“Fueled for Thought,” By Joe O’Brien, Source North America

Getting a feel for what fuels might be in demand five or 10 years from now becomes a central part of planning for the future. Higher octane fuels (HOFs) represent a viable possibility. Understanding what factors influence the potential introduction of HOFs to the market will help fuel suppliers and users prepare for the future and gauge the need for compatible equipment.

With that in mind, here are answers to frequently asked questions about the issues surrounding higher octane fuels, including fuel economy, regulations, ethanol and market conditions.

 

Q: What is an octane rating?

A: According to www.fueleconomy.gov, octane rating is the measure of a fuel’s ability to resist “knocking” during combustion. In the United States, a fuel’s octane rating is the average of two performance testing methods: Research Octane Number (RON) and Motor Octane Number (MON). On dispensers, this average is represented as (R+M)/2.

 

Q: What are the CAFE standards?

A: Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) regulations were first enacted by Congress in 1975 to improve the average fuel economy of cars and light trucks. Today, under the CAFE standards, car manufacturers are charged with reducing greenhouse gas emissions while also increasing the fuel economy of their automotive fleets. Updated CAFE standards, coordinated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and California Air Resources Board, were enacted for Model Year 2012 with the aim of steadily increasing fuel economy to 54.5 miles per gallon for Model Year 2025.

 

Q: What role could octane play in meeting higher fuel economy targets?

A: Some members of the fuel industry have suggested that higher octane fuels could be a way for car manufacturers to achieve higher fuel economy averages for their fleets.

According to a report from the Fuels Institute, the internal combustion engine remains the most cost-effective powertrain, especially for larger utility vehicles and trucks, which currently account for the majority of the U.S. market. But most internal combustion engines aren’t especially efficient at converting fuel into energy (this efficiency is called “thermal efficiency.”)

Octane allows an engine to run at higher compression ratios using more of the energy in gasoline. Traditional engines run at about a 12:1 compression ratio; higher octane fuels can increase the ratio to 14:1. But the octane ratings of traditional gasoline restrict the ability of automakers to increase compression. According to the Fuels Institute report, OEMs would like to use fuels containing a minimum of 98-100 RON.

 

Q: Are fuel efficiency and fuel economy the same thing?

A: No, but they are related. Fuel efficiency is the proportion of energy released by the combustion of fuel to what is actually converted into useful energy. A vehicle’s fuel economy measures the amount of fuel a vehicle consumes and the distance it can travel on that fuel. As engines become more efficient, engineers can reduce the size of the engine. This helps to lower vehicle weight, which leads to improved fuel economy.

 

Q: How successful are the CAFE standards to date?

A: Although progress is being made to improve fuel economy and reduce emissions, automakers aren’t particularly close to meeting existing targets. According to the EPA, automakers reached an average of 24.7 miles per gallon for vehicles made during the 2016 model year. It represents a modest gain from the previous year (just 0.1 mile per gallon). Preliminary fuel economy for model year 2017 is projected to be 25.2 mpg (the data will not be finalized until 2019).

The EPA is reviewing whether the existing 2022-2025 standards to increase fuel economy to over 50 miles per gallon by Model Year 2025 are appropriate. A determination is expected by April 1, 2018.

 

Q: Why are automakers struggling to meet the original fuel economy standards?

A: The original CAFE standards were crafted with the expectation that consumer demand for electric vehicles (EVs) would be greater than it is currently. Although sales of EVs are on the rise, consumers are buying substantially more SUVs and light-duty trucks. As a result, automakers are having difficulty meeting the original fuel economy targets.

 

Q: What are some of the ways to achieve higher octane in a fuel formulation?

A: According to an Environmental and Energy Study Institute fact sheet, octane has been achieved by utilizing a variety of sources since 1921. They have included lead, methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE), benzene, toluene, ethyl-benzene and xylene (BTEX) and ethanol. As adverse results have been discovered for lead and petroleum-based octane providers, they have been removed from the fuel supply or their applications decreased. Today, there are two primary sources of octane used in the U.S. fuel supply: BTEX (a petroleum refining product commonly referred to as gasoline aromatics) and ethanol.

 

Q: Could ethanol play a larger role in achieving higher octane in the coming years?

A: By adding ethanol to finished gasoline, typically done using a process known as “splash blending,” octane ratings can be increased. As an oxygenating agent, ethanol enhances combustion. It also produces lower emissions. According to research conducted by Oak Ridge National Laboratory, higher octane fuels such as E25 or E40 could deliver fuel-efficiency gains of 5% to 10%, compared to engines that run on E10.

 

Q: How compatible is a higher octane ethanol blend with the existing vehicle fleet?

A: The current vehicle fleet doesn’t widely support the utilization of higher octane ethanol blends. As a matter of perspective, only about 11% of vehicles in the United States today are required to run on premium-grade fuel. Furthermore, newer, unmodified gasoline engines are only approved to run on ethanol blend concentrations below 15%. Flex-fuel vehicles, which are designed to run on ethanol blends ranging from 0% to 83%, can run on E25. Therefore, most legacy vehicles would not be approved to run on E25. Even if automakers were to respond by aggressively developing and producing new engine technologies, it takes approximately five years for new technologies to fully launch.

 

Q: What are the challenges associated with bringing a higher octane fuel such as E25 to market?

A: As the Fuels Institute report points out, in order for automakers to develop and offer vehicles optimized for E25, the fuel needs to be readily available nationwide. But for the retail distribution network to supply E25 to the masses, there needs to be a critical mass of vehicles to support the demand for the fuel. Relative to other alternative fuels, such as hydrogen, a nationwide infrastructure for distribution of liquid gasoline-based fuels exists; however, this fueling infrastructure would have to be upgraded at significant expense to handle E25 blends. Whether terminals have the existing capacity to store the ethanol needed for blending higher octane fuels is another big question.

 

Q: Many fuel retailers are contemplating dispenser upgrades. What considerations should be made for higher octane ethanol blends?

A: Retailers who are pursuing dispenser upgrades should ask their fueling equipment distributor about ethanol compatibility ­– both for dispensers and underground infrastructure. Additional information is available on the potential introduction of E25 to the market in the Fuels Institute’s case study, “New Technology Adoption Curves” at www.fuelsinstitute.org.

 

Joe O’Brien is Vice President of Marketing at Source North America Corporation. He has more than 20 years of experience in the petroleum equipment fuel industry. Contact him at jobrien@sourcena.com.