanks were installed in boats from the mid-1960s until the mid-1980s and today make up less than 1 percent of the total number of boats being used, according to Adrience. More recently manufactured fiberglass tanks are resistant to ethanol. However, it's not uncommon for boats to remain in use for more than 20 years, so there is a possibility that a new fuel could have long-term effects on boat owners. Adrience says even though the main problem experienced by boaters who use ethanol-blended gasoline is a temporary clogging of fuel filters, many are still upset. "I think they won't be up-in-arms about it a year from now, once their tanks are clean," he says, adding that making the leap to E20 would be a major difference. McKnight says the boating population can get behind E10 on a national level, "but when we start to get to the increase of [ethanol], there are a lot of questions."
Motorcycles also have yet to be tested with E20. The American Motorcycle Association is a member-driven organization and does not conduct scientific studies, but Imre Szauter, government affairs manager for the association, says he receives anecdotal reports from motorcycle riders who say they've experienced problems with ethanol. His association has two major concerns when it comes to intermediate blends of ethanol—reliability and emissions. "Any kind of testing, whether it's done by people in the ethanol industry or disinterested third parties, needs to be done openly so folks can see what's going on," Szauter says. "[They need to] test a broad range of engines so that when the results come back they can say they are representative of what's being used in the field. Then we can say with some certainty what to expect. Unless it's really a broad sample of what's out there, we don't believe that it will really address all of the issues that will surface and in the end it's the consumer who will pay for this one way or the other."

Groschen says Minnesota is leaving small-engine testing up to the DOE, because it is better funded and well-equipped to handle such an extensive study. Graves says the DOE conducted small-engine testing last fall, but only tested small generators, a leaf blower and a line trimmer. More recently, a concerted effort was completed in which 16 engines were run to full useful life. This larger effort involved a pressure washer, a leaf blower, a line trimmer and a small generator. Testing on motorcycles, boats and snowmobiles is in the planning stages and should begin in a few months, Graves says. Tests are expected to be conducted for about one year.

It's clear that many discussions and studies need to occur before the United States can set standards for a higher blend of ethanol. "As far as the national initiative is concerned, we've started the ball rolling in that direction," Groschen says. "If it didn't happen until 2015, well that would still be progress wouldn't it? If we got 15 percent instead of 20 percent—15 is more than 10. We're just trying to make progress."

Kris Bevill is an Ethanol Producer Magazine staff writer. Reach her at kbevill@bbiinternational.com or (701) 373-8044.