A biofuel that will be produced commercially in Minnesota is turning out to have major advantages over ethanol, especially for engines that can’t burn that fuel at higher concentrations.
Scientists who have studied isobutanol, an alcohol fuel made from corn and soon to be manufactured in Luverne, Minn., say it can be easily blended with gasoline at up to 16 percent, packs more energy than ethanol and doesn’t appear to damage the engines of older cars, boats and lawn equipment.
“Isobutanol is a good fuel, and a lot of engines can burn it without problems,” said James Szybist, a researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee who has tested the fuel.
Most gasoline sold in the United States is 10 percent ethanol, or E10. Urged on by the ethanol industry, the federal government this month registered the first companies to sell E15, or 15 percent ethanol.
But E15 has struggled to gain widespread acceptance, partly because, unlike E10, it is not approved for engines in pre-2001 cars, and any motorcycles, boats, off-road vehicles, lawn mowers or other power equipment. Using E15 in these engines, even by mistake, could cause damage and void warranties.
The marine engine industry, which has reported boat engine damage from E15, says its continuing tests of isobutanol-gasoline blends have found no similar problems.
“This could be the fuel of the future,” said John McKnight, director of environmental and safety compliance for the National Marine Manufacturers Association, a trade group for the recreational boating industry.
At Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, researchers who tested motor vehicle engines in a lab concluded that isobutanol “may prove to be a more attractive alternative than ethanol due to fuel characteristics that closely resemble gasoline,” according to paper presented at a 2009 industry conference.
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