Green Flags for E85

Ethanol has big fans in the racing crowd and they are revving up its use.
By Holly Jessen | January 14, 2011

With the jury still out on whether the U.S. EPA will approve the use of E15 for all cars, regardless of age, it’s going to take some creativity to clamor over the blend wall. Here’s where racing enters the picture.

Arguably one of the biggest announcements of 2010 came when the National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing agreed to use E15 in its races. Beyond that, the American Ethanol brand will be prominently displayed at all races, promoting the fuel to millions of fans. “NASCAR fans are the most loyal of any sport in the country,” says Stephanie Dryer, public affairs associate for Growth Energy. “We expect that NASCAR’s use of E15 will encourage all American motorists to embrace mid- and high-level ethanol blends like E15 for its high-octane fuel properties. Using more ethanol in our automobiles–either racing vehicles or street cars–will create new jobs in the U.S., clean our skies and strengthen our national security by reducing our dependence on foreign oil.”

Forrest Jehlik, a research engineer with the Argonne National Laboratory, applauds the groundbreaking six-year deal. Getting E15 into the gas-guzzling fuel tanks of NASCAR stock cars is a step in the right direction, he tells EPM.

NASCAR is only one of many racing venues, however. Jehlik and Jay Berry, founder of Central Indiana Ethanol LLC, at Marion, Ind., are two examples of people working to break into circle track and other types of racing with ethanol blends of E85 and higher. Although working separately, the two have a goal in common: reaching race drivers and fans on a grassroots level to demonstrate the benefits of ethanol on and off the racetrack.

In the Groove with E85

Jehlik wants to start a revolution. There are great examples from history of average people changing the world for the better, he tells EPM. In a time when the U.S. spends $1 billion a day to import petroleum and imports 65 percent of its petroleum needs, why can’t race car drivers be the vehicle to change by using E85 to decrease petroleum use? “It’s time for America to take America back, and we think this is a good start,” he says.

While it doesn’t have the star power that NASCAR does, circle track racing is a popular sport in the U.S. More than 1,100 tracks are found in all states and 440,000 teams participate in races. More than 20 million spectators attend the events annually. Jehlik would like to see circle track racing transition to E85. Not only would that decrease petroleum use in racing, but once race car drivers and spectators get used to using the fuel on the track, it wouldn’t be that far of a leap to use the fuel in their personal vehicles.

Take, for example, a town like Lisbon, N.D., population  under 2,000. Someday, Jehlik would like to see all the race cars at Lisbon’s dirt circle track use E85. Beyond that, he envisions a day when that fuel for that track comes from a nearby cellulosic ethanol plant. “That’s money that people are paying for the fuel that is going back into the community,” he says.

Two years ago, Circle Track magazine started taking a look at the decline of circle track racing, wondering why that was and what could be done to change it. That led to discussion with Argonne researchers on the subject of petroleum use and what other types of technologies and fuels racing could use. That’s how Circle Track Project GREEN (green racing experimental engine narratives), a U.S. DOE funded research project, was born. “[It will] hopefully bring in a whole new fold of racing fans that would realize racing wasn’t just about racing anymore, but it was also about a sustainable movement,” Jehlik says.

The whole idea is to test E85 against 100 octane race fuel and then openly share the results. In addition to fuels, Project GREEN is examining modern engine technologies,  the use of catalytic converters versus no catalytic converter, and carburetors versus a modern fuel injection engine. “Race engines today still use carburetors, which is really basically Stone Age technology for engines,” Jehlik explains.

A new 6.2 liter CT-525 engine from GM Performance Parts was put into a Chevrolet Camaro race car operated by driver Dalton Zehr of Zehr Racing. The team added an intake manifold and carburetor but made no changes to the internal engine. Other partners included Random Technology, which donated catalytic converters; Mast Motorsports, which did engine work, including calibrations and testing; and Sensors Inc., which donated time, expertise and equipment for on-road emissions testing.

The engine was tested on a track as well as on a dynamometer, or dyno, which measures power and simulates the loads and environment of a racing engine. Besides installing onboard emissions equipment, the vehicle had two separate fuel tanks, one for racing fuel and the other for E85, allowing them to quickly swap fuels without purging and cleaning the fueling system, Jehlik says.

Testing showed that when running on E85 with electronic fuel injection and catalysts, the race car generated more power and torque 87 percent of the time. There was also a decrease in emissions when a catalytic convertor was used in a fuel injection engine, particularly with E85, while still showing increased performance.

Using the Argonne model for greenhouse gasses, regulated emissions and energy use in transportation (GREET), researchers determined that that race car reduced the CO2 impact relative to using race fuel by about 20 percent. With cellulosic ethanol the race car’s greenhouse gas (GHG) impact could be reduced to about the same as a 2010 Toyota Camry, using unleaded fuel for mixed city and highway driving. If the vehicle used 97 percent denatured ethanol the GHG impact would be far lower than a Toyota Prius, burning unleaded gas for mixed city and highway driving. The results suggested that when using near neat ethanol, the race car would have a well-to-wheel GHG impact of a car that achieved nearly 110 mpg.  “It was really an impressive result,” Jehlik says.

In October, the team showcased the E85 race car at the La Crosse, Wis., Oktoberfest circle track race. Not only did the event demonstrate that a race car can burn E85 but that it can do so with a production engine and at a significant cost savings for the racer. On the E85 side, fuel from a pump would have cost the team about $2.35 per gallon while race fuel at the track was $10.75. The car used just over 16 gallons of E85, which cost $38. The race fuel would have cost the team $131, which includes compensating for the difference in energy content between the racing fuel and E85, he says. The team also saved money by using a production-based engine. The GREEN racing team’s engine cost about $8,500, compared to upwards of $40,000 for a race engine. In all, using E85 and the production engine saved the team $31,593.

Jehlik is passionate about Project GREEN. The results show a definite benefit for the use of renewable fuels in racing. E85 is produced domestically, produces more power, reduces GHG emissions, reduces the amount of petroleum used and is cheaper. “We believe that there are so many positives to this fuel that it’s hard to ignore it relative to the racer,” he says. “There’s no downside to it at all.”

There’s still more work to do, however. While the demonstration race this fall was successful in terms of showing racing fans a race car with a production engine burning E85, at the end of the race, the car came in 14th out of 65. The goal of this project wasn’t to produce a winning race car, but to determine if E85 is a viable racing fuel, he says. With that proved, others can take on the task of optimizing the engine for E85 and making it even more powerful.

That’s where Michigan Technological University comes in. Argonne researchers will collaborate with the school in looking at some of the finer details of the differences between race fuel and E85, Jehlik says. Work will also begin on engine optimization. He isn’t ready to reveal what comes next, except that the project will continue through the next year and beyond. “We have an amazing list of things we are going to start tackling,” he says.

Ignite a Winner

In Marion, Ind., Central Indiana Ethanol produces a product specifically blended for race cars. The trademarked Ignite fuel is a proprietary blend of ethanol with octane ratings of 108, 111 or 114, Berry tells EPM. The fuel is a higher blend than E85 and lower than E100. He’s also tight lipped about what denaturants and lubricants are used.

Ignite is marketed and distributed by National Biofuels Distribution. The company, of which Berry is a founder and vice president, supplies municipalities, state and federal vehicles and corporations, with E85 and biodiesel, he says. The creation of Ignite fuel came after customers in Indiana started asking questions about the difference in E85 fuel in different areas. They’d fill up with E85 locally and their car would run great. Then they’d go out of state and fill up with E85 and have problems. “They couldn’t figure out why the engine was having issues, why it wasn’t running correctly,” he says.

The root of the problem is inconsistency in the blends, he says. A fuel marketed as E85 isn’t exactly 85 percent ethanol. The other question is, what makes up the other 20 to 30 percent of the fuel, Jay asks. Is it below-grade 87 octane gasoline? “That’s why we created Ignite,” he says. “It is the exact same blend of ethanol every time.” 

Two years ago, Central Indiana Ethanol was blending a small amount of Ignite for just a few people. Today the fuel is used by race tracks or individual racers in a variety of motorsports, from dirt track races and National Hot Rod Association events to motorcycle racing or even boat racing. “It pretty much started with a few customers and word of mouth and now we have distribution in 42 states,” he says.

Ignite helps the 50 MMgy ethanol plant diversify its markets and bring in additional revenue. That’s a positive thing in this economic climate and as the ethanol industry faces the blend wall. “Our goal is to grow it out within the next couple years to 4 to 5 million gallons of Ignite a year,” he says.

Berry would like to see people transition from viewing ethanol as simply an additive. It can be marketed to the racing industry as a high performance fuel, reaching racers as well as spectators. Races are great places to do sponsorship or promotional events to educate people about the benefits of ethanol. “If a guy is running his race car on ethanol and he has a $30,000 to $60,000 engine, why can’t you run it in your car?” he asks.

As racing becomes more and more green, ethanol will continue to attract attention. For example, Berry expects races on the East or West Coasts will eventually be required to meet the same emissions standards as street vehicles. The high-octane racing fuel used by most race car drivers today wouldn’t meet those more stringent emissions standards.

Alan Tehan, owner of Technical Services Inc. in Syracuse, Ind., conducted third-party testing on Ignite. The goal was to determine if the fuel could serve as a direct replacement for racing fuel without engine problems. Ignite passed with flying colors, causing no knock problems, additional heat or loss in power. “You can buy Ignite ethanol racing fuel, put it in your engine, properly jet the carburetor and get the same results or better than what you were getting before,” he says.

Naturally skeptical of everything he tests, Tehan was surprised to find the fuel actually performs better than racing fuel. Torque and horsepower increase 2 to 3 percent. Heat output is lower. In addition, ethanol doesn’t have the same issues with shelf life as race fuel that will degrade if it sits around for six months or a year. “I think there are some rather significant benefits to using [Ignite fuel],” he says.

The only drawback Tehan can think of is the possibility of rust with older vehicles. Ethanol tends to draw moisture, and older fuel system components are made of steel. Newer components are either stainless steel or polymer, however, and don’t have this problem. “Overall, I think if you prepare properly to use [Ignite], it will give you good service,” he says.

What Tehan discovered in a lab, Stephan Verdier has seen first hand on the race track. This past year, Verdier used Ignite fuel in drifting and RallyCross during this summer’s X Games. The two biggest advantages are the lower price and the fact that engines runs cooler with ethanol. “The cooler the engine is, the more reliable the engine is,” Verdier says.

To prepare Verdier’s race car for the switch to Ignite, the injectors were changed, to allow more fuel to be pumped into the engine. The vehicle’s computer was retuned specifically for ethanol. The team also swapped out the fuel pump, although that’s not always necessary. “It’s a pretty simple and economical way to change over,” he says.

Verdier has experience with ethanol and knew it was a good product. However, others around him had concerns about safety and reliability. In fact, some were watching him carefully, waiting for his engine to blow up, he says. That never happened and by midway into the drifting season, the top five teams followed Verdier in making the switch to Ignite fuel. “I think in the future, you’ll see in the next five years, pretty much all the series switch to ethanol,” he says. “It’s such a green thing to do and it doesn’t affect the performance, so it would be kind of stupid not to do it.”

Author: Holly Jessen
Associate Editor, Ethanol Producer Magazine
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