Research Aims To ‘Co-Optimize’ Biofuels For Future Engines

Agri - Pulse

Aug 2, 2017

Research aimed at finding the right combination of fuels and engine technology that would maximize a car's performance while reducing its greenhouse gas emissions has reached a milestone that ethanol advocates hope gets wider acknowledgement from policy makers.

The Co-Optimization of Fuels & Engines (Co-Optima) initiative is a first-of-its-kind collaborative research and development effort undertaken over the past year by the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE), its nine national laboratories and industry stakeholders – including national agriculture groups.

The initiative combines previously independent research of biofuels on the one hand and engine combustion technology on the other. By merging the enquiries, scientists are looking to ultimately design new fuels and engines that are co-optimized – designed in tandem to both maximize vehicle performance and reduce environmental impacts.

And while DOE declines to see one blendstock more favorably than any of the other seven, the data clearly show ethanol, which is an inherently high-octane fuel, contains many of the benefits researchers are looking for, including commercial and economic viability.

All the blendstock "finalists" are scheduled to undergo continued research that will refine their property measurements, while researchers simultaneously develop improved models for blending them with conventional hydrocarbon blendstocks, including gasoline. The idea is to produce, or, if needed, buy additional amounts of the candidate blendstocks sufficient for testing and to validate engine and fuel economy performance.

However, ethanol is the candidate fuel additive that checks virtually all 23 "feedstock viability" criteria boxes as either "favorable" or "neutral." Ethanol earned "favorable" marks for a diverse range of attributes, ranging from feedstock quality, to cost, to lifecycle greenhouse gases, to political and geographic factors. The remaining seven candidate blendstocks scored far fewer favorable criteria ratings, or recorded a significant number of "unfavorable" ratings.

One of ethanol’s most favorable attributes, which is made evident through the Co-Optima research, is the existing and growing infrastructure that has been built over the past decade to produce and distribute this environmentally beneficial biofuel. Some 97 percent of the nation's automotive fuel supply contains at least 10 percent ethanol, with higher blends such as E15 increasingly being offered at retail stations across the country.

But the identification of fuels designed to work in high-efficiency, low-emission engines, is just one of three integrated areas undertaken by the initiative. Another is the research in engine design that facilitates running more efficiently on affordable, scalable and sustainable fuels. DOE officials cite laboratory engine test results that indicate fuel economy improvements of more than 50 percent are possible for passenger vehicles.

And then, marketplace strategies must be developed that can shape the success of new fuels and vehicle technologies with industry and consumers, DOE officials say of the Co-Optima work.

Reg Modlin, the former director of regulatory affairs at FCA Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and who is now active among stakeholder groups seeking to accelerate the transition of transportation fuels to higher octane/lower carbon blends, says there is urgency behind the Co-Optima work.

"I think most of those involved in this work understand that it keeps our transportation system on the trend-line of meeting greenhouse gas reduction targets set for 2025, then 2030 and in the decades to come," Modlin said, echoing Co-Optima's stated goal: "Better fuels and better engines…sooner," and to introduce improved technologies into the marketplace by 2025.

There is concern among renewable energy advocates over congressional appropriations proposals for fiscal 2018, especially those in the House, that would slash funding for EERE, the national labs and research, though it remains uncertain as to what effect any cuts might have on the Co-Optima funding. Still, efforts are underway to recruit stakeholder groups like the National Corn Growers Association to reach out to lawmakers and call on them to protect the initiative.

A significant window of opportunity to promote Co-Optima and its de facto nod to ethanol as the fuel additive of the future was prompted by President Trump's announcement in March to reopen an Environmental Protection Agency rule finalized by the Obama administration in January setting future fuel economy standards for vehicles.

The rule emanates from EPA's draft Technical Assessment Report (TAR), a 1,200-plus page midterm review issued earlier in 2016 that ultimately contended auto manufacturers were on track in their pursuit of fuel economy standards that average 54.5 mph by 2025 for light-duty cars and trucks. Automakers, however, contested the findings and called on the new administration to reopen the process.

Ethanol groups and others were disappointed the draft TAR did not address and consider fuel quality and octane pathways for meeting the very aggressive GHG and fuel efficiency targets. Citing extensive findings over the past two years from DOE's national laboratories that show major engine-efficiency and emission-reduction benefits can be derived from high-octane, low-carbon (HOLC) fuels, specifically blends of ethanol in the 25-30 percent range, supporters say another shot at the fuel economy standards will allow for greater attention to the Co-Optima findings supporting ethanol.

And while a recent spate of announcements from automakers has driven renewed attention to the electrification of cars and light trucks, Modlin says until such time as electric vehicles dominate the market – and for decades after – liquid fuel will be used in transportation throughout the world.

"What automakers and policy makers must resolve is whether we will reduce carbon emissions from the fleet using more efficient internal combustion engines paired with low-carbon, high-octane fuels, or will we continue to ignore the issue and continue to use current regular gasoline formulations," the former auto industry executive said. "The challenge is to create a resounding drumbeat of 'we need a better fuel for the future,' whether or not electrification becomes successful."

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