Innovative new uses for ethanol

By Luke Geiver | May 21, 2010
Ethanol continues to inspire new uses in unexpected ways. Two companies have found new uses in the transportation sector in emissions control and ignition systems., and a Wisconsin-based company's new trademarked FlameDisk shows that ethanol can even be used to grill up a burger.

Comprised of 93 percent pure ethanol, the FlameDisk is designed to produce a controlled and open flame suitable for grilling, according to Chad Sorenson, president of the company. The disk will create a grilling flame in less than two minutes. Marketed as a cleaner, renewable alternative to charcoal, the ethanol used in the disk comes from corn. "We buy it from one of several beverage-grade facilities in the country, primarily out of Iowa and Illinois," Sorenson said. "We are investigating the suitability of local fuel-grade ethanol from other suppliers and may transition into that at some point in the future."
Sorenson said the choice to use ethanol was based on several reasons. Because ethanol is renewable, he said, the consumers gain confidence that the disk is safe and a clean-burning fuel for food preparation and the product doesn't need any type of "skull and crossbones" labeling. "Ethanol is abundant and relatively inexpensive, which allows us to profitably deliver a marketable product for under $5 retail," Sorenson said.

The future of the disk doesn't end at the dinner table. Sorenson said several world organizations have recommended the flame disk for use in humanitarian efforts in places like Haiti or after severe hurricanes as a simple, stationary heat source. In 2011, the fuel process the FlameDisk uses will be seen in several new products, Sorenson added.

Another new product using ethanol fits into a more traditional sector, transportation. The "pulse plug," developed by Enerpulse Inc., an ignition products developer, increases fuel economy by up to 10 percent when used with ethanol blended fuel. With an ignition power of 1 million watts, the plug is intended for use in the auto industry and functions in the same way a camera operating on AA batteries does, producing an intense flash of light off a small source of power, according to Louis Camilli, president of Enerpulse. Because the plug can ignite the engine's fuel in a larger spark gap area, flex-fuel vehicles using E85 in combination with the "pulse plug" require less fuel. The plug has also been used in E-Fuel Corp.'s new Grid Buster, a generator used to power the MicroFueler, a household appliance-sized unit that creates E100 ethanol from organic waste.

E85 is part of a solution in the diesel world, too. Tenneco Automotive has engineered a hydrocarbon lean NOx catalyst (HC-LNC) system using E85 as a reductant. Tenneco's HC-LNC system will combine both diesel fuel and E85 dosing in the exhaust stream to help catalyze NOx emissions into tailpipe-out nitrogen and water. Although diesel fuel attains moderate reductant rates for NOx emissions, E85 can achieve significantly better conversion numbers, according to Tenneco. The presence of oxygen content and volatility is believed to be the reason for improved conversion numbers.

The system also benefits from E85's ability to withstand lower temperatures. With E85, the storage tank on the vehicle would not require heaters and heated lines, simplifying the system. And, according to Tenneco, urea used in a typical system would leave crystals in the exhaust system on the mixers and the inlet of the catalyst, a problem E85 use will not create. The new system will function on diesel fuel during light loads, while E85 would be used during heavier loads and stop-and-go cycles. Tenneco's new system will be available for commercial use in 2012.

Even though the new NOx system from Tenneco is still on the way, engineers from the company point out the real significance of their project. This could be the catalyst, the engineers said, needed by the ethanol industry to crack the "chicken and egg" conundrum often associated with E85 and compatible vehicle availability. For Sorenson, ethanol may be on the verge of expanding beyond the transportation industry. "It has significant potential with about 3.8 billion grilling occasions in the U.S. every year and we are already selling product overseas," Sorenson says of the FlameDisk. "We think over time this could be a significant new use of ethanol that may have not been considered prior to this."